Back in 1981 when the young Bruce Cowley began an articled clerkship at Morris Fletcher & Cross – later to become MinterEllison – he had no inkling that he would go on to lead the firm on a global stage.
Nor would he have contemplated receiving Queensland Law Society’s highest honour, the President’s Medal, which he was awarded at the Legal Profession Dinner last night.
Bruce remembers the beginning of his career quite clearly.
“Although in a legal sense we articled clerks were all allocated to partners who were responsible for the work we were to do, in an operational sense we all answered to the senior secretaries in our group who ensured we were not idle by sending us off (in that pre-digital era) to perform such tasks as filing documents in the courts, lodging documents in the Titles Office and, my favourite, taking documents to the Stamps Office to be stamped,” he said.
“As well, we needed to make what were called ‘urgent’ deliveries, although that was a much-abused term. The one good thing about being out and about so much was that it provided ample opportunity to catch up with one’s friends and colleagues from other firms who were similarly out and about.
“Rumour had it that an articled clerk from another firm was so sure he would not be missed, he went to the movies, but unfortunately left a file under the seat which was found by cleaners and quickly returned by theatre management to the firm, much to the embarrassment of the aforesaid clerk.
“For those of us who rotated through the Property area, one of the least preferred tasks was to check read a lease. This involved two articled clerks, one reading a freshly typed lease out loud and the other following it on the precedent document from which the new lease had been copy typed to check for errors. They were all around 40 or 50 pages in length and took an inordinately long time to read through, and one’s mind was apt to wander, which was not necessarily a good thing.
“In my experience, the most common typo we found was the absence of the word, ‘not’, so unless you were careful you would give a tick of approval to a lease document which encouraged tenants to pour tea leaves down the drain, to deface the walls and to make a lot of noise.”
Bruce said that his first year in the profession gave him the opportunity to form friendships which had lasted to this day and an appreciation of the collegiality and camaraderie of the profession.
“In that sense, I believe the legal profession is unique,” he said. “In terms of the solicitors’ branch, I think we have gained a great deal from the partnership model.
“Not only are the partners the owners of the firm, they are partners too, in a very real sense: there is a collegiality, and in a well-functioning partnership they support the success of one another. If law firms had a hierarchical structure as is employed in the corporate world, I think the solicitors’ profession would be very different today from what it is, and not necessarily in a good way.”
Bruce said that, at the start of the ’80s, law firm partners were almost exclusively male.
“When I began Elizabeth Nosworthy [the first female QLS President, 1986-87] was Morris Fletcher & Cross’s only female partner and many other firms had none,” he said.
“One of my female partners told me years later that there was a degree of discrimination even in the menial tasks that were allocated to male and female articled clerks. She told me that, while the males got to take their partner’s cars to the car wash (which I did many times), female articled clerks weren’t allowed behind the wheel of those precious cars, but rather had to collect their dry-cleaning (which I was never asked to do).”
He said that, while much progress had been made in the last decade or so in terms of diversity, there was still a great deal to do.
“Despite most large firms now promoting women to partnership at the same rate as men, the overall total numbers of women in partnerships of large law firms is mired in the 30 percents,” he said.
A key issue remained the unwillingness of law firms to push back on, or at least negotiate, client demands and deadlines.
In turn, this drove long and stressful hours at work; women leaving partnerships at a higher rate than men; those working on notionally part-time arrangements effectively working full-time hours, often late into the evening after the children had gone to bed in order to complete the tasks allocated to them; women taking career breaks to care for children losing momentum in their career trajectory; the current conception of partnership being generally less attractive to women; and the fact that lateral partnership recruits were drawn from a universe which comprises between 70 to 80% men.
“I believe that among law firms there is a huge desire and willingness to address inherent unfairness and potential obstacles to women in the profession advancing and achieving to their full potential, but progress in identifying and addressing structural issues has certainly not been as fast as many of us would have liked to see,” he said.
Today Bruce Cowley can look back on an outstanding career in corporate law, a host of board positions including current roles associated with the Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service, Griffith Business School, Australian Institute of Company Directors and Australian Retirement Trust (Australia’s second largest superannuation fund, recently created by the merger of QSuper and Sunsuper), as well as major corporate achievements such as Global Chair of MinterEllison from to 2013 to 2019.
The QLS President’s Medal distinguishes an individual at the pinnacle of their career who goes above and beyond to uphold the core values of the profession. The award recognises an experienced legal practitioner who has shown great integrity, courage, and responsibility through their commitment to continual improvement of the profession and of themselves.
“It has been a privilege for me to be a part of the legal profession in Queensland, and in particular, to have worked through what I think has been a Golden Age,” Bruce told the audience at last night’s dinner. “I am enormously honoured to have been awarded the President’s Medal and am humbled by it.”
John Teerds is the editor of QLS Proctor.