Neil Watt
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Justinian in Neil Watt, On the Couch, Professional ethics

Behind the scenes there was quite a battle that accompanied the creation of the new uniform solicitors' conduct rules ... One of the warriors is on Justinian's couch ... Neil Watt, former Baptist minister, former social worker, now a fedora wearing legal ethicist 

Neil Watt: In Queensland they called him "the ethics guy"Neil Watt created the Queensland Law Society's Centre for Lawyers' Ethics - the first operation of its kind in Australia run by a lawyers' trade union.

He was also the father of the Australian Lawyers' Ethics website

He travelled the country like an itinerant preacher trying to bring virtue to the Law Council of Australia's professional ethics committee, which was charged with developing the nationally uniform Australian Solicitors' Conduct Rules.

Born in Scotland he came to Australia as a £10 immigrant.

He was schooled at Sandgate High, Brisbane, the same academy as HH Susan Kiefel, and went on to pile-up degrees in theology and law.

Watt has had stints as a (very bad) Baptist clergyman (just bad at being a Baptist); in the community sector working with the addicted and homeless; as a consultant to government on problem gambling; and as an ethicist for the legal profession.

He has a strange fondness for fedoras and blues music.

Neil Watt now runs his own legal ethics consulting business in Sydney. 

Describe yourself in three words.

Challenging. Passionate. Compassionate. 

What are you currently reading?

A volume of Ephraim Tutt stories by 20s New York lawyer-author, Arthur Train. Tutt is a fictional noble subversive lawyer-type. I relate to him. I'm also reading a book on consulting and one on academic ethics. I need all the help I can get.

What's your favourite film?

I'm not sure I should confess this - "Don Juan DeMarco", with Depp and Brando. Yes, I know it's a chick flick, but so well written and acted, so sexy and with a powerful message thrown in.

Who has been the most influential person in your life?

My mother, probably. It's strange because she spent a large part of her life battling alcoholism and this took a toll on our relationship. But she taught me right from wrong and to respect people and care about our world. She also loved me a lot. I miss her.

What is your favourite piece of music? 

You're asking me to scoop a thimble out of an ocean of joy! I love guitar so John Williams and Phil Keaggy inspire me. So does Bruce Cockburn's folk, The Beatles pop, Buddy Guy's and Joe Bonammasa's rock n' blues. Right now I'm listening to Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd's "Jazz Samba". It's all magic.

What is in your refrigerator?

Apart from the cat, cheese – several kinds. I love cheese ... and if mum is up there listening I promise there's some veggies in there too. Somewhere. (I'm joking about the cat.)

What is your favourite website?

Twitter. Now the world is my audience.

What is your most recognised talent?

Persuasion. And bowling on Wii

What words or phrases do you overuse?

"Fantabulousness." It takes talent to overuse a word that doesn't exist.

What is your greatest weakness?

Liquorice allsorts and red wine ... and a failure to know the fights than can be left for another day. 

What career would you have liked to pursue if you hadn't become a lawyer?

Law is one of several careers I've had. I always wanted to be a teacher and most of my jobs have involved teaching in some way or other. But, in my heart of hearts, I think I'd be a performer. I love an audience. And I love to write.

From where springs your interest in legal ethics?

From some strange well of passion to make this strange rule of law thing work. I believe in justice and that it's the job of law and lawyers to constantly provoke law on the long road to justice. The public needs to have confidence in the system and in the lawyers who inhabit it. Ethics fuels that confidence and a lack of ethics wrecks it.

What was it like steering a consensus on national conduct rules?

I represented the Queensland Law Society on a group that collectively had the job of finding consensus. I set out with a goal of building a set of rules we could all be proud of and the public could have confidence in. It ended up being a battle at times, often over things we shouldn't have fought over. Part of the problem is that lawyers understand law but struggle with the principled approach of ethics, which often sets a higher standard than law. One of my oft-repeated phrases in that group was that law should be a floor, not a ceiling, for the standards we develop.

Are lawyers' ethical rules really a job protection scheme in disguise?

No - that's the work of the legislature. The rules merely set a minimum standard of conduct for those who are lawyers. I think law societies and bar associations should be aiming to do better than minimum standards. 

If you were a foodstuff, what would you be?

Peanut brittle. Sweet with hard bits.

What human qualities do you most distrust?

Self-interest - except I trust it to be self-interested.

What would you change about Australia?

We've become scared of the present, scared of the future, scared of "outsiders" and scared of making hard decisions for our future. I'd like us to be less scared and more confident.

Who or what do you consider overrated? 

An Order of Australia. I wouldn't have one. Ever. Unless they ask me nicely.

What would your epitaph say?

Quick, lock the door!

What comes into your mind when you shut your eyes and think of the word "law"?

Dusty books. Dusty wigs. Dusty Springfield. 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (
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