Legal lessons learnt from the greats

Robert Lawton (GDipLegPrac '88)
13 Oct 2022

In 1987 I was working as a judge's associate and had a place reserved at the South Australia Institute of Technology in Adelaide to take the legal practice course available there. Then things changed.

My wife got a job in Canberra and, once I'd visited from Adelaide and seen how good things were for her in government, I decided I'd try to make the change too. So, I applied to The Australian National University to enter what was then the Legal Workshop.

I arrived in Canberra on Australia Day 1988. It was hot and still. A few days later, I was in the Chancelry Building completing my enrolment; on a campus so redolent of the bush in its sights and smells, so vast I couldn't imagine its size. Having come from a university that had everything crammed together in brick and stone, all paths seemed open and ready to be explored.

Legal Workshop was state of mind as much as a course. I was in the first class to work under Wal Hutchinson. Alan Hogan, the previous director, had been dispatched for being too cavalier - or so we were told. Wal was a veteran solicitor and seemed old beyond counting, and completely out of touch with "the youth". He was probably about 18 months older than I am now, so perhaps 60, but at 24 he seemed centuries old.

I learned some great lessons from Wal in Legal Workshop, some that I'm still using. In particular, the 1925 out-of-print Wills and Estates Practice book that Wal recommended we hunt down. I tracked down an old original, which still sits on my shelf and acts as a valuable guide to this day. I'll still be drawing on it in the book's centenary year.

Later that year, I ended up on the Legal Workshop Governing Committee, and as a result on the ANU Council too. In the Governing Committee and the Counci, I worked with legends like Justice John Kelly, Richard Refshauge, Sir Gordon Jackson, and Justice Jack Lee. It was a big leap into official process, particularly for someone who was an inefficient dreamer. But the experience made me grow up so much more and smoothed down the rough edges.

It is these memories that stay with me, all these years later. The smell of the Law Library and of dead gum leaves under-foot, and the look of Sir Robert Garran's shiny bronze nose - rubbed for luck by cohorts of superstitious exam-takers - are forever etched into my mind.

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