Published on 17 October 2011.

Formal Address by Professor Rosalind Croucher, President of the Australian Law Reform Commission at the College of Law Academic Awards Ceremony Presentation on 11 October 2011.


On occasions like this evening's, one looks to the significance of place and the nature of the event to try to draw out some suitable themes. And this is a spectacular location, on the site of Australia's first Government House, built in 1788 as a home and office for Governor Arthur Phillip. It is a curious fact that it is also his birthday, in 1738. The setting resonates with the significance of the opening of the colony in the wake of Britain's brilliance in cartography, amongst other things. The setting also resonates with the fact that the traditional custodians of the land are the Eora people and, as the head of a government agency it is our custom, on occasions such as these, to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

George III was the British king during the establishment of the colony of New South Wales, reigning from 1760 to 1820. He was the grandson of George II and Caroline of Ansbach, who were crowned King and Queen of Great Britain—curiously on this day, 11 October, in 1727.

George III reigned during a turbulent time in the history of the western world—the American war of independence 1775 and the declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776; the French Revolution in 1789; and the Napoleonic Wars of 1803–1815.

The City of Sydney bears the imprint of George III in the naming of streets. Governor Macquarie named George Street in hishonour in 1810 and named streets after his sons under their ducal titles —York, Cumberland, Sussex, Clarence, Cambridge and Kent (Queen Victoria's father). Walking down from my office, in King St, towards Darling Harbour, I see this history in the landmarks of the city, traversing York, Clarence, Kent and Sussex Streets. Cambridge and Cumberland streets are tucked in near the Cahill Expressway.

But for the subject of my talk I will tell you a few stories and end with a message, which, as I understand it, is my designated task this evening.

Each of you here tonight recognises the value of education. A postgraduate degree confirms that abundantly. For me, it has been a constant theme in my life, influenced very much by my own family, particularly my mother.

She was one of four sisters and three brothers. Her father was the first Commonwealth Director General of Public Health—the numberplate ACT 4 is still in the family. Sadly, he died the year I was born so I never got to know him. He had a profound commitment to education—and that his daughters would have the same opportunities as his sons. For women in the 1930s and early 1940s this was still pretty unusual. As the eldest sister recalled to me, my grandfather said to his children that he could not leave them 'capital', but he would give them an education. In my mother's generation this was an exceptional standard to create as 'the norm' for his children. This is not 'normal' for many, but it did influence me profoundly. I recall my mother undertaking her PhD during my school years and the tap tap tap of the typewriter long into the night. She won a scholarship to do it—which she promptly spent on whitegoods (new maching machine, dryer, dishwasher etc)—very sensible for a woman with four young children!

I went to the College of Law in 1980. I did the one semester full-time course in the second half of the year. There were no exams. We were divided into firms. We had videotaping of our advocacy sessions—very modern! I don't recall their being postgraduate degrees at that time—even the PLT course we did didn't lead to any formal diploma or anything of that sort. But it did get us admitted to practice! The logo of the College is very '70s'—and doesn't the banner remind you of the early computer game 'Pacmen'?

When I was admitted as a solicitor in December, it was not as a 'lawyer' but as 'a solicitor, proctor and attorney' of 'this honourable Court'. And Sir Laurence Street as Chief Justice had a famous invocation to the mother with the crying baby, deployed at every ceremony: 'Madam, do not feel you have to leave the court—this is a family occasion!'.

I held a practising certificate only for one year. I wanted to be a barrister and saw admission as a solicitor as the first key step. Well, you can see where I ended up—as President of the Australian Law Reform Commission—and you may think, well that's not such an illogical destination. If you join the dots over the years between then—where you are—and now, you might think how natural; how obvious, such a career path as mine has been. But career paths only have that kind of natural order look to them in retrospect. I would never have imagined I would end up where I am now. Mine was certainly not a 'career path' I would have sat down with a careers adviser to plan.

Career paths are actually formed through a wonderful conjunction of twists and turns—opportunities—filled also with lots of life's experiences. It is a story of doors: ones that close; and ones that open.

As I said, I wanted to be a barrister, like my father—he was later a judge, who retired at the age of 72 after twenty-seven years on the bench. I did Arts/Law—starting at ANU on a National Undergraduate Scholarship, but after missing Sydney too much, I finished my undergraduate studies at SydneyUniversity. Along the way I played lots of music—as an oboist and cor anglais player with the ABC National Training Orchestra, Australian Youth Orchestra and then as part of the Opera and Ballet Orchestra at the Opera House. But Tchaikovky did that in. While the opera season is run in repertory, with several operas on at once, the ballet season is unrelenting. Sleeping Beauty was a killer. Over three hours and two intervals long. Deadly dull. Poor Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky must have been desperate for a few rubles. Perhaps he was contemplating his own change of career directions, albeit some years earlier—he had been sent to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St Petersburg to train for a career as a civil servant.

I found much more satisfying the 7 years with the early music group, the Renaissance Players, based at the University of Sydney, instead, with singing and playing and much theatricality.

At the time of this first big change of tracks in my career path I was also finishing my History Honours degree. I just adored history. I had the possibility of doing a masters degree at Melbourne University—I was offered a scholarship to undertake a thesis on the history of treason under the Tudors. That would have been fun, but ... I had other ties in Sydney so it was not something that I could decide on my own. So I finished my law as part of a minority at law school—I was married.

Then when I was at the College I found out that I was pregnant. I announced to the group I was in that 'this firm is having a baby!'. I was six months pregnant when I was admitted. When my daughter was born I was utterly clueless. Although I had worked two years part-time with a firm of solicitors, obtained my practising certificate, and could have continued there, the demands of motherhood came as a real shock. They were incompatible for me at that time. So I held a practising certificate for only one year.

When my daughter was nearly a year old I applied for a position in teaching at Macquarie University. I got it. Curiously, what secured me the teaching position, at the age of 27, was none of the things that a career path would have mapped out. Not a higher degree—I hadn't even thought about that one yet, the PhD would come later, although I did have an Honours degree in History which evidenced researchability; not publications—I didn't have any of those—all essential these days even to start in the academic world. But I did have teaching experience—in music. I had taught a residential summer school in early music, with a group aged from 17 to 70. It was a great background for teaching distance students, who came in for weekends at a time on campus.

Then the teaching was like a duck to water. I loved it.

My teaching of law led me back to the College as part of their wonderful CLE programs, traversing New South Wales to regional law societies, especially in the 1980s, when there were significant developments in the law of wills and succession, in which I had come to develop a bit of a specialty. So well did these go, particularly in some seminars I presented at St Leonards, that I was given an award, the 'Balance the Books' award, a leather bound foolscap ledger in red and black, that I treasure to this day.

So for me there were several careerpath possibilities, apart from legal practice: music; history; and law lecturer. None of these was the career path I had in mind at the beginning at all. I am still not a barrister, nor will I ever be—although I am a member of the NSW Bar Association. But every aspect of my career has been rewarding, in one way or another. And these days I feel like I am using every aspect of my skill-sets.

There are two messages I would like to end up on. The first is one especially for the younger grads tonight. It is one about family and it is quite simple: you cannot plan your family around your career. If you try to drive both your choice about, and the timing of, having children around your career, then:

it may never happen—the fertility of women absolutely plummets after the age of 35; and if you don't start until you are 40, you will be going to parent-teacher meetings until you are near retirement age, even well into your 60s!

The second message is more a reflection, illustrated by my own journey, that life just turns up different opportunities and you need to be open to them—to change direction. And then the logic comes but by looking backwards. The problem is, if you lock your thinking too much into a fixed idea of where you want to end up, then you miss seeing the opportunities for diversions that will lead you to that point which, in retrospect, appears so logical and natural a pathway.

Teaching music led me into law teaching and to being the Dean of Law at Macquarie University and then through that to leading a government agency that recommends changes to the laws of a nation. And in a funny way, I am in the shoes of my grandfather, who headed a government agency in the 1920s.

You need to keep your eyes open and also to be patient. There will be many doors that will close while you explore possibilities. I have a list of doors that didn't open for me—and not one of them was I unhappy about, afterwards. But the thing with such doors is that once they close, you then find another one. I am sure many of you here tonight will relate to this!

I commend the College for its wisdom in introducing the suite of applied law postgraduate degrees. The College is contributing so much to the enriching of the legal profession by this significant development of its programs. The legal profession is a fine and honourable one, and one that we are all proud to be part of. Congratulations to you all and to the College. And thank you very much for allowing me to share a few reflections, and stories, with you tonight.