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© Updated as of 2019
Survive Law

  • Nicholas Plummer

A Life in Law: Q&A with Julian Burnside


Joining the Victorian Bar in 1976 and taking Silk in 1989, Julian Burnside AO QC, has not only built a successful career in commercial litigation but has also contributed significant time to advocating the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

I recently had an opportunity to ask Julian about his experience at university, his career and what advice he would give aspiring lawyers.

Why did you choose to study law, and what area of law did you initially hope to practice in?

I did well in year 12, to my great surprise. I was offered a place in various faculties at both Melbourne and Monash. I chose Law at Monash because a friend was doing Law at Monash, and I thought it would be good to know someone. I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do after university. However in my second-last year I did well in the intervarsity mooting competition between Australian and New Zealand law schools, and I was told that I should be a barrister. Until that moment I had not really planned to be a lawyer at all. Luckily, at the same time I was advised to be a barrister, a friend gave me the Irving Stone biography of Clarence Darrow. Reading it fired me up about the possibilities of life as an advocate.

How did you begin your pro bono work, and what do you love about working on pro bono cases?

All lawyers do pro bono cases: far more pro bono work is done than the public would ever imagine. My first pro bono case that anyone noticed was the Tampa case in 2001. A friend worked out a case theory and asked if I would act. I agreed, simply because I thought it was wrong that the government was holding a bunch of helpless people hostage on the steel deck of a ship in the tropical sun. I quickly learned quite a bit about refugee law.

What is your proudest achievement of your career to date?

Two cases: the MUA case against Patrick Stevedores in 1998, and the Trevorrow (stolen generation) case in 2007. Both cases were incredibly hard-fought, seemingly against the odds. Winning each of those cases had great practical and symbolic importance.

If you were starting your career again tomorrow, is there anything you would do differently?

Yes. The best possible training for going to the Bar is to be a judge’s associate. If I were doing it all again, I would try to get a job as a judge’s associate first. It gives you a very good view of what advocacy looks like; it shows you what is effective and what is not. And it probably demystifies judges a bit. As will be apparent from my first answer however my career planning only occupied about 15 seconds so it’s not surprising I did not figure out that being an associate would be a good idea.

What do you do to maintain your focus and cope with the stress of practice?

I like stress, but I find listening to classical music helps me focus. And I like getting into the workshop to make things with my hands: it is a great release from intense mental effort.

You've said that lawyers and law students should read more literature to improve their writing skills and to break the cycle of poor language that we often come across in judgments, pleadings and textbooks. What do you think is the most prevalent legal writing 'sin'?

The two great sins are: sentences that are far too long and convoluted, and words that are carelessly chosen. Both are the result of failing to think carefully enough about what you are trying to say. The best way to improve writing style is to write in longhand and then dictate or transcribe. Writing in longhand takes an effort: it provides an incentive to economy and care.

What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing Australia's legal system?

Litigation is far too expensive. An increasing number of people are excluded from the system because they cannot afford it. Coupled with that, Legal Aid is grossly under-funded. Legal Aid rates are very modest: lawyers don’t make a whole lot of money out of it. If Legal Aid were better funded, a wider range of litigants would be eligible for Aid. Incidentally, I say this as a lawyer who does virtually no Legal Aid work: I either charge my normal commercial rates for commercial litigation, or I do it pro bono if it is human rights work. There is no self-interest in my plea for increased Legal Aid funding. I find it very depressing to see litigants who are driven to abandon their rights because they cannot afford litigation and are not eligible for Legal Aid. That is where great injustice happens.

What inspires you most about the Australian legal system?

Our judges are completely independent of government and most of them work incredibly hard to make the system perform to its best. Unfortunately it is increasingly common for bureaucrats to see courts as a business unit and try to impose managerial strictures which are alien to the court system. I am proud that the system does so well despite governments’ failure to support them the way they need support.

What advice would you offer to aspiring lawyers?

Work out exactly why you became a lawyer. Although my career planning was a joke, once I committed myself to life as an advocate, I was keen to see what I could do to help achieve justice and remedy injustice. I imagine that most young lawyers have a similar motivation. So, identifying your reason for becoming a lawyer is not so hard. The tricky bit is to remember it. Every couple of years, make a conscious effort to remember why you became a lawyer. It is all too easy to forget that initial impulse, and end up doing a job where justice has faded from view.

Specifically, money can become a major focus. There is nothing wrong with earning a good income, and having money is a whole lot better than not having it. But a good income should always be a secondary consideration. Once your income becomes the main game and you have forgotten why you became a lawyer, you have to stop and re-boot.

Remember: the things you do for yourself will die with you; what you do for others will live on after you are gone.

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