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Leave No Stone Unturned

March 29, 2018 by Perveen Maan

Supreme Court Justice Michael McDonald has some advice for aspiring barristers.

Justice McDonald was a barrister for 25 years before his appointment to the Supreme Court of Victoria in September 2014. He was appointed Senior Counsel in 2005. He spoke to the YLJ about the transition from solicitor to barrister and his experiences at the Victorian Bar.


Tell us about your journey from law student to the Supreme Court of Victoria.

I attended Monash University in 1977 at 17 fresh out of school. I spent two years at Monash but did not do terribly well. I was not focused on study and found it difficult to adjust to the freedom that university offered compared to school. So, I took a two year break.

For 18 months I worked various physically demanding jobs – garbage collector (where I almost lost my hand), truck driver for the Prahran Council and at a steel factory. In these jobs, I saw and experienced another side of life. In the second half of 1979, I travelled around Europe for six months. On my return, I moved out of home and transferred to the University of Melbourne. The life experiences I had gained in the preceding two years gave me a more focused approach to study. I had a keen sense of the importance of doing well, and I achieved good results. At university, I developed an interest in intellectual property law and industrial/employment law.


How was your experience working in a law firm?

In 1984, I commenced my articles at Phillips Fox & Masel. Stemming from my interest in intellectual property law, I wrote a book with Colin Golvan (now a QC), Writers and the Law. The income from being an author was almost as derisory as that of an articled clerk. In a short period of time, I realised life as a solicitor was not for me.

I did not enjoy the tyranny of timesheets. I asked for a pay rise, but was not granted one. I thought it was time to move on. Four weeks after my admission to practice in April 1985 I left the firm.


What was your plan?

I wanted to get practical experience in industrial relations before going to the Bar. It was not an option to go straight to the Bar because I had no financial backing. For the next few years I gained practical experience in the industrial relations field. This included roles as an advocate for the union representing clerical and administrative employees in the Commonwealth Public Service, the Australian Public Service Association and in the Federal Office of Municipal Officers Association. I was immediately thrown into big arbitrations. It was challenging, but I gained advocacy experience in heavily contested proceedings.

In 1986, I commenced a Masters of Law (LLM) at the University of Melbourne.


How did you transition from the unions to the Bar?

I saw Tony North (now Justice North of the Federal Court) speak at a seminar and was impressed. I rang him and asked if he would take me on as a reader and he said yes, even though he did not know me. This was very generous of him, in the best traditions of the Victorian Bar.

I commenced the Bar readers’ course in March 1989. At that time, Tony North was a leading junior barrister in industrial law. He was subsequently appointed QC in late 1989. He was very generous with his time and I benefited greatly from the nine-month reading period in his chambers.

I signed the Bar Roll in May 1989.


What was it like starting out at the Bar?

It was challenging. Ask anyone going to the Bar who has never worked as a solicitor: on the first day you are available to accept a brief, who is going to offer you a brief?

For the first six months, the phone did not ring often, but it did give me time to complete my LLM.

My advice to young barristers is to have other interests and endeavours because there will inevitably be periods that you are underutilised.

My big break happened in 1990, when the Victorian government started to brief me in industrial law proceedings. This happened thanks to a former colleague from the Municipal Officers’ Association, who was at that point, employed by the Victorian Department of Labour.

I was briefed to appear in proceedings in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in 1993. Graeme Watson, a partner at Herbert Smith Freehills, was appearing in that proceeding for another party. Freehills started briefing me. Within 18 months I had a very busy practice and was regularly briefed to appear with leading silks such as Chris Jessup QC and Richard Tracey QC. The relationship with Freehills endured from 1993 until my appointment in 2014.


What advice would you give young lawyers seeking to go to the Bar?

The quality of practitioners coming to the Bar is very high, in part due to the demands of the Victorian Bar entrance exam. Competition is intense. Those who sign the Bar Roll are competing not only with inexperienced barristers but also with those who have been at the Bar for many years.

Aspiring barristers should probably not follow my example and come to the Bar without working for any period of time as a solicitor.
It is important for an aspiring barrister to develop a support base before going to the Bar. Working as a solicitor is vital to develop relationships and a network of support.

Aspiring barristers should also consider pursuing an associateship before going to the Bar. It is a great way to see litigation firsthand. As an associate you get a bird’s-eye view of the court process from beginning to end. You are likely to undertake research as part of the preparation of judgments. Associates also get the unique opportunity of a front-row seat observing effective advocacy.

Once at the Bar, young barristers should seek to build a network.

When you are given the opportunity to appear in court, leave no stone unturned. One brief can lead to many more.

Do you think further study is essential to stand out at the Bar?

It is not essential. However, if you want to develop a specialist practice in a field such as taxation or industrial law, further study enhances the ability to provide specialist advice.


What about mentorship?

Mentorship is important. A good relationship between a Bar reader and his or her mentor can help in developing a support base, both within the Bar and among solicitors.


Do you have a final piece of advice?

You must persevere. In the first 12 months at the Bar, there may be times when the phone doesn’t ring. The difference between those who see the journey through and those who do not, is the ability to push through the challenging times and to have the confidence that things will turn around. Try and maintain balance in your working life. It is easy to be consumed by the demands of life as a barrister. This can have a detrimental effect on your own health and your relationships with others. Take regular holidays.


PERVEEN MAAN is a lawyer at White and Mason Lawyers specialising in commercial law and litigation and is a member of the Victorian Women Lawyers Cultural Diversity Committee.

For information on the Bar readers’ course and the Victorian Bar entrance exam, see

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