Formerly the ANU Legal Workshop

Commercial lawyers, social justice and the noble profession

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Access to justice is a critical issue that affects more people than we think, and even basic (yet essential) commercial law services can be out of reach to mum and dad businesses, and it’s these businesses that play an integral role in our economy. 

In one of my research focus groups, a lawyer reflected on the perceived distance between a commercial lawyer and the overall public purpose, working for the greater good. She was taught in law school that she could as a lawyer be part of something bigger, contributing to the public benefit. But since being a commercial lawyer, she felt that the emphasis on being the “finder”, constantly marketing yourself to bring in the clients (especially ones who ensure a constant stream of billable hours), somehow diluted the sense of a commercial lawyer being part of the noble profession.

As if on cue, several months later the ANU Law Reform and Social Justice in conjunction with the ANU Centre for Commercial Law hosted an evening panel discussion “Why commercial law matters for law reform and social justice”. The purpose of the panel was to dispel the misconception that commercial law is of marginal relevance to ANU’s emphasis on law reform and social justice, and counter the assumption that subjects such as Corporations Law are for those who seek to practice “at the big end of town”.

I don’t know how many commercial lawyers take the opportunity to reflect on whether they contribute to the greater good in the same way that practitioners in other areas do, but it’s important to recognise that commercial lawyers (despite the impression that they only deal with incredibly wealthy corporate clients) can make a positive difference in the pursuit of social justice. When I say social justice, I mean it in the broader sense, beyond what you see in the evening news. Access to justice is a critical issue that affects more people than we think, and even basic (yet essential) commercial law services can be out of reach to mum and dad businesses, and it’s these businesses that play an integral role in our economy.

We can as commercial lawyers be innovative in pursuing social justice for the less privileged. Two idealistic law students in one of my focus groups suggested that one day they would like to be lawyers to wealthy commercial clients, in order to fund their legal work for refugees and migrants. What they said may sound rather unrealistic to some (although I personally think they are to be highly commended for their idealism), but then later on I came across a fascinating SBS documentary Motley’s Law about Kimberley Motley, a tough-as-you-can-get American litigation lawyer who happens to be the first American lawyer licensed to practise in Afghanistan. Kimberley commented that she likes human rights work the most, but it just doesn’t pay the bills. However in order to represent clients in human rights matters, she does litigation. An incredibly positive example of someone using their legal expertise to represent the vulnerable.

Of course not all of us are in a position to fund humanitarian law work in this way, but I really think that commercial lawyers can make a real difference in their client’s lives and esteem, whether it be helping them with a start-up business, recovering a long-standing debt, or resolving a contract dispute. It all makes a positive difference at every level.

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Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  Director, GDLP/Page Contact:  Program Coordinator, GDLP