“I remember getting up and saying that the firm had more character and more characters than a Dickens novel. That’s what appealed to me about the place.”
Retired partner, John Taberner has enjoyed a long and highly successful career at Herbert Smith Freehills, but the way he describes his entry into the field makes it sound like little more than a quirk of fate. We are proud to share his story with you.
After starting out as a summer clerk back in 1979, John Taberner has enjoyed a long and highly successful career at Herbert Smith Freehills, and it’s one that isn’t quite over yet. But the way he describes his entry into the field makes it sound like little more than a quirk of fate. “I met some people who were doing it and it seemed interesting and I was somewhat at a loose end,” he recalls, adding his specialisation in the field of environmental law was even more of a happy accident.
He’d not been long with the firm (then known as Freehill Hollingdale Page) when a conveyance he’d been given to work on had a reference to the Environmental Planning Act in the contract. In order not to appear ignorant he quickly read up on the topic, impressing the late Peter Carney, then a partner at the firm.
As with so much in life, timing is everything. This was the early 80s and environmental law was just emerging as a whole new area of interest. With Carney’s support, John headed to the US to undertake his master’s degree in the subject and before long he was firmly entrenched as one of Australia’s leading experts in the field, specialising in such areas as climate change issues, carbon capture and storage, and carbon credit acquisitions.
In 1988 he was promoted to partner. This was unusual for an openly gay man at the time and there was a whisper of dissent regarding his appointment. “I’ve been told by a number of people that my sexuality was discussed and that there were some, what’s the word… unfavourable views expressed,” he recalls. “But also there were very strong views expressed to the contrary.”
Once he’d moved into his new role, he says, the subject of his sexuality simply never arose again, which he believes is a great credit to Herbert Smith Freehills. “It shows that the firm has got an open mind and has had for a long time, at least 30 years,” he says.
To prove his point, he recounts attending a Q and A panel discussion in 2014, hosted by Herbert Smith Freehills and its LGBT Network, and focusing on such topics as LGBT inclusion in the workplace. At the function, he found himself sitting between Penny Wong and the pioneering transgender entertainer Carlotta. David Marr was also on the panel, he recalls, describing the total line-up as “quite remarkable”.
“It was a non-issue and I’ve always thought the firm should be proud of that,” he adds.
John doesn’t claim to have been a major agent of change on this issue, but does regard his promotion to partner as a “turning point” and his openness as an example of the firm’s attitude towards diversity. “Before or after being made a partner, I never shied from my sexuality and I just continued in that way. I was an example of the culture of the firm and that’s how I would like to think I assisted.”
During his long career there were many milestones, but he singles out his involvement with the pro bono team, and particularly its work with the Shopfront youth legal consultancy as a highpoint. He also notes the Perisher Ski Tube case, which was his first experience of really significant litigation in his field. This particular case involved the impact assessment and planning approval for the Ski Tube – the Swiss-designed rack-rail train that transports skiers from Bullocks Flat through a tunnel to the Perisher ski resort. “We were acting for the builders and we won it in the end by citing some novel American cases, and the Court of Appeal agreed with us,” recalls John, adding, “it was and still is an important case.
There were also various cases involving the Road Traffic Authority, including the commission of inquiry into the M2 and the litigation that followed.
John retired from being a partner in 2008, moving to what he describes as a “modest little property” – the old school teacher’s house in Possum Creek near Byron Bay, which has a “lovely garden”, copious bird life and frogs. But the firm hasn’t finished with him yet. When he stepped down from being a partner, he moved into a full-time consultancy role, before gradually decreasing his time commitment from four to three and then two days a week.
Last May he thought he’d finally retired completely, but a few short months later he was asked to continue. “What it now means is that I’m on call whenever some assistance on a particular matter is required.” And he’s more than happy to oblige, especially if a work trip to Sydney coincides with a concert by his beloved Australian Chamber Orchestra, where he’s been on the board since 2001.
John’s long association with Herbert Smith Freehills means he has witnessed great changes in both the firm itself and the very practice of law. He believes the importance of personal relations was always a great strength, and hopes Herbert Smith Freehills retains its point of difference in an increasingly homogenised landscape. He recalls an occasion during his early days as a partner when he was asked to accept an award on the firm’s behalf. “I remember getting up and saying that the firm had more character and more characters than a Dickens novel,” he says. “That’s what appealed to me about the place. It had a character of its own, which was very different from the other firms, and I hope that continues.”