Miles ahead of the rest: using innovation in the law to help others

By Liz Banks-Anderson

Law has always been a cornerstone for change, so it is fitting that lawyer, company director and former Chair of Innovation Australia, David Miles AM, was attracted to its capacity to herald change and progress.

"I am an accidental lawyer, in that I always wanted to be an architect. After three weeks of studying architecture at the University of Melbourne, I realised my maths skills probably were not strong enough," reminisces Mr Miles.

Mr Miles chose to design a different life for himself, and enrolled in a Bachelor of Laws at the University of Melbourne the following week, an experience he says transformed his life.

"I was always interested in the justice system and adversarial side of things, and becoming part of the law school, for me, was a real eye-opener. I was one of the few people who came from a public high school, having grown up in the outer suburbs. I met a whole new range of people and it opened up a whole new era of life which I had never really experienced. I absolutely loved it - they were as good as the best four years of my life," Mr Miles recalls.

And so began a remarkable journey of innovation that has led to a career spanning three key areas of interest; law, business and community. Over four decades, Mr Miles has played an instrumental role in establishing Legal Aid, negotiated the merger of three major Australian firms, and ran Australians for Fairer Tax in a campaign to introduce the GST. In 2001, he was appointed Chair of the Federal Government's National Innovation Awareness Council, and is Chairman of Uniseed Management Pty Limited, a joint venture between the University of Melbourne and The University of Queensland, to promote early stage research.

After graduating in 1968, Mr Miles began his career as a practising lawyer at Maddock Lonie & Chisholm (now Maddocks) where he was a partner for almost 20 years. He believes that legal training provides a great foundation to gain expertise in a whole range of other areas and alternative pathways, as well as a strong capacity to innovate.

This was recognised in his appointment as Chairman of Innovation Australia in 2007, having chaired its predecessor, the Industry Research and Development Board from March 2003.

 Mr Miles established a career spanning a diverse range of roles, all involving an element of innovation. He says this was not deliberate in his approach, but rather a way of thinking, which he translated into action.

"I just loved practising law. I loved helping people, I thought it was fun. From the beginning of my career, I had a fascination to see that there was so much more that could be done in the law to provide a service by just upgrading basic functions," Mr Miles explains.

"Things needed to be modernised and so I began a progression that started with photocopying, then went to electric type writers, then went to word processing and so forth, and moved the firm twice."

It was in the late 1970s and early 1980s that he became strongly involved in lawyer politics and law reform which often involved speaking at forums and good old- fashioned political rallies.

"I was encouraged by the firm to become involved in lawyer politics. I saw that there were many aspects of the law that needed to be changed and the way the law was practised needed to be changed," he says.

This included leading legal reform in a variety of capacities, as President of the Law Institute of Victoria, President of the Law Council of Australia and contributing to the establishment of community legal services.

"I served on the voluntary legal aid committee before Legal Aid was formally created. Every Friday night you would get a pile of legal files take them home and read them over the weekend. Then we would meet on Monday night and decide who got legal aid. It was all informal – run by the profession, for the profession," he says.

As for contemporary legal aid, Mr Miles does not hesitate to say it is "terribly under-funded. The demands upon it are absolutely enormous. Societal demands are such that there is just not enough revenue to look after everyone. I think that's a very sad thing but that's the reality of it."

Another important societal role played by community legal services is providing young lawyers with the opportunity to go out and work with them and "see what the problems are for people and see the real life application of the law."

In the next stage of his career, Mr Miles focused on transforming how the legal profession in Australia viewed itself to being more outward looking and establishing itself as a key player in the international landscape.

This contemporary international outlook in legal training and practice, Mr Miles says, has created wonderful opportunities for young lawyers abroad.

"They (Australian lawyers) are extremely well-trained and smart young people. They work hard and that is still the case. I think a lot of that is credit to the Australian law school education which, in my case, was essentially the University of Melbourne."

The greatest lesson that a legal education can impart is the art of understanding people and knowing how to apply the law to their problem.

"It teaches you to think in a particular way, it teaches you ethics, it teaches you the need to understand people – in the practice of the law understanding people is a really important component of what you do," he says.

In terms of giving advice to young professionals at the beginning of their careers, he advises thinking outside of the traditional realms of legal practice.

"Historically, a law degree has not necessarily been a pathway to practising law. For young graduates, it is important that you understand what the practice of the law is all about, get some practical experience of that and not be daunted by it. But also recognise that you can use your degree and expertise in a whole range of other areas."

"The law has certainly changed. A lot of people have encroached upon the practice of the law. Therefore I think the graduate of today has to be more outward looking in terms of how they will use their degree going forward."

In 1990, Mr Miles joined Corrs as head of its litigation department in Melbourne, and together with the Chief Executive, negotiated the merger of three major Australian firms. On the announcement of the merger and creation of Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Mr Miles took over as chief executive.

This marked one of the most challenging but rewarding times in his career.

We were breaking down state-based traditions and understandings - that was enormously challenging.

Looking at legal practice now, Mr Miles believes a different type of innovation is needed, one that is not just concerned with digitisation and efficiency, but a return to practising the law to help people. Innovation and the law, in his perspective, should be consistently underlined by a grounding principle of the law being accessible to people who have great need.

These days, particularly in the large corporate law firms, Mr Miles questions whether there is enough human interaction.

He says that many areas of traditional practice for lawyers where experience could be gained, such as worker compensation claims, have been replaced and eroded by changes in society.

"I think lawyers generally are some of the most innovative people on earth. Many traditional areas of practice for lawyers have been affected by changes in society and lawyers have had to look to other areas to find how people can be helped".

"The growth of firms like Slater and Gordon and Maurice Blackburn Lawyers has opened up the law to a lot of people in a way that previously wasn't available to them," he says.

Conversely, Mr Miles believes the trend of law firms being run like investment banks and accounting firms should signal a time to go back to some of the more traditional values when law firms were governed differently.

"The most exciting thing about the law is helping people. I'm a little bit concerned these days that perhaps  younger lawyers are not having as much fun in the law  as I had," he says.

Banner image: David Miles AM
Photographer: Jorge de Araujo

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