I am retiring after 42 years of legal practice.
It is of no surprise that the practice of law when I was admitted in 1981 was drastically different to what it is today.
If you told me then I would now be sitting at my desk, daily using a computer with two monitors, with electronic files and dictation, and video conferencing, I would have suggested that you were reading too much science-fiction and that you should lay off the booze.
When I started law there were no national law firms, no specialist injury firms, the judges were almost all men, and women were only just making inroads into the legal profession.
Some of the older judges in the Queensland courts at that time had seen combat in World War II, fighting alongside people from all walks of life – this experience seemed to be reflected in their common sense and down-to-earth approach to the law.
I began focusing on the practice of plaintiff personal injury work in the late 1980s. At that time several small firms received work from the compulsory third party insurers and what was then the Workers Compensation Board of Queensland.
It was only in the 1990s, under pressure from the insurers, that the practice of personal injury law became more partisan, with firms becoming either plaintiff or defendant. This was a sad development and caused a loss of balance in the practice of personal injury law.
The planting of a seed, to consider law as a career, arose in late primary school on a Gold Coast holiday with my family.
One day on that holiday, my parents, siblings, and I, packed into the family’s Holden Kingswood. We drove over to check out the streets of the Isle of Capri, behind Surfers Paradise, where the rich and famous at the Gold Coast at the time were living.
As we drove past a white brick mansion – in front of which was parked a large burgundy-coloured Mercedes Benz – I piped up and asked my father what you had to do to get a house and car like that. Dad’s response was: “Son, be a lawyer.” Sadly, Dad did not say: “Be an orthopaedic surgeon”, or I would now be driving a Mercedes rather than a Mazda 3.
Anyway, I did law. I will let others judge whether I became a good lawyer, but to be an orthopaedic surgeon would have been to miss out on being part of legal work and experiences that are exciting, dramatic and, at times, crazy and noble – characteristics of a plaintiff personal injury practice that are often found in movies about lawyers and law firms. They don’t make movies about orthopaedic surgeons, but they do make movies about lawyers, and I love movies.
John Travolta in A Civil Action and more recently, Mark Ruffalo in Dark Waters, play personal injury lawyers who sacrifice almost everything to fight for communities poisoned by the activities of large soul-less chemical companies.
In my favourite, The Verdict, Paul Newman plays a troubled, once great lawyer who single-handedly takes on the might of a large defendant law firm and the Catholic Church, fighting for the family of a woman who suffered terrible injuries in surgery conducted in a church-owned hospital.
These movies reflect what has been the best of what I have enjoyed doing every day over the decades as a plaintiff personal injury lawyer – levelling the playing field and empowering the injured to take on large uncaring insurers, and those who have done them harm.
In the last 18 months, in the twilight of my career, I have been working with Travis Schultz & Partners and I am grateful to Travis for giving me the opportunity to work closely with a bunch of young intelligent lawyers enthusiastically pursuing the interest of their clients.
Lawyers of my era can sometimes have a cynical view of our younger colleagues, but any cynicism I had has been dispelled by the opportunity to work with the young talented team around me at Travis Schultz & Partners.
I don’t claim to have any great parting insights on legal practice, but I will leave my younger colleagues with these hopefully helpful words:
Always remember your first duty is to the court and avoid the temptation to not play by the rules to help a deserving client. Be respectful and polite to opposing lawyers no matter how infuriating they can be, and never be too proud to seek advice from a more senior colleague, no matter how embarrassing the problem may seem.
Finally, treat your clients as you would like to be treated yourself, and find some time to enjoy life – being tied to a desk for 70 hours a week is not living.
And always remember to listen to Dad.
Mark O’Connor is a Special Counsel at Travis Schultz & Partners.