Corrs Partner and CEO John W.H. Denton was invited to address the University of Melbourne, Conferring of Degree Ceremony today.
John was asked to deliver the Occasional Address at the Conferring of Degrees Ceremony for Melbourne Law School at The University of Melbourne recently. An honour that was gladly accepted as it gave him the opportunity to talk about two very different challenges that the graduates will face: That of being a lawyer and that of a leader.
Click 'text version' to read John's speaker notes.
Today I want to praise you – the graduating classes of the Law School of 2015 and urge you to live up to the expectations of society, your parents, friends, husbands and wives, children, teachers, the profession of law and yourselves.
The University of Melbourne is one of Australia’s grandest universities and exhorts you to live your lives by reference to a fragment of an ode from the Roman poet Horace:
“postera crescam laude” “to grow in the esteem of future generations”.
In writing this fragment Horace rather arrogantly believed that the quality of his poems meant they would live forever. For the students of the University in general it means: you will be remembered forever by your actions.
But what does that actually mean to you in your lives as graduates of the law school of this great university.
Firstly, as lawyers and, Secondly, what will that mean for you in the context of rising to meet the challenges of the future.
I want to speak to you today directly about these two very different challenges: that of a lawyer and that of a leader of the future.
Let us grapple with the first by way of a simple story.
It was a hot summer day in Moscow in June 2007. A young lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, walked along the busy streets of down town Moscow to commence another day in his office.
On that day and completely unexpectedly, 50 uniformed police officers from the Moscow interior ministry raided Sergei’s law offices under the guise of a tax investigation into one of his clients. There was no apparent reason for the investigation as the company was regularly audited by tax authorities and everything was always found to be ok. But the truth is that someone, somewhere in Moscow wanted something – i.e. money and assets that the client possessed.
And that someone wanted to manipulate the law to get them.
What unravelled after that day in the life of Sergei Magnitsky is a challenge that every lawyer worth his or her salt will one day confront in their professional life: the challenge of whether one does the right thing or not.
Sergei Magnitsky did nothing wrong. He acted professionally at every moment in relation to this client and refused to tell a lie.
He was arrested for asking and enquiring as to why his client was being unfairly and unlawfully treated. And for testifying and demanding the application of due process.
He wanted justice.
Initially he was sent to a pre-trial detention centre where pressure was brought on him to recant from his strict application of the law.
He never once changed his story or agreed to tell a lie.
He was then moved to a maximum security prison – Butyrka, known to be one of the toughest in Russia. Sergei was put in a small cell with three other prisoners. The cell had no sanitary facilities and was rat infested.
Sergei became ill and sought medical assistance. But none was provided.
The intent of his tormentors was to put so much pressure on Sergei that he would withdraw his testimony and validate their actions. But he would not do so. He continually rejected the proposals put to him. Why did he do this?
Quite simply because Sergei was an individual who took seriously his role as a lawyer and his professional obligations.
He believed in justice. And there was no way he would be ever be pressured in to doing the wrong thing.
Throughout his ordeal Sergei stayed true to his belief in the due process of law and to his principles. Upholding them was his primary aim. He was never broken. He was a consummate professional and consummate lawyer.
But in the end Sergei died suddenly in prison from still unexplained causes after being held for 358 days in detention.
On the day of his arrest Sergei was a healthy man in the prime of his life. Just after a year of his detention he was dead.
The actions of Sergei live on – esteemed and preserved in the Magnitsky Act. An act passed by the US Congress to ensure those that were responsible for his death will be punished for it.
Most of us are never tested by circumstances such as these - and I hope none of us will be. But true character is always revealed in the face of adversity. True character is always revealed when one is given a choice between doing the right thing and not doing the right thing.
Now I’m not suggesting that you should face death as a lawyer in order to reveal your true professionalism. But I am suggesting that you will face choices as a lawyer on whether to do the right thing from time to time. How you will respond is how you will be judged.
It is how your esteem will be judged by future generations.
So now let me talk to you as the leaders of the future.
But what does this world in which you will be leading look like.
I think it is fair to say that you, as tomorrow’s leaders will be challenged by complexities that have never before been faced.
The mass production economy, where mass workforces produced standardised goods for societies divided into social classes with attendant lifestyles and class identities, has been largely left behind.
It has been superseded by a post industrial global economy driven by consumer choice, advertising, multimedia and the digital platform and based much more on a services economy than we have ever seen before.
The resultant society is much more individualistic and pluralist and multicultural. It is a place where class and where one was born may no longer determine people's lifestyle and outlook.
As the brilliant and aptly self described "argumentative Indian" Amartyra Sen has argued: multiple forms of identity - national, ethnic, religious, sexual, and others - are more important to us today. We now choose our own lifestyles and to a considerable degree choose who we are and, funnily enough, who we want to be known as.
While the mass political parties of the industrial era that broadly reflected historical class interests still compete for government; with the decline of class they can no longer rely on automatic mass support as once they did.
Politics is more complicated. The electorate is more volatile and there are more and more political parties emerging, merging, disappearing, and sometimes splitting and re-appearing.
There are also what are called "new social movements". These operate outside the traditional political structures: these movements pursue minority rights, concerns about the environment, gender issues and the rights of sexual minorities. They have their own political agendas, as well as their own ideologies tailored to their preoccupations that are less universal in their ambitions than traditional ideologies that appear to be in decline.
The business world is more complicated and with the liberation of the digital platform comes the permanent revolution of disruption to traditional business models. The organised become disrupted and the disruptors themselves have no sense of permanence.
And the legacy of the financial crisis continues.
A legacy of low economic growth, high unemployment, increasing inequality and the erosion of trust in existing institutions.
We live in a more fluid and dynamic world in which traditional landmarks are fading.
In this multicultural and pluralist world we only have multiple points of view with no certain way of establishing who is right or wrong.
This is hard, this is complex.
But this is an exciting time to be alive.
There is a new rule book emerging and the joy for you is that you will be writing it.
I like others am a great believer in the power of inexperience, in the power of naivety: the ability to ask questions that challenge the status quo. That allow you to pursue solutions which world weary and cynical experts say are too hard or can’t be done because they no longer have the tool box to deal with this new and complex world.
Your inexperience and openness to change and new ways of thinking are your greatest strengths and you may not even know it.
So don’t listen to people when they say you’re not ready.
That you need to stand in line.
Leadership is not about waiting around. It is a decision to lead and you are capable of doing that right now.
Your actions now will hold you in esteem in the future.
I would now like to speak directly to your parents, friends, husbands and wives, children and teachers.
I say to you all - thank you for your sacrifices. Thank you for your empathy. Thank you for what you have nurtured and supported. These students who are graduating today are the result of your actions and for which posterity will hold you in esteem.
I commenced with that fabulous quote from Horace - the motto of this university: “postera crescam laude”
Let me finish with perhaps Horace’s most unusual quote: “nunc est bibendum” “now we must drink” - so you now have Horace’s instructions on how to behave after this graduation ceremony.
Congratulations and thank you.
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