Walking on Water: A Life in the Law

Recommendation: Yes, for the legally inclined of us

Where to read: Somewhere you’re happy to look like a bit of a wanker

Read with: Tea, I guess although I did hear his chambers described as a “Dickensian nightmare”, do with that what you will…

In brief: This is memoir-lite – slender, easy to get through, interesting and insufficiently detailed for my taste.


From Penguin:

Chester Porter’s life in the law began in 1948, when at the age of 21 he was the youngest lawyer to be admitted to the Bar. He took silk in 1974 and quickly became known as Sydney’s best defence lawyer, shunning the courtroom theatricals favoured by many of his rivals.’Young Chester’ was the man others would go to if they were in strife.

Chester’s most famous cases included successfully defending the ‘once only’s’ such as Detective Sgt Roger Rogerson on bribery charges, and Judge John Foord who was accused of attempting to pervert the course of justice. He was counsel assisting the Northern Territory Commissions of Inquiry into the convictions of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain. After clocking up scores of legendary victories, some of Macquarie Street’s more larrikin lawyers produced a limited edition t-shirt with ‘Chester Porter Walks on Water’- a slogan that sums up an illustrious career that spanned more than 50 years.

To be honest, this reads like he picked up a tape recorder and started telling stories. The result is that each chapter is fairly self-contained and the book reads like a collection of anecdotes rather than a cohesive narrative. In fairness, it is very effective at reeling you in and keeping you engaged. One is, however, left wishing it was further developed in places – if you’re the kind of person who is going to pick this up, you’ll probably be the kind of person who’d really enjoy an in-depth discussion about the Chamberlain Royal Commission, for instance.

The other advantage of this approach is that it focuses the attention on the overarching sweep of his practice rather than his personal or inner life. This is not the place to go for salacious gossip, Bar scandals or anything in the way of details.

He does offer some reflections on law reform, about prisons and sentencing for one-off offenders for instance, but if that’s what you’re looking for, Burnside or Crispin are probably a better choice. My point is that it’s an easy, fairly non-confrontational read.

If this is the kind of thing that tickles you, his recollections from the NSW Bar oral history project are here.

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