Rise of the celebrity QC and of Australian lawyer rankings

Update, 7 June 2008: The Age‘s weekend magazine had a front cover profile of Dave Hughes, and the same day the June Australian Financial Review Magazine had a front cover profile of Tom Hughes. Diverse and powerful as Tom’s family is, I do not think it counts Dave as a member. This is the most fawning, glossy QC portrait in the series: no fewer than 7 photos, two full-pagers.   The hagiographical profile reminded me that Tom is art critic Robert Hughes’s brother.  Before court, he works Jesuitically for four hours every day on the 62nd floor of the MLC Tower, leaving for work at 4.55 a.m.  He has been a barrister for almost 60 years. These days, his junior is often his son Tom Hughes.  His daughter Lucy is one-time mayor of Sydney and happens to be married to Malcolm Turnbull.  France gave him a legion of honour for his service in World War II.  He was mates with Sir Owen Dixon, Sir Frank Packer, and Sir John Gorton. He argued in the Privy Council.  He was for 16 months Attorney-General in Gorton’s government: John Howard was his campaign manager when he got elected.  He enthused mightily about the American intervention in Vietnam. What is most interesting however, is that this is not the first front page profile Hughes has suffered:

‘In early 1978, the now-defunct Bulletin magazine, owned by Kerry Packer’s Australian Consolidate Press, splashed across its cover a large photo of Tom Hughes, with a story headlined “From Silk to Riches — Portrait of a $1,000 a day QC”.  Soon afer the article appeared, its author, Malcolm Turnbull, sent a bouquet of roses around to Tom Hughes’s chambers for his daughter, Lucy, then aged 19, who had just completed first-year law.  Turnbull married Lucy Hughes two years later.’

Update, 23 April 2008: Now The Times has published its list of the 100 most powerful English lawyers. Sir Igor Judge is right up there in the top ten.

Original post: It’s not just Peter Faris, with his blog, his until-recently radio show, his comments about the Fijian judiciary in the Fiji Times, and repeated Age profiles. Has anyone else noticed the rise of the celebrity QC profile? The glossy Melbourne Magazine, published monthly by The Age, had a profile of Julian Burnside QC last year. Like Geoffrey Robertson QC (remember his hypotheticals?), Mr Burnside writes and his profile was part of the publishing cycle, tied in with his new book. But Colin Lovitt QC — best known for representing Jaidyn Leskie’s babysitter, Greg Domaszewicz — profiled in Royal Auto? (Turns out from the profile he did the whole thing pro bono.) And, Alan Myers QC, of all people, the very exemplar of the traditional Bar, reminiscing about his first tax case in The Australian Financial Review? Is it a trend I see?

Mr Myers’ profile was part of another new phenomenon, lawyer ranking blinged up to the next level, a great big US-inspired lift-out supplement to the AFR’s Legal Affairs pages. Legal Profiles has been around for a while, a relatively discreet little publication confined in its appeal to the world of corporations. But now lawyer rankings are news, published to every reader of The Australian Financial Review two Fridays ago. As far as I can tell the methodology was completely screwed, since the initial pool of candidates — who then nominated other candidates who all cross-voted on one another, a process of several iterations — was chosen, incredibly, by Americans. I must say though, I did not look at many of the familiar names featured (though there were many unfamiliar ones) and say to myself — Man! You so should not be there.

The American profession is grappling with Avvo, another web application with a Google-like simplicity. A self-identified hot shot with the ironically unremarkable moniker John Browne sued the publishers for giving him too low a score. The courts threw the suit out summarily.

Avvo is big business. According to tech e-zine The Register:

‘Avvo has generated considerable buzz in the online legal services world, both before and after its launch, by raking in roughly $14m in venture capital, assembling a coterie of experienced legal professionals and scholars for its executive committee and board, and offering a service that no other legal directory currently provides: an algorithm-driven ranking system for attorneys.

Avvo is interesting to this blog because it gives a professional conduct rating to every lawyer, and publicises adverse rulings against lawyers quite prominently. Except for New Jersey lawyers, where Avvo is suing the local Bar for access to the records of disciplinary hearings which the Bar would rather keep a monopoly over for the purposes of its own fee-based website which includes that information.

But back home again, one interesting trend pointed out in the introduction to The AFR supplement was that many of the names featured were also involved somehow in academia, including by writing texts. I think the best lawyers in Australia probably are involved in both academia and practice, or at least write regularly, but that does not necessarily show up in other rankings. There is very little discussion about comparative legal expertise, within or without the profession, though lawyers discuss it within their own ranks frequently. Somehow, I see this ranking system as being about legal ability more than some others. There is a whole industry of consultants who talk about law firms — the economics of practice management, how to mix at cocktail parties, time management. The one thing they can’t talk about because they’re not lawyers is the law. So they constantly say, to get that problem out of the way, ‘Technical excellence is simply the starting point; the world is awash with technically excellent lawyers’. But I think nothing could be further from the truth. Even in the big firms, there is a very broad range of technical expertise, and some of the most successful partners are in fact managers with a good interface into the corporate world. It is quite widely acknowledged that in many senior associate – partner teams, the associates will be the ones who actually know most about the law. Not always, by any stretch of the imagination, but more regularly than might be imagined.

70 senior counsel made it into the list, including 4 from my relatively small chambers, Melbourne Chambers, and the best lawyers in medical negligence are, according to The Australian, Justine Beirne and Donna Callaghan from Blakes, Shane Evans from Minter Ellison, and Julie Hamblin and Andrew Saxton from Ebsworth & Ebsworth. Three from Brisbane and three from Sydney. Now they might be the best in Australia, but it seems like an unexpected result to me. Surely some of the best personal injury lawyers are from plaintiffs’ firms. Come to think of it, it does seem a bit odd that as far as I can tell, almost all of the lawyers featured in the liftout are defendant lawyer types.

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2 Replies to “Rise of the celebrity QC and of Australian lawyer rankings”

  1. There is something Bieber-esque about those wigs, I will admit. But Celebrity? You may have a different definition to the 1 million people who listen to Charlie Sheen's tweets. ..

  2. I too was struck by the fact that the best solicitors came from defendant firms, many from the same firms who take out large ads in the AFR about appointments of solicitors and partners. I scanned the list – I was not on it – but did not see how the best were selected. Was it self selection? If so when and where need I send my application for next year’s list?

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