While Slater and Gordon has had many partners and illustrious alumni who have walked it’s corridors throughout its 85 years, Bill Slater’s and Hugh Gordon’s passion for ensuring access to justice for those who would not otherwise have a voice has continued to shape the firm.
That passion lives on in Slater and Gordon’s name, it’s values, and most importantly, its people.
William (Bill) Slater knew he wanted to practise law when he was ten years old.
It was around the turn of the 20th century and Bill was standing in a Melbourne court after the police had caught him and some of his mates skinny-dipping in the Yarra River on a hot summer’s day.
After being marched from the Richmond lock-up, Bill was the only one with the courage to speak up and answer the charge.
“Our mothers can’t afford to buy swimming togs,” he told the magistrate, who let the boys off with a small fine and a warning not to find themselves back before the courts.
Bill disregarded this well-meaning advice and resolved then and there to become a lawyer.
The early years
Bill Slater’s father disappeared or died in the 1890s, so as the eldest child, Bill was forced to leave school at the age of 12 and take up the role of the head of the household.
He took on paper rounds and sold race books to support his mother and sisters before eventually becoming an office boy and then getting his first big break as a law clerk in Mildura.
As the clouds of war gathered and European armies began to move in 1914, Bill struggled with his conscience. He hated war, but death loomed over his generation; how could he stay at home while the world was falling apart?
He reached a compromise with himself and volunteered to join the Australian Field Ambulance. He was shipped to Northern France in 1916 to join the horrific trench warfare of the Western Front.
Election from the trenches
During his time on the frontline, Bill was injured, poisoned by gas and almost buried alive after a high-velocity shell struck metres from the dugout he was sleeping in at Messines Ridge.
He wrote in his diary in February 1917:
“My God, the awfulness of it all I’ll never forget… all hell is let loose as shells burst with terrible frequency and force all around us.”
“These are the times when one’s soul rebels against war and everything for which it stands.”
But before he left Australia, Bill had signed a blank ALP nomination form for the next Victorian Election. He received a cable on 23 September 1917 asking whether he would contest the almost unwinnable seat of Dundas based around the provincial city of Hamilton.
No-one bothered to immediately cable Bill, but 10 days after the 16 November 1917 election, he read in the British-Australian newspaper that Private Slater had defeated the sitting National party member.
Bill Slater returned home to Melbourne and set about his electoral and legal duties around Hamilton. In his maiden speech to parliament, he pleaded for an early end to the war to spare further bloodshed from Australia’s working class.
”The great burdens of the war are falling on the working classes of the world.”
“Those classes provide at least 95 per cent of the soldiers actually engaged in the zones of battle.
“Workers in no country of the world had any say in regard to the entry of the nation into the conflict.
“Peace will come by negotiation, but then it will only be reached after millions of lives have been sacrificed.”
He also made it clear from the outset that he intended to champion the rights of the working class and fight against its exploitation by big business, insurers and others – a fight Slater and Gordon continues to this day.
He told the Victorian parliament in 1918:
“It is peculiar commentary on private enterprise that an investigation into the affairs of the Metropolitan Gas Company has just shown what a big company can do. It has a favourable charter, and is working in every conceivable manner toward the exploitation of the people…”
As Bill’s political career was taking off, he also began to make progress in law. He qualified as a barrister and solicitor and was admitted to practice on 1 March 1922.
Then, his first big break came when the Australian Railways Union was dissatisfied with its existing legal representation and offered Bill the work.
Moving legal mountains
At the age of 35, Bill became the youngest person to be appointed a state Attorney-General in Australian history. Bill vowed to remove legal anomalies that restricted the course of justice and provide legal help to those who could not afford it.
A journalist at the time wrote that Bill had a ‘mighty force that can move mountains,’ but also a humble caution ‘that prevents him from galloping too far and too fast’.
His run-in with the law as a ten year old boy stuck with him and Bill exercised clemency wherever social injustice presented itself. He ordered the release of a penniless mother of eight, for example, after she was sentenced to two weeks’ imprisonment for shoplifting clothes to keep her children warm.
Bill was named Speaker of the Legislative Assembly in May 1940. A newspaper columnist recalled:
‘When I first met him 40 years ago, he was selling newspapers at the corner of Toorak Road and Chapel Street, a slim eager lad with big eyes and tousled hair’.”
‘Yesterday everyone at Parliament House seemed anxious to shake hands with the new speaker’.”
Bill’s temperate nature, his passion for the law and for championing the rights of people who would not otherwise have a voice, has cast a lasting legacy over the Victorian legal landscape. Many of Victoria’s great judges, barristers, solicitors and politicians either learnt at the feet of Bill Slater or cite him as an influence, including the late Victorian Premier John Cain.
The founding of Slater and Gordon
During his political career, Bill decided to re-energise his law practice following the shocks of the Depression era. He took his young brother-in-law Hugh Gordon into partnership in March 1935 and the firm became known for the first time as Slater and Gordon.
Hugh had a steadier upbringing than Bill, having been born in the Victorian fruit growing area of Irymple and the son of horticulturalists. He went to Melbourne University and graduated with a Bachelor of Laws.
The firm took off and started growing beyond the Railways Union, attracting more work from other trade unions and the powerful Australian Workers Union.
But no sooner had the partnership become fully established than Germany invaded Poland and the British Empire and France declared war in 1939.
Hugh felt impelled to enlist and joined the No 460 squadron RAAF as part of the Pathfinder squadron flying Lancaster aircraft. He commissioned as Pilot Officer in June 1942. Twelve months later, Hugh took off on what should have been his 30th and final mission before returning home.
But shortly after midnight, his bomber was picked up over Holland on the radar of a German night flight. Seconds later, the Lancaster was shot to pieces, spinning out of control and crashing to the ground with the loss of all aboard.
When the tragic news reached Bill Slater back in Australia, he decided to keep the name Slater and Gordon in memory of his young partner.
Eighty-five years later, their legacy lives on in the firm that Bill Slater and Hugh Gordon built. It is a legacy that has shaped Slater and Gordon’s past and is shaping its future - providing access to justice for all Australians to help them get their lives back on track.
Historical information extracted from That Disreputable Firm by Michael Cannon, 1998.
The contents of this blog post are considered accurate as at the date of publication. However the applicable laws may be subject to change, thereby affecting the accuracy of the article. The information contained in this blog post is of a general nature only and is not specific to anyone’s personal circumstances. Please seek legal advice before acting on any of the information contained in this post.