09 August 2021

Interview Ms. Elizabeth Shearer, President at Queensland Law Society


The Impact Lawyers publishes a series of interviews with presidents of the world's leading Bar Associations or Law Societies. On this occasion, Ms. Elizabeth Shearer, President at Queensland Law Society answers the questions in this interview


1. You will surely remember that a few years ago, a law firm in Panama was the victim of a theft of its files. The thieves provided the stolen information to various authorities in different countries. Some of the authorities of those countries used the information obtained by means of a theft to investigate various people. Do you agree that the authorities of a country can use information stolen from a law firm to investigate natural or legal persons?

This is a complex question. The “fruits of the poisonous tree” doctrine operates in Queensland such that a court may exclude evidence if improperly obtained, but it is not an absolute rule. This allows careful consideration on a case by case basis.  


2. In your opinion, is the lawyer’s right to professional secrecy sufficiently protected in your country?

The confidentiality between a lawyer and their client is protected in Queensland. As with all rules, there are some narrow exceptions.


3. The current focus on agility, inclusion, innovation, and sustainability is transforming the workplace. How do you envision the lawyer of the future in this scenario?

One constant in legal practice is change. Another constant is that, despite changes in how we do our work, the core of what we do remains – we are trusted advisors to our clients, helping them to navigate complexity and achieve their objectives. The lawyer of the future will use different tools, but we will still perform the same important role. 


4. Do you think it is better for lawyers to be free to charge whatever professional fees they consider appropriate, or do you think it is fairer for them to be subject to some form of regulation?

In an ideal world, all lawyers would act ethically in all aspects of professional life, including in setting their charges. But we don’t live in an ideal world. The nature of legal services delivered to individuals means that it is difficult for an individual to assess value.  Most people only rarely engage lawyers and so there is an asymmetry of information between the lawyer and the client and an inequality of bargaining power. Regulation attempts to address this, which I think is a reasonable form of consumer protection. Of course, regulation needs to be effective and not impose unreasonable regulatory burdens on legal practices. 


5. Do you think law firms should have the same freedom to advertise their services as other professionals and businesspeople, or should they be subject to specific regulation?

In Queensland, we have only a few restrictions relating to advertising, mostly in relation to legal services for personal injury. Advertising must comply with the general standards and not bring the profession into disrepute. This seems to strike a reasonable balance. 


6. Are you in favour of lawyers having to retire compulsorily after a certain age or do you prefer that they have complete freedom to retire at any time they see fit?

Compulsory retirement at a fixed age seems unnecessary and out of step with improved health in later years and improved life expectancy. I have recently attended celebrations for two solicitors who have achieved 60 continuous years in legal practice in Queensland – this is a remarkable contribution to the community. 


7. Does your organization or the courts in your country provide a free legal aid service to people without the financial means to hire a lawyer, or does free legal aid depend on the “Pro Bono” system offered by law firms?

We have a legal aid system in Australia, but it is very much focussed on the poorest in our society. Pro Bono work fills some of the gap, but there is a large “missing middle” who are not eligible for legal aid and cannot afford to engage a lawyer in the traditional way. I think it is incumbent on us all to think about innovative ways to deliver our services so we can meet the large unmet need for legal services in our community. 


8. In order to do their job, lawyers need to incur in numerous expenses such as computers, hiring auxiliary staff and renting offices. In addition to these easily identifiable costs, there are others that are not so easily identifiable, including taxis, restaurants and professional clothing. In your opinion, are the tax rules in your country regulating allowable expenses sufficiently clear? And can lawyers deduct these less easily identifiable costs?

Our tax regime for deduction for legitimate business expenses is well established in Australia and operates reasonably well. 


9. In your country is it compulsory for all lawyers to take out professional liability insurance? If so, what is the minimum amount of cover that the policy must have?

In Queensland, all practices must have compulsory professional indemnity insurance. The Queensland Law Society has a fully owned subsidiary insurance company which provides this insurance to practices. There is standard cover of $2 million and top up cover is available. 


10. In your country, can a legal entity whose shareholders are not lawyers provide legal services? Or is it necessary that all or part of the company's shareholders are lawyers?

Yes, legal practices can be incorporated entities with non lawyer shareholders. However they must have a legal practitioner director who is responsible for the legal services delivered. 


11. Are there more lawyers registered in your institution?

We have seen a significant growth in the profession in the last decades, above the level expected. There are more universities offering law degrees, and this translates to more people joining the profession. Over the period 2011 to 2020, Queensland solicitors grew by 54%, outstripping the national average by 9%.


12. Do you think it is appropriate for lawyers to wear particularly formal attire, or do you not consider it relevant?   

The standard of dress in the office has changed in recent years with “business casual” becoming more common in law practices.  However formal attire continues to be required in Courts – this is appropriate because it reflects the importance of the role that Courts play in our society, the formality of the occasion and the seriousness of the nature of matters dealt with in Courts. 

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