Keeping it in the family

By Andy Walsh

The Hon Associate Justice Mark Derham QC remembers visiting his father, Sir David Plumley Derham, in his ground floor office near the old quadrangle when he was the Professor of Jurisprudence at Melbourne Law School.

Derham Family 

He was just a boy at the time but can still recall hearing upon his visits Sir David tell stories about his students, and then discussing problems of law and jurisprudence around the dinner table in the evenings.

He remembers his father spending periods of time studying, researching and teaching in places far away such as Oxford, Chicago, New Guinea, Singapore and India, and he remembers helping him move into his new office when he became Vice-Chancellor in the late 1960s.

With this exposure to the law from such a young age, there is no need to wonder why Associate Justice Derham followed his father, who was also a barrister for almost two decades, into the profession.

"The law has been central to my life," Associate Justice Derham says.

"My family did partly inspire me, but I fell into the law as the only available way of earning a living. David used to say he set out to be a philosopher and poet but came to the law because he had to support a family."

Associate Justice Derham did his articles at Madden Butler Elder & Graham, where he worked in conveyancing and commercial law; became a Judge's Associate; then trained as a parliamentary draftsman in Canberra and joined the Office of Parliamentary Counsel of the Commonwealth.

In 1980, he joined the Victorian Bar, where he stayed until 2012, having been appointed a Queen's Counsel in 1994.

Associate Justice Derham says he found his true professional home at the Bar, and was driven for more than three decades by the simple belief that "the administration of justice depends on honest and diligent lawyers."

His daughter Alexandra, an MLS alumna, is similarly motivated.

As a solicitor in Litigation and Regulatory for DLA Piper Australia based in Perth, her aim is to find the best possible solution for clients, and gain as much exposure to diverse legal issues as she can in the process.

Her legal pedigree is strong – the connection to the law further extends to her great-great uncle Frances Plumley Derham, a senior partner of Moule Hamilton and Derham, and his father Thomas, a solicitor and President of the Law Institute of Victoria in 1891-2.

Both Sir David and his daughter Katharine did their articles at the firm. The family trade was just one part of what inspired Ms Derham to study law after finishing a Bachelor of Arts.

"I like solving problems, and I wanted to understand how society worked. I got the second part wrong. I needed to round off my studies with economics, politics and philosophy," she says.

"(But) I like that there is a tradition of lawyers in my family. I have found that having a father who works in the law useful at times."

Ms Derham admits she had not planned to make the move west but is relishing the result of her decision.

"I did not expect to be working in litigation in Perth, however, when the opportunity arose to work here, I grabbed it," she says.

"It has proven to be both exciting and challenging."

The younger Derham says that to be successful, one must be willing to think outside of the box, and proffered advice for those considering their post-graduation options. Ms Derham encouraged students to look for work in an area of law they are interested in, or find a firm that allows rotations through different areas before making a choice.

"Do not write anything off just because it does not sound as glamourous or offer as much money as you imagined."

She says choosing a firm where someone senior will be teaching you will prove invaluable.

"Practice is very different from law school; your first few years you need someone who is willing to invest in your development."

Coming from a third-generation lawyer, these are wise words to follow.

Image: Associate Justice Mark Derham (front third from left) and Alexandra Derham (back, fifth from left) at the naming of the David P. Derham Theatre
Credit:MLS Photographer

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 13, June 2015.