The utility of taking chances – Alan Cameron AO
(Words by Jerome Doraisamy, photograph by David Field)
Alan Cameron’s father became a doctor because his father thought it was a suitable career path at the conclusion of the Great Depression. Alan himself couldn’t have become a doctor, he says, because he didn’t like the sight of blood, and instead saw himself as a barrister, given his interest in debating as a young teenager.
What he realised, however, was that his motivation extended to practice and commerce, as well as just pure, black letter law.
“It wasn’t really until I was in practice that I abandoned the bar, because I came to realise that solicitors have more fun, in that they are better placed to resolve disputes and also get an opportunity to build things,” he said.
And for his whole career, he has been an undeniable part of that building process, serving society as a lawyer in an enviable range of both public and private sector positions.
He has been able to be such a builder – in a non-linear fashion, no less – by taking chances.
In 1973, at the “ripe old age of 24”, he became the principal solicitor for the NSW Aboriginal Legal Service, which had just gained funding from the new Whitlam government, which had promised that no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person would be unrepresented in court.
“Obviously they had no other applicants, because I got the job,” he joked.
“In today’s language, it was a social start-up with government money, still heavily dependent on a community that was not all that trusting of what we were trying to do with them, and that was a very significant challenge.”
Taking on challenging posts became part and parcel of Alan’s career trajectory, however. Between 1975-1977, he was a visiting fellow at the University of North Sumatra in Medan, Indonesia – a post he took after seeing an advertisement and thinking to himself, “why not?”
His career went from strength to strength from there, including time as the chairman of the Australian Securities Commission, now ASIC, between 1993 and 2000.
That chairmanship, while business-focused, allowed him to still be a lawyer, although he concedes many people wouldn’t see it that way.
“It was using the law for a social and business purpose; I used to say at the time that the chairmanship combined everything I was interested in, while being a very legal-based role,” he mused.
“While some [preceding and succeeding chairpersons] have not been lawyers, it is sufficiently legal a role that it is easier to do if you are a lawyer, and if you bring lawyering skills to it, such as judgment on what should and shouldn’t be done, you can be successful.”
Company directorship has allowed him to practice “meta law”, as he calls it, by virtue of undertaking roles that allow him to run a business while wearing his legal hat.
Knowing how to do it well, however, is the challenge.
“Some lawyers as company directors don’t work out very well, because they still try to be the lawyer – I deliberately make sure I’m a director but not their lawyer,” he explained.
“I bring the skills and approaches of a lawyer to those roles I’ve had, and I will make comments where necessary, together with questions and answers, but it is important to remember what your role is in these instances.”
He remains chair of a number of organisations, including the NSW Law Reform Commission, Property Exchange Australia Ltd, Building IQ Inc, various investment companies in BT Investment Group, is deputy chair of ASX Compliance Pty Ltd, and is the ethics counsel to two national law firms.
“There was no logic in my career path – it’s been about responding to chances,” he advised.
“The law has been very good to me, because it has afforded me the opportunity to do so many different things.”