Peter Szabo

Peter Szabo

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

I only decided to do law in my final year at school. Before then, my career choices were a chicken farmer (until I was 8) then a maths and physical education teacher. My cousin, who always knew he wanted to do law, was then my hero. (I have been enlightened since). So – I did law. I wanted to be a tax lawyer, like my cousin. I did my articles in Echuca (for one year, 3 days 2 hours and 10 seconds). 3 hours into my articles I was told to interview a client who wanted a divorce. It was 7 March 1976, 2 months after the Family Law Act came into effect. My journey had begun.

What are your passions outside of the law?

The Essendon Football Club, Gardening (I have been blessed with two rounds of Garden Leave over the last 3 years, moving between firms). My hobbies include computers and office automation systems. From 1982 until January 2015, I have been a partner in large firms with interstate and national connections, which gave me a bigger playground to bring efficiencies to. The passion was often dampened or even dashed by office managers whose focus was more on counting beans than catering for the bean producers. Now my own boss, for the first time in 30 years I can do what I like, when I like.  I try to keep fit – boxing once a week, cycling, and “hit and giggle tennis” (I Hit, they giggle).

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

The High Court Case of Ascot Investments and Harper was the defining case of my career. It was my first and only High Court case. There I was, in the instructor’s chair, in the Full High Court. It was my 27th birthday, 5 November 1980.

The hearing took 2 and a quarter hours. Then it was back to Melbourne. It was the first time I had ever flown in a plane.

The case involved third party rights and the Family Court’s powers in that regard. We lost. 6:1, Murphy J (the author of the Family Law Act) dissenting.  The decision made front page news.

The lead up to the High Court  resulted from the wife’s application to enforce a property order made in 1976. Mr Harper decided he would not comply. His only asset was his shareholding in a private company.  The other directors were 2 of 7 of their adult children. The wife wanted to force the directors to exercise their discretion to register a share transfer from Mr Harper to her.

Having failed in the High Court, the wife took contempt proceedings against Mr Harper. He was sentenced to imprisonment until he paid. He decided he would now transfer his shares to the wife, but still would not pay the wife. So on went the chess game.

After a total of 4 and a half years, he was still happily sitting in Pentridge Prison. The Court decided to let him out “to cooperate with the liquidator”, which he said in the witness box he would not do. Ascot Investments was finally liquidated. Unsurprisingly, the net assets were very modest. I closed my file, after 20 years. Mrs Harper was legally aided at the start, and towards the end,  pro bono.

There were many other interesting twists along the way.  The case was referred to me by then Clerk of the Magistrates Court in Malvern, now Justice Paul Cronin. My wife went to school with one of the Harper children. I was interviewed on a current affairs TV program to talk about this remarkable case. It probably started my career in presenting (now too numerous to recall) papers on Family Law.

The Family Law Act was amended in 2005 (25 years after the High Court decision) to give it the power to make such orders. The case remains the leading authority on third party rights in the Family Court.

What makes a lawyer a great lawyer?

Being a brilliant lawyer is in my view of no use if pragmatic, cost effective solutions are not achieved. This is particularly so in Family Law. Legal costs come out of the joint pool. The parties have to be able to communicate with each other about their children after the event. “winning the peace” is the most important result to achieve,

Too often lawyers do not do a cost benefit analysis. Only the goal of “winning” is seen, without a thought to what the end result will mean, after the file is closed.

Is the reality of being a lawyer anything like how you imagined it?

When I first decided to do law, I had no real idea of what it would be like. All I saw was that my cousin was doing it and it seemed a glamour profession. (little did I know!). I wanted to be a tax lawyer, like my cousin. I fell into Family Law, something I hated at University, and did the subject under sufferance. It was not as bad as doing Administrative Law.

Having found my niche,  I discovered what law was really about. Maths with words. Problem solving. Helping clients get a sensible resolution. Making a difference to people’s lives. I have been lucky enough to have been exposed to all aspects of family law, from modest issues and child matters to highly complex financial cases, as well as International cases.  I love the challenge of each new client. What can I do with this one to make a difference?

How do you balance life and work?

By totally getting away from the law out of hours.   I make a point of not taking work home, including not talking about work. While I had my hair long, I managed not to be recognised as a lawyer. I am passionate about my other interests so it’s easy to turn off.

How can one distinguish themselves as a legal professional?

Wear your hair long.

‘An Accredited Specialist in Family Law, Peter was the  founding Chairman of the Advisory Committee to the Accreditation Board for Family Law Specialists in Victoria. He is also a trained Collaborative lawyer and Mediator.

Peter is an Author of the Family Law Practice Manual which is now in its 6th Edition online at www.smokeball.com.au and Tax Issues in Family Law- the difference between Hacking and Carving which is now in its 8th Edition.

Peter has recently commenced practice as a sole practitioner at Level 13 , 200 Queen Street, Melbourne. His main focus is Family Law, although he is becoming involved in Estate Planning generally and particularly for blended families.

Specialties: Accredited Specialist Family Lawyer- Victorian Law Institute, Fellow of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (www.iaml.org), Director, Family Business Consultants network (www.fbcn.com.au)