Commended in the Victorian Community History Awards for best non-fiction publication
Solicitors have practised in Victoria since October 1838. That was when Englishman William Meek arrived at the Port Phillip colony from Sydney Town. He was lured by the prospect of conveyancing riches from the first land boom. The first practising barrister did not arrive until a year later.
The early solicitor arrivals were a mixed bunch. They undertook the perilous three-month sea voyage from Britain for various reasons, including poor employment prospects at home, escape from social disgrace and the opportunities provided by a colonial adventure.
While they were not convicts (who had dominated the Sydney legal profession after 1788), the reputation of the ‘attorneys solicitors and proctors’, as the early arrivals were known, was poor. Too many were seen as inferior legal practitioners focusing on petty cases and employing dubious practices (just like the attorneys portrayed by Charles Dickens as ‘pettifoggers’ in his novels).
In the 181 years since Meek arrived, the solicitor side of the profession has grown in respectability and standing. From 14 solicitors admitted in the first sittings of the Supreme Court in 1841, by 2019 the profession is 20,000 strong, with women being in the majority. Central to the improved standing of the profession has been the role of the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV), the oldest law society in the country. But it took two decades of attempts before the profession finally organised itself into the LIV in 1859. Its core objective then was to improve professional standards by suppressing illegal and dishonourable practices.
Since then the LIV has been the engine room of professional improvement, pioneering such things as legal aid, the Solicitors’ Guarantee Fund, compulsory professional indemnity insurance, a locum lawyer and management advisory service, accredited specialisation, superannuation and continuing professional development. It has also risen to the fore as an advocate for, and defender of, the rule of law on behalf of the community.
Solicitors and the Law Institute in Victoria 1835-2019: Pathway to a Respected Profession is the first book to comprehensively examine the history of the solicitor side of the profession in Victoria. It explores the changing role of solicitors through such nation-building events as the gold rush, land booms, Federation, depressions and world wars.
Along the way there is the impact of changing technology from the typewriter to computers, law reform in staple practice areas of conveyancing and personal injury, and tussles with the bar over amalgamation and with government over regulation. As the 21st century proceeds, the profession faces new challenges through globalisation, a growing ‘gig’ economy and increasing numbers of law graduates. If history is any guide, the LIV and solicitors of good will can meet those challenges while staying true to their integral role of supporting the rule of law in the community.