Famed for his eloquence, formidable work ethic and progressive values, retired High Court Justice Michael Kirby is an iconoclast of his age. He was also the youngest person ever to be appointed to federal judicial office, and once delivered a speech advising student hopefuls on how to leap “From Law School to High Court in Four Easy Decades.”
Here, he shares his experiences – of law school, career, life as a gay devout Anglican in a relatively conservative profession, as well as his advice to law students.
“Law school taught me the importance of asking the big questions. Where did this law come from and when? Is it just?
"Australian law has changed a lot since I was at Law School. After all, in those days we still had horrible laws against Aboriginals, Asian Australians, gays, women and just about everyone else, except white, straight men. I have moved with the change. Not everyone has. Your generation needs to ask: What are the injustices we do not see today that we will be lamenting at the end of our careers?
"My best moments in student politics were times of friendships with fine students who went on to become leaders in our nation. Basically, they were a bunch of respectable trouble-makers. Boy, how respectable we all became. Criticism, including self-criticism, was part of the gig. Keeping an open mind and learning from life’s experience is important for progress, including one’s own.
"My hardest moments come every day. The problems that get to the High Court are, by definition, not easy. Yet for every problem there is a solution and the challenge is to find it and explain it. The law does frustrate me sometimes – especially when others do not see solutions that seem clear to me. But law is a constant struggle of ideas. At least in Australia, law and courts are uncorrupted and we all get the transparent opinions of the courts which we can criticise if we choose.
The fact that the law can change and improve itself is inspiring. As is the fact that lawyers can play a part in this. An uncritical lawyer is a contradiction in terms."
Asked why he chose to study law in the first place, Kirby responded with disarming irony. “I did not like the idea of cutting up rats (so medicine was out). Maths was not my strong point (exit nuclear or rocket science). Not enough patience or piety (out goes teaching and religion). So what was left? Law.”
For a man so widely admired he boasts his own Facebook fan group, ‘The Justice Kirby Appreciation Society’, he is candid about the need for humility and the dangers of hubris. “In my day, we all admired and loved Lord (Tom) Denning. He too was friendly and king. He too was friendly and kind. He too was not complacent but challenged us to see law as a noble discipline striving for just outcomes. He too had faults and was wrong on some things (in his case, unmarried mothers were not top of his pops.) Popularity is transient.”
As a parting shot, he added this bemused reprimand: “I am shocked that my appreciation society has only 2738 members. Today’s law students must be a lot of slackers!”
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