I first met the late Andrew Neil Dutney in January 1967 when I started my three-year articles of clerkship with Cannan & Peterson.
At that time Cannan & Peterson was a large Queen Street Brisbane law firm specialising in agribusiness and a precursor of the firm now known as Norton Rose Fulbright.
After graduating in law from the University of Queensland at the top of his year, Neil moved to Charleville and began legal practice there for several years, going into partnership with the late John Stephenson in a firm known as Stephenson & Dutney.
This firm merged with Cannan & Peterson in 1961 and John Stephenson moved to Brisbane and became a partner of the merged firm. Neil, his wife Beth and five children remained in Charleville until late 1965 when they moved to Brisbane. On 1 December 1965, Neil formally became a partner of Cannan & Peterson.
Neil was a modest and gentle man, but a brilliant lawyer with a broad knowledge in all practice areas. He worked closely with the late Tony (Howarth Edkins Peterson) who was then the senior partner of Cannan & Peterson.
This firm had been formed in Longreach in 1907 by Tony’s father, Roy Peterson, in conjunction with JK Cannan, a Brisbane-based practitioner. Over several decades the firm operated with two offices – one in Brisbane and the other in Longreach – with regular visits being made by our lawyers to Charleville and, at times, Roma.
Neil was always very friendly and approachable to we younger lawyers, especially to a ‘city slicker’ like myself, who had no first-hand experience of farming and agriculture and the business structures used by the families engaged in these large enterprises.
I learnt so much from Neil and after I became a partner of the firm in 1971, my office was next to Neil’s. I frequently sought advice from him when it was needed, and he was a first-rate mentor for me.
I admired the way he practised law and kept up to date with all new developments. In particular, I admired the way he worked on the transactions he was involved in. He would always think at least one step ahead.
So when he wrote a letter to a client seeking confirmation of their verbal instructions, he would at the same time draft the initial letters that would be needed on the matter. He would leave them in draft on the file so that he could more quickly advance the matter once the confirmatory instructions came to hand. There was however one trait of his that I did not follow.
Neil was committed to lifelong learning and he voluntarily studied Latin and ancient Greek and music in later life. At some stage he also learnt shorthand and he used that knowledge to record verbatim all the instructions he received from clients over the phone or when face to face in his office.
He did the same for his conversations with other lawyers and government officials involved in the transactions he was handling. So his file notes were extensive.
In this way he always had a contemporaneous note of everything said to him. However, there was a downside to this practice which I encountered when he first went on annual leave and left several files for me to look after for him in his absence.
It was impossible for me to decipher any of his meeting or phone records to ascertain what instructions he had actually received. I needed secretarial help to be able to understand the records he kept.
While Neil was so warm, personable and approachable, he was very comfortable in his own company and he did not often go out for lunch or to after-work functions, unless it involved one of his major clients. He would usually eat his own lunch in his room and you could find him there reading scriptures in the ancient Greek he had learnt, while myself and other partners would head off to a noisy lunch to share the day’s work experiences and office gossip.
Such triviality was not for Neil. At one stage, I recall he learnt music and during the lunch hour he would read scores of sheet music. In this period he learnt to play the piano accordion and he sometimes brought that to work and played it during the lunch break in his office – with the door closed.
After Tony Peterson retired as a partner of the firm in September 1979, Neil became the Senior Partner of Cannan & Peterson and hence the Managing Partner of the firm, which was our practice at that time. He was a remarkably fair and generous leader for several years.
Neil was a man of faith, and he was a respected lay preacher and elder of the Uniting Church. He was regularly consulted by the church on legal matters where his broad legal knowledge and sense of fair play was so useful in handling the difficult issues that arose from time to time.
Neil also was committed to regular exercise and he often rode to and from work from his home in Taringa. He also loved golf and played a regularly at the Indooroopilly Golf Club over many years.
I have to say that he was a very annoying person to play golf with, for although he did not hit the ball a long way he had a very even swing. He invariably hit the ball straight down the fairway and then onto the green. His slow and steady style invariably came out on top, as part-time golfers like myself lacked his unfailing accuracy.
Neil retired as a partner and hence as Managing Partner of the firm (which was then known as Sly & Weigall) in June 1992. However, he then assumed the role of the National Precedents Officer of the national Sly & Weigall Group.
He quickly became a national treasure for all lawyers seeking help with difficult or new legal documents. Neil loved researching new areas of law and working on clear and unambiguous legal phraseology in the firm’s precedents. He was an early advocate and supporter of plain English in legal documents and he became very adept at using the new technologies as they emerged. He was very much a man in tune with the times. This no doubt contributed to his longevity in the firm.
After a decade or so as our National Precedents Officer he began to share the role with a new generation of lawyers who enjoyed working with him. He moved to working three days a week and playing golf on the other two days, before moving to a more flexible part-time role until he finally retired from the firm at the age of 80 in 2010.
He was a truly remarkable man much loved and admired by those who knew him, and especially his clients and colleagues. I feel privileged to have worked with such a remarkable human being over so many years.
Greg Vickery AO is a Senior Consultant at Norton Rose Fulbright.