Dr Leon Terrill

leonWhen did you know that you wanted to be a lawyer?

I come from a large, country family, in which I was the second of seven kids. I spent most of my childhood pretty convinced that I was being treated unjustly and arguing accordingly. I think that is where my interest in the law began. For example, while I wasn’t allowed to own a watch until I turned 12 one of my younger brothers got his when he was 11. How is that fair? From there I developed an interest in seeking justice through law. I am not the first person to find similarities between children pleading with parents and lawyers before a court.

What was the single moment, case or event that you feel defined you as a lawyer?

When I was at the Central Land Council I was asked to do a brief job for a group of Warlpiri men. Normally I worked to the south, so they hadn’t met me before. I recall that when I walked into a meeting with them, one of the senior men grabbed my hand, lifted it in the air and announced: ‘the lawyer is here!’ He was beaming with satisfaction as he said it and I was pretty chuffed myself. Of course, he didn’t know me from Adam. All he knew was that I was a lawyer. His reaction tells something about the role that lawyers have played in the struggle for land rights. The status that I was accorded had been earned by others years earlier. But it also captures something that has always struck me about the job. True, not every client is as happy to see you! But you are often given this privileged access to people’s lives, to their stories, to helping them with their problems, even when they have never met you before.

What attracts you most to the profession of law?

It has changed a lot. When I was a teenager, I think I was attracted to the suits, the income and the status (I was poorly informed). In my twenties I came to think of it as a way of trying to attain social justice. Now there is something else again. The best way to put it is that I like the competition of ideas, the ongoing project of practitioners trying to work out what the law should do and be in the multitude of situations in which it is invoked. One area of interest for me is native title law. During my lifetime it has been assumed impossible, recognised, codified, hemmed in, worked around and to some extent resurrected. It has caused irreversible change and widespread disappointment, the result of so many lawyers trying to reconcile the righting of an historical wrong with a myriad of competing interests. The outcome can disappoint, but the competition of ideas is compelling.

If you had your time again, would you choose to practice in law? If not, what else would you choose to do?

For me it was always a toss up between law and engineering. There are four engineers in my family and I used to think that perhaps there should be five. This was particularly the case when I was studying. The laws of physics are tricky but they don’t depend on precedent and are unlikely to be rendered uncertain by a few rogue judges on the New South Wales Court of Appeal. I can still remember my disdain upon discovering that not only did one have to learn the common law, there was also this thing called equity. Who devised such a convoluted system? Whoever they were, they were certainly no Galileo. I’ve since reconciled myself to law’s greater ambiguity, and delight in introducing it to my students.

What will the legal profession look like in twenty five years time?

If these things are at all cyclical, then there will have been a shift away from plain English drafting. That won’t be all bad. I have never quite got used to corporate contracts addressing me in the second person (e.g. ‘If something happens to You while You are insured with Us then We will do all we can to avoid speaking with You until You go away’). It seems incongruous, like they are trying to personalise their depersonalisation of you. And it can lead to odd drafting that comes back to baffle the courts.

What would you say are the hazards of this profession?

The most obvious hazard is that friends and family members have never heard of the concept of ‘specialization’. I’ve been asked for advice on everything – employment law, crime, product liability, intellectual property, planning and overhanging trees just to name a few. My resume makes it pretty clear that outside of private law and land rights I am probably less accurate than google, yet people keep trying. Two weeks ago, I received a call asking for advice on appealing a murder sentence. True story! It is a hazard of the profession that you will often be asked for free advice on topics you know little about.

The other great risk – and I’ve seen this in the most down-to-earth, considered and even cynical people – is that you might at some stage find yourself explaining how you ‘love the law’. It’s a thing, and it happens all the time.

What makes a lawyer a great lawyer?

That’s easy. They have to love the law.


Dr Leon Terrill is a lecturer in the UNSW Law School and a Fellow of the Indigenous Law Centre.