My perspective

A life in law - a law in life


Don Chisholm OAM

My dad passed away on 20 September 2020. He was 92 so a fair innings I guess. Does not of course make it any easier losing a parent but me, my mum, my brothers, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren know we were luckier than many to have him with us for so long.

Even after Dad retired from his law firm Maddocks (previously Maddock, Lonie & Chisholm) where he was for 59 years, he continued to hold a practising certificate, was trustee and executor of several large charitable trusts, and dispensed wise counsel and advice to many, right to the end.

This post by me is not intended as my only personal tribute to my dad - even though of course he and my grandfather were my inspirations for practising law - but moreover, I just thought I would share both a recent video interview the amazing Karen Finch CEO of Legally Yours did with me about how my father practised law and a post I originally published back on 26 June 2013, the day after Dad retired from Maddocks.

Hopefully, both these will amplify how some things have changed in our profession - some for the good, some for the not so good - how some things have stayed the same and maybe how some things should have stayed the same.

I hope you enjoy it and as usual, I would welcome your feedback.

You can view the video here.

Below is my 2013 post:

"A lawyer at a large Australian law firm retired yesterday. No big fanfare, no big deal. Lawyers retire all the time.

This lawyer is 85 years of age, his whole working life having been at the one firm.

The law firm is Maddocks. The lawyer is my father Don Chisholm OAM (or “DL” as he is known to many in the firm, or “Pups” to his grandkids).

Articled to my grandfather Lyston Arthur Chisholm ("LA"), Dad was admitted to practice as a barrister and solicitor to the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1954 (the same year I came along). The firm was then known as Maddock, Lonie & Chisholm.

The firm was what we might term today a generalist practice with a strong reputation in local government and insurance (the former speciality still applies today). The rest of the practice was essentially what we call today “private client services”. It was a solid firm, with good loyal clients a small stable partnership. Many “later to be notable” lawyers passed through its doors on their way to careers in other firms, on the bench, in academia or in industry.

These were the days before the internet, email, social media, mobile phones and there was a total ban on advertising by solicitors (we weren’t even called “lawyers” in those days).

There was no place for 10 redrafts of something, you had to get your letters right the first time as paper was money and there were no photocopiers or printers.

The bar was our outsourcing.

In those days the telephone was the link to the outside world and most deals were done via the phone if not in person.

You took your fellow practitioners and peers at their word and cemented undertakings with a handshake.

There was no written partnership agreement. You trusted your partners and they trusted you. After all, why have them as partners in the first place?

There was no overdraft. You only got paid after all the staff and the rent was paid and clients paid the firm. Cash was king.

The receptionist was the most knowledgeable person in the firm, the secretary or stenographer to the senior partner the most feared.

My father opened the mail every morning and signed the mail that went out at night. It was called quality control.

He got to practise law with his father, a son, a brother, and a granddaughter.

Articles of clerkship were spent in the room with your principal so you could watch, observe and learn-mostly in silence.

You didn’t charge out your articled clerks to clients-they were indentured to learn not to make money from.

Young solicitors were taught legal skills but also skills called common sense and common courtesy.

There was no formal mentoring program. Work was shared around the firm. That was just expected.

You didn’t work on weekends. Weekends were sacrosanct for family or home time.

The words “lateral hiring” had not been invented. Rarely did partners change firms and if they did it was more to set up their own practice and they were warmly farewelled and remained friends.

The trip to and from town was on a red rattler train. At home dinner was on the table at 6:30pm so Dad could retire to his study at 7:30pm 4 nights per week to see clients that wanted to see him at home instead of coming into the city. This continued for over 40 years.

Clients in the main came from word of mouth recommendations and referrals, networks, local community involvement, clubs and associations, and just making sure you were in the right place at the right time.

No one had heard of the term “pro bono” but most lawyers looked after the needy who really couldn’t afford to pay much for legal services-certainly my father did.

Most of your clients either became your friends or most of your friends became your clients.

You rang your clients before you sent out a bill to get a “feeling” of what they thought of the work you did for them. The bill reflected accordingly. You charged your clients basically whatever they could afford.

A timesheet was something factory workers at Ford clocked onto. Hourly rates were for shift workers.

Thank goodness the profession has changed. Thank goodness my dad did not."

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