Unflattering headlines about the legal profession over the past century featured in last night’s Selden Society Lecture at the Banco Court, Brisbane.
Historian Helen Gregory shared the colourful history of the state’s lawyers struggle to enhance, regulate and maintain professional standards during her presentation entitled The Queensland Law Society: serving ‘Conscientious honest lawyers’.
The lecture, which coincides with QLS 150-year celebrations, began with reference to a 1874 Brisbane Courier article which declared: ‘A conscientious honest lawyer is one of the best friends and safest protections one can have – against oneself just as against one’s enemies’.
“Almost 150 years later, such a statement could be regarded as ideal public relations for the profession,” Helen said.
And the legal profession needed some positive PR back when the Bill to create the incorporated Queensland Law Society was introduced in October 1927. While the purpose of the Bill was focused on regulating the profession in Queensland, media headlines of the time reflected other priorities.
“The Daily Standard, ever watchful of the public interest, stated baldly that the Attorney’s pre-eminent aim was ‘to keep the profession clean’. Other headlines were even more blunt. ’Black sheep among legal men’ was one, with a sub-heading ‘Drastic power for Law Society’,” Helen revealed.
“The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, a prominent solicitor, Reginald Macdonnell King, successfully advocated for a clause to ban unqualified people from holding themselves out to be solicitors, an amendment labelled in the press as ‘Dealing with legal quacks’.
“It would be too easy to categorise lurid headlines simply as examples of the press’s penchant for prurient stories. Calls for reform and punishment go far deeper than that, far further back than October 1927 and much further forward in the subsequent 96 years.”
The early Law Society not only faced a hostile press at times but Queensland’s decentralisation.
“The Law Society’s membership, never large – only 27 in 1874 – was dominated by well-established urban partnerships. Distance to Brisbane, aggravated by poor communications, put the Society beyond the reach of most country solicitors,” Helen said.
“At its first annual general meeting in 1874, the President, Robert Little, reported that the Society’s council had ‘directed its efforts prominently to the suppression of dishonourable practice’ and in pursuing unqualified people engaging in legal practice. The Council was hopeful that its efforts to protect the public would strengthen the Society.”
However the first QLS faded before the Queensland Law Association was created in 1883, on the back of a booming economy. And once again this body came under attack – this time over professional costs and the exclusivity of the profession.
Debates in parliament over incorporation legislation continued over time and included remarks that the great majority of solicitors observed “a decent code of honour”. There was finally progress in 1927.
“The Queensland Law Society Act 1927 created a professional organisation with ‘real teeth’. The government kept a foot in the door with representation on the Council,” Helen said.
By the 1960s, the Society was under pressure to promote the profession to the public.
“Public relations was no easy task. Publicity of defalcations and poor practice rarely included acknowledgment that most solicitors practised honourably,” she said.
“The first public relations sub-committee was formed in October 1950. A later committee produced brochures explaining various aspects of the law. Solicitors were encouraged to be visibly active in their communities to the extent of taking part in talk-back radio sessions.
“See a Solicitor First became the theme of the public relations campaign in the 1980s. Law Day, inaugurated in 1981, was extended to Law Week.”
The work of those legal pioneers has paid dividends, with membership growing to more than 13,000 today.
The audience at last night’s lecture. Photo: Ritika Mehta
Helen finished the lecture by acknowledging the efforts of many office bearers, council and staff over time.
“It is immensely satisfying that, although this lecture must end, the resilient Queensland Law Society with its proven ability to innovate and adapt will continue – with inevitable bumps along the road – to serve conscientious, honest lawyers and those aspiring to be so.”
Helen Gregory is an historian specialising in Queensland’s history and cultural heritage. She has published many commissioned histories including a history of the Queensland Law Society, a history of the Brisbane River, a history of Brisbane’s Mater Hospitals and Brisbane Then and Now.