The Slater & Gordon story - access to social justice for all

Ingrained in Slater & Gordon’s long and colourful history is a principle of fair and equal access to justice for all. It is a principle borne out of the experiences of its founders Bill Slater and Hugh Gordon who grew up during the depression of the 1890s and lived through world wars. It truly is a remarkable story and one we believe is worth sharing.

It all began on a hot summer’s day with Bill Slater and his larrikin mates racing barefoot through the paddocks of South Yarra in Melbourne. They shed their clothes and dived into the murky river, unawares of the constable hidden in the reeds. The constable collared the boys as they emerged naked out of the water and marched them to Richmond lockup.

In court, Bill was the only one who dared speak up. ‘Our mothers can’t afford to buy swimming togs’, he said. The magistrate, no doubt smiling inwardly at the audacity of a 10-year-old boy, let them off with a small fine and stern warning. Bill Slater disregarded such well-meant advice, deciding then and there that he wanted to become a lawyer.

Coming from such humble beginnings made Bill’s feats that much more impressive. He was raised by his mother in the working class Melbourne suburb of Prahran, which at the time was a scene of grinding poverty and semi-starvation. In his father’s absence, Bill had to become the man of the house. He left school at 12 years of age, taking on paper rounds and other odd jobs to help support the family.

As a newsboy, Bill took great interest in the press reports he was required to sell. He was particularly interested in learning about the causes of the financial depression and studying its impact on people’s lives—hunger, sickness, murder and suicide—and how it could be that the privileged minority continued to live in the lap of luxury. By constantly questioning the accepted order of society he exposed himself to the wrath of the legal system. His rebellious and mischievous nature meant he was a frequent visitor to the Courts, charged with a multitude of public disorder offences.

With the help of a foundation set up to assist wayward kids, Bill got his act together, yet with a lack of formal education it took much perseverance just to find his footing on the bottom rung of the professional ladder.

During the First World War he had a stint with the Australian Imperial Forces where he endured years of trench warfare on The Western Front. The injustices of war strengthened his resolve. Upon his return from Northern France he spent four years as an article clerk before being admitted to practice as a barrister and solicitor in March 1922. Soon thereafter, he opened an office at the Western end of Melbourne.

The Victorian division of the powerful Australian Railways Union (now part of the Public Transport Union) was one of the first organisations to source his services. This alliance marked the beginning of Slater & Gordon’s long-time association with the union movement and its fight for improved workers’ rights. It is a fight that continues to this day.

In 1924, at 35 years of age, Bill Slater was appointed the Victorian Attorney General, making him the youngest person ever to hold that post in Australia. In September of the same year, in his new role as Attorney General, he made his first attempt to widen application of the Workers’ Compensation Act to protect workers rights.

After the Depression era Bill took on his young brother-in-law Hugh Gordon as a partner, and the firm became known for the first time as Slater & Gordon. Bill and Hugh agreed from the outset to focus on servicing the needs of unions and its members, particularly the area of workers’ compensation.

They didn’t know it yet but Bill and Hugh had laid the foundations for a law firm that would go on to change the legal landscape in Australia forever. Then, Word War II broke out and Hugh felt compelled to enlist in the RAAF. He was commissioned as a pilot officer and sailed to England three months later.

On the 14 June 1943, Hugh embarked on his thirteenth and final mission before being granted a transfer back to Australia. His aircraft was tragically shot down somewhere over Holland and he never made it home. Nonetheless, Bill decided to retain the name Slater & Gordon for the firm, in memory of his young partner and brother-in-law.

Back home in Melbourne Bill continued to follow his passion for righting injustices. After Labor regained power in Victoria, Bill’s close friend John Cain appointed him chief secretary, attorney-general and solicitor-general on 21 November 1945.

In the mid-1940s, among other things, Bill was instrumental in strengthening the State’s outdated Workers’ Compensation Act. His actions led to the Act being amended to enabling Victorian workers to sue when their injuries were the result of negligence of fellow employees, and it gave widows the right to claim compensation for men killed at work.

Under the amended Act, the rights of workers were extended to allow them to claim compensation for aggravation of pre-existing medical conditions, whether it be physical or psychological, and for the first time the Act also covered industrial diseases such as asbestosis. This was to later become a telling development in the firm’s history.

Bill also set up an independent tribunal to determine wages and conditions for police officers, and he introduced government controls over gambling which severely reduced the financial and political power of John Wren, a corrupt high-profile business figure in Melbourne.

During this time, while Bill was trying to cope with his ambassadorial duties and severe illness, an extraordinary character named Ted Hill came along who played a significant role in the rise of Slater & Gordon.

Bill first took on Ted as an article clerk, a brilliant student with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the law. The young man’s passion for social reform reminded him of his own youthful idealism. Bill left the firm in Ted’s hands when he took up his ambassadorial duties in 1942, and for a brief period he changed the firm’s name to Slater, Gordon & Hill.

Ted Hill was regarded as one of Australia’s foremost workers compensation lawyers, and fought for hundreds of cases of employees whose health had been seriously affected by their work. He was also an influential figure in the Communist Party, and when he took over as its leader in 1948 he sold his share in the firm and resigned as partner however he continued to be briefed by the firm as a barrister.

Bill and Ted had novel ideas of attracting the best talent to the firm such as offering articles to women – probably the first firm to do so in Victoria – and paying article clerks a small weekly wage. Many of these employees later became prominent barristers, solicitors and judges.

Still today, the firm continues to provide opportunities to attract and retain the brightest and best young legal talent. Those who have worked at Slater & Gordon include the late County Court judge Mike Higgins, and Geoff Eames, formerly of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. Others have turned to political careers, including Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
During and after World Word II the foundation of Slater & Gordon’s growth was built on their relationship with unions, many of which still hold strong today. Geoff Jones was a key figure at the firm during this time. A quiet and scholarly man, he became known as a brilliant minded industrial lawyer who fought for the rights of unions. He managed Slater & Gordon for a record 36 years from 1948 to 1984.

One of Geoff’s major achievements was in his role as secretary head of the firemen’s union, where he was instrumental in negotiating on behalf of firemen for better working conditions and annual leave entitlements, and reduced weekly hours – at the time firemen worked extraordinary hours, on call for 18 hours a day over a six-day week. Geoff fought a tough drawn-out battle against the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Board that ended in the Industrial Court to secure firemen the right to a 40-hour working week. Long after this case was won, Geoff stayed committed to the firemen union’s cause for another 34 years as its legal advisor.

While serving in the army Geoff Jones met Jim Hill, brother of Ted Hill. Jim joined the firm as a solicitor in 1953. After proving his flair in tenancy and workers compensation cases, he was made junior partner four years later and worked at the firm until his death in 1973.

Jim and Ted Hill, both partners at the firm, were described as dogged warriors of the working class, rough diamonds with course tongues and cutting sarcasm. Both brothers also had strong ties with the Communist Party of Australia during and after World War II and were subject to intermittent surveillance by security forces at a time when communist activity was prohibited under the Menzies government in the 1950s. No charges were ever laid against them.

Ted, in particular, played a hand in campaigning for reduced hours and higher pay for workers in Victoria through orchestrating large-scale strikes. In the 1960s and 70s a vast number of workers across gas and coal industries, building trade industries and transport services had Ted to thank for their improved working conditions.

In 1969 Slater & Gordon’s fight for the rights of union members was thrust into the public eye when defending a Victorian Tramways Union member in a case that blew way out of proportion. The firm was representing a client who was fined and later arrested for breaching newly established rules restricting union behaviour set in place by the Menzies government. The uproar from the incident, and the union rules in general, led to wide-scale strikes across other transport unions, and for the first time all public transport ceased operating in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. About 50 other unions called 24-hour stoppages, and promised more. About one million union members stopped work throughout Australia. After the matter with the client was settled, no other unions paid outstanding fines and the penal powers under Menzies controversial rules were never used again.

By the 1980s Slater & Gordon’s over reliance on industrial accident cases was having a detrimental impact on the firm. Slater & Gordon had hit troubled waters and was facing bankruptcy. In 1985 the government of John Cain Junior attempted to reform workers compensation laws by establishing the first WorkCare Authority, which had devastating effects on many compensation practices, not just Slater & Gordon’s. Due to the new laws it was estimated that Slater & Gordon could lose about 30% of its annual income.

The Morwell office of Slater & Gordon – which was set up in the late 60s to service workers in the Latrobe Valley and was run by Steve Plunkett at the time – and the Footscray office under Peter Gordon were two shining lights in an otherwise dismal outlook for the firm.

Slater & Gordon would have most likely been put into receivership if not for the brave and daring partner Jonathan Rothfield who took ownership as sole proprietor in December 1985. Aged 40 Rothfield went to extreme lengths to raise money to keep the firm going, at great risk to his own finances and career. Instead of winding back expenses, he borrowed several million dollars to fund rapid expansion with new offices and visiting services. The firm was known as ‘Starship Rothfield’ boldly going where no man had gone before.

In August 1986, Jonathan issued the following statement in a memo titled ‘Slater & Gordon Principles’: This firm is different to most. We aim to assist the underdog and provide legal services to the disadvantaged. To do this, we must be in business. To be in business, we must be profitable.

It was against this backdrop of near ruin that Slater & Gordon would fight some of its toughest cases.

Over the next decade, Slater & Gordon went from strength to strength culminating in the introduction of the innovative and revolutionary ‘No Win No Fee’ legal fee structure in July 1994.

In May 2007 Slater & Gordon became the worlds first publicly listed law firm, listing on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX).

In 2010 Slater & Gordon celebrated 75 years, growing from humble beginnings in a small room in the ARU Building in Melbourne in 1935 to offices nationwide and nearly 1000 staff members.

2012 saw Slater & Gordon expand its legal services to the United Kingdom by acquiring UK law firm Russell Jones & Walker. With similar backgrounds, RJW was the perfect firm for Slater & Gordon to partner with in the newly deregulated UK legal market.

The success of the firm today could not have been possible without the determination of a number of people but especially Bill Slater and Hugh Gordon who resolved to create a law firm to fight for the rights of everyday Australians whilst also providing cost-effective legal services; principles which hold true at Slater & Gordon to this day.

Parts of this story have been adapted from ‘That Disreputable Firm’ by Michal Cannon; Melbourne University Press, 1998.