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The Legal Elite: Thriving on pressure cooker of IR initiation

AN attraction to the law might have led Mallesons Stephen Jaques partner Rob Lilburne into the profession but the pressure cooker of the Robe River Iron Ore dispute in the 1980s cemented his place in the industrial relations field.

“I was at Parker and Parker originally working with Harry Dixon back in 1987-88 on Robe River,” Mr Lilburne said.

“That dispute went on for a number of years. I got thrust into it as a matter of workload.”

The bulk of Mr Lilburne’s practice still revolves around the resources and oil and gas industries.

Back in those days there were very few industrial relations lawyers. Probably the most notable would be Allen Drake-Brockman, who acted for many unions and now heads Gadens Lawyers national workplace relations group, and Alton Jackson, who is now a district court judge.

Other than those lawyers the field was largely covered by the unions’ own advocates and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Then the laws changed dramatically. In early 1993 Federal Industrial Relations Minister Laurie Brereton brought in the Employee Flexibility Agreements, one of the first non-union agreements. Later that year WA Workplace Relations Minister Graham Kierath introduced workplace agreements. In 1996 the Federal industrial relations landscape changed again when (then) IR Minister Peter Reith pushed for an amended act, introducing things such as Australian Workplace Agreements.

Demand for IR expertise increased following those changes to the law.

“I think there’s more sophistication around now. Employers and the unions are more knowledgeable about how the system works,” Mr Lilburne said. “The process has changed too. It has become more legalistic.

“The unions are using lawyers a lot more now.”

On the Mallesons website Mr Lilburne is listed as a dispute resolution specialist – something he describes as crucial in IR.

“Hopefully you can resolve disputes without getting to litigation,” he said. “We try to assist our clients to have practical commercial outcomes. If it can be done amicably then it should be.”

However, this does not mean that Mr Lilburne shuns the litigious approach.

“Sometimes the only way you can move forward is by taking a major step,” he said.

He cites the Robe River dispute as a case in point.

While widely regarded for his IR legal knowledge, Mr Lilburne is not seen to be a major player in the Western Australian Industrial Relations Commission or the courts.

He admits he prefers to take a backseat role in court action and remain available for clients.

“IR is something you have to be available for,” Mr Lilburne said.

“You have to be ready to deal with it at all times. You have to be available when a client rings up and says: ‘I’ve got a guy on the grass here – what do I do?”

Mr Lilburne said one of the main attractions of working in IR was that he got to deal with people.

“And, unlike other areas of law, it is the same people,” he said.

“I think one of the highlights of my career have been the relationships I’ve developed with my clients – understanding their business and assisting them in the process.”

Mr Lilburne said he believed the various IR systems controlled by State Governments, and that ruled by the Federal Government, would ultimately become united, a process that has already happened in Victoria.

“I think ultimately there will be a single unitary system. The systems all overlap at the moment.”

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