Invaluable lessons in striving on behalf of one's community while serving humanity

Opinion Article

2013 December, 20

On Wednesday in Melbourne I joined the venerable principal of Arnold Bloch Leibler, Mark Leibler, and a heavy-duty cast to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the law firm founded by his great mentor, Arnold Bloch, in 1953. 

In the legal world, ABL is a force of nature, with clients including a disproportionate share of the country's wealthiest companies and families, and a vast pro bono practice stretching from the Yolngu of Arnhem Land to the Yorta Yorta of Victoria. 

During an articled clerkship at ABL's Collins Street headquarters I came to know the story of Australia's Jewish community and how a people endured oppression and discrimination through history; how they rose up from the ashes of the Holocaust. 

I felt like the prodigal son returned home - more accurately, the prodigal clerk. I am not sure a biblical allusion to a parable from the New Testament is entirely appropriate, but my Old Testament friends will indulge me, I am sure. 

It was Ron Castan QC who recommended me to Leibler. He was one of the greatest legal advocates this country has known and I got to know him following his long crusade with Eddie Mabo to establish native title in the Murray Islands. He later worked with us on the Wik people's claim in Cape York and was a paternal mentor to me. From his exquisite legal mind I learned, if not to practise, then at least to admire champion advocacy; and from his large heart I learned how to go about service to humanity. Not much time passes when Castan's counsel does not stir my conscience. 

Castan advised me to spend some time in a law firm and set up the interview. That was my first bracing encounter with the ferociously intelligent Leibler.

It is a firm that attracts and develops the best lawyers, and with ABL in your corner you are ready for war and peace. It is uncontroversial to say I was the least lawyer of those who crossed the threshold at 333 Collins Street, but the truth is that I was not there for the law. 

My time at ABL was a crucial period: I learned so much interacting through the firm with the Jewish community of Melbourne, in the worlds of business, education, arts and culture. 

I learned how a people and community live as striving individuals and families yet maintain the important structures of their communal religion, heritage, language and identity. I learned how a liberal ethic in the private sphere can coexist with a communal ethic in the cultural sphere. I learned how you can be victimised by discrimination but never succumb to victimhood. I learned how you can never forget history but you must engage the future. 

Having been drawn into the mentorship of Castan and Leibler, I came to understand that in their community mentorship is a virtuous cycle through the generations. Being the beneficiary during my time at ABL, I was inspired to start sponsoring young girls from Cape York Peninsula attending private boarding schools in Brisbane. The first one went on to become the first university graduate from her community. Others started their own programs. 

There is now a massive growth in such programs evident across the nation: this I learned during my time at ABL. 

I also witnessed that great connection between the law and commerce. This was ultimately the fundamental lesson. The refugees from the devastation of Europe set about rebuilding their lives through industry, commerce and education. They looked to economic strength as the bulwark for their survival, understanding that no one was going to underwrite their future but themselves. They faced discrimination, and prejudice was never far away, but they defended themselves and developed great strength in the professions and in business. 

Melbourne is the philanthropy capital of Australia. That the country's largest Jewish community is in Melbourne is no coincidence. The families who made good in their new country give back disproportionately to those in need. 

It was therefore not surprising that Leibler used this week's gala birthday event at the Grand Hyatt to advocate to Tony Abbott the importance of the constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians. Pat Dodson and Leibler chaired the panel that reported to the former government on proposals for constitutional reform. Liberal MP Ken Wyatt is now leading a parliamentary committee that is advancing the next stage of this process.

Doubtless Leibler will not rest until the country's indigenous people are recognised in the nation's founding pact.

The great firm of ABL is a lapidary testament to Leibler. But the law was not what I learned from him. I learned about power and leadership of a people. Mine was indeed an articled clerkship in power and leadership. I could not have witnessed a more accomplished practitioner of these arts. This was my great learning. I saw how a good man can bend power to do good for his people and his country. 

It is, in retrospect, little wonder that I started working on our reform agenda for Cape York Peninsula soon after I finished my clerkship with Leibler.

Invaluable lessons in striving on behalf of one's community while serving humanity