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Rule of lucre

  • 01 June 2021
The affidavits were rather awkward for me. In the middle of a messy, multiparty case we suddenly had to give the Court an idea of how much was being spent on costs. Each party set out what its lawyers were billing on a daily basis, and as it happened it was rather a lot. Four of us — two businesses, a sports body and a government agency — together racking up something close to a hundred thousand dollars a day.

In the moment it was slightly embarrassing to see how much less than the others my barristers were getting. Two to four thousand a day felt like a lot to me when I approved the bills, but there was no hiding from the fact that, as sworn up in those evidentiary documents, their opponents at the bar table were pulling in the better part of ten grand every time the clock ticked past lunchtime. In one case it took no less than twelve thousand dollars to compensate a senior silk for turning up to a day’s work.

I tell this story to lawyers and non-lawyers and reactions are very different. Most lawyers are exceedingly polite about ‘the money’; it’s not the ‘done thing’ to make comparisons between the half million going into the pockets of a still-junior tax minimisation specialist and the fact that some child protection barristers can’t pay the rent. Many are deeply institutionalised and inured to various matters taken as given, such as law being a free market or large, indulgent commercial disputes requiring vastly more resources than mundane cases about whether people go to gaol or lose their children. Non-lawyers, lacking the wisdom and knowledge imparted by a law degree, resort to simplistic remedies like maths. A hundred thousand a day can sound like a lot when your local school can’t get hold of eighty a year to pay a teacher’s salary. 

Not all lawyers, of course. Many find the gauche excesses troubling. It’s easy to wonder how much good even a fraction of that money would do for a community legal centre, or in services to keep people out of the criminal justice system. Yet it’s difficult to hear those voices in a profession whose very institutional structure requires deference to the assumption that — the odd glitch aside — it is structurally sound. 

Recently we heard that to investigate the holder of one of the