Queensland Law Society Deputy President Elizabeth Shearer has stepped into the role of 2021 President.
The Brisbane general practitioner says her task as President will be to facilitate the shaping of the Queensland profession in what will hopefully be a post-COVID-19 world.
“We’ve got so many talented people in the profession who are willing contributors to QLS and its policy work, never more than in 2020,” Elizabeth said. “I see the President’s role in 2021 as building on that work for the benefit of the profession as a whole.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic may be past or continuing in 2021, she says it has shown us that things that were thought to be ‘impossible’ could suddenly be ‘done’.
“For the profession, I think it’s now a matter of identifying ‘what changes do we want to hold onto?’ and ‘what has not worked so well’, and therefore what are we going to advocate for as a profession in terms of ongoing system changes?” she said.
“So much of what we do now has been changed in 2020, through the use of technology, and for the justice system 2021 will be a year where we are re-navigating our path.
“Things that people have been talking about for a long time – flexibility, working from home, electronic court appearances – all just happened overnight and now practices, and the justice system, will be looking at the costs and benefits of the changes we made.
“I see an important part of the President’s role as facilitating collaboration and exchange of ideas. As President, you speak to solicitors all over Queensland; you liaise with justice system stakeholders like the courts and government, and it is a position where you gain a unique insight into how the law works and have a unique opportunity to facilitate discussion and exchange of ideas.”
Elizabeth Shearer is one of two Legal Practitioner Directors of Shearer Doyle Law, a small practice which also operates as Doyle Family Law and Affording Justice. Affording Justice was established by Elizabeth as an innovative ‘low bono’ service to fill some of the gap for people who are not eligible for free legal services but who cannot afford to engage a lawyer in the traditional way.
She was a member of QLS Council from 2014 to 2017, and again from 2019, when she was elected as Deputy President. She is chair of the QLS Access to Justice Pro Bono Committee, a Director of the Law Council of Australia (LCA) and a member of its Access to Justice Committee.
Elizabeth was formerly Director of Client Information and Advice Services and Civil Justice Services with Legal Aid Queensland.
Access to justice and pro bono remain critical areas of interest.
Access to justice and the need for legal services
“What I think I can do as President is talk frequently on the issues that are of concern and interest to me, and one of those is access to justice,” she said.
“I have spent about half my career working in legal assistance services and about half in private practice. And both these parts of the profession make enormous contributions to access to justice.
“However, as a profession we’ve perhaps not focused as much as we could on the everyday legal needs of people in the community, which are the components of access to justice.
“What the legal needs research shows is that a lot of people don’t recognise when they’ve got a legal problem. When they do have a legal problem, they are more likely to ask someone who is not a lawyer about what to do, and a minority of people with legal problems make their way to a lawyer for advice.
“So there is a large underserved community. In our practices we see people who have tried different avenues to resolve what is essentially a legal problem and consequently, their problem is a whole lot worse by the time it gets to us. Often they will have bought a substitute service that cost more and delivered much less value than if they had just seen a lawyer in the first place.
“This is ironic because the fiduciary obligation to our clients sets us apart in a crowded services market. It delivers real value to clients. However we innovate in our delivery of services to clients, we have this abiding fiduciary duty to put our client’s interests ahead of our own.
“We should be thinking about how, as firms and as a profession, we can communicate the message more clearly to clients about the value we bring to the resolution of the legal problems of everyday life.”
Challenges for 2021
Elizabeth said an issue likely to provide a challenge in 2021 was lawyers facing the court on serious criminal charges.
“That will be a challenge for the profession, and also for people’s perceptions of lawyers,” she said.
“We need to keep making the point that it is only a very small percentage of solicitors who do the wrong thing, and there are mechanisms in place to make things right for the client when they do. Few other professions fund compensation for clients in the way we do through our Fidelity Guarantee Fund for trust account defaults.
“Although we no longer self-regulate, QLS has an ongoing regulatory role in the issue of practice certificates and the supervision of trust accounts. As members of a profession, we each have a role in upholding professional standards, and we also have a role in holding each other to account.
“There is a tension between the QLS regulatory role and our role as a membership association, but to me, it’s a healthy tension. Our first response is to offer support to our colleagues so that they can meet the required standard, but if they persistently fail to meet that standard, then we have a responsibility to the community and to each other to take action.”
Originally, Elizabeth Shearer wanted to go to university to study literature.
“An arts degree, by itself, didn’t seem to have enough link to an interesting job at the end of it, so I decided to do arts/law,” she said. “There was a publication put out by the law school for prospective students which listed the skills that would make you a good lawyer. I can remember one of them was being able to identify relevant information – I looked at the list and thought, ‘I can do those things’.
“Before I went to university I only had a vague idea about what a lawyer actually did. There were no lawyers in my family.
“Other than from novels or movies and TV, I had no particular exposure to what being a lawyer meant, but I think that, from the very first year of study I began to see how it would provide you with not just a job, but with an interesting job and an opportunity to problem-solve to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Elizabeth said that one of the things 2020 had done was produce a very cohesive QLS Council that had been required to make more difficult decisions in a shorter time than previous Councils she had worked on.
“On Council, we are very fortunate to have a range of people from different types of practices, from different parts of the state – a group of people who probably in any other context wouldn’t work together so closely,” she said. “But in 2020 we have developed a way of working that will serve the profession well in 2021.
“We have been working this year on preparing for a new strategic plan. Council members have been working with senior staff at QLS to develop a really clear statement about the identity and purpose of QLS and what our work will focus on for the next few years.
“I would also like to mention – and this links to access to justice – the important role that general practitioners play in meeting the community’s needs.
“We haven’t as a profession identified or paid sufficient attention to the enormous value that general practitioners bring to the community, and we haven’t necessarily made it easy for people to become general practitioners.
“If you’ve had a few jobs and you’ve been working for a number of years, you can probably do it, but we don’t have clear pathways for people who are interested in that sort of practice. We value specialisation, and I think it’s time we started talking about a specialisation in general practice.
She has also discussed this topic in a previous Proctor article.
As she prepared to begin her Presidency, Elizabeth paid tribute to outgoing President Luke Murphy.
“Luke has done a great job in navigating all of the issues of 2020 and leading us all through it,” she said. “If I can do my job nearly as well as him I will be really pleased at the end of the year.”