Geelong law firm Harwood Andrews celebrated its 175th birthday in October 2017, making it nine years older than the state of Victoria, and 17 years older than the Geelong Football Club. And, like the famed Cats, Harwood Andrews can lay claim to being significantly woven into Geelong’s social fabric, in fact even more so than the club that formed at the Victoria Hotel in 1859.
Geelong’s oldest law firm, Harwood Andrews now has a staff of 155 and can trace its links back to the city’s first solicitor, Henry Tyssen. He literally hung out his shingle when Geelong consisted of 450 people, 42 houses and plenty of tents. Sir Charles Sladen, a major public figure of his day and briefly Premier of Victoria, administered Tyssen’s estate after Tyssen died in 1842. That marks the birth of the firm that would become Harwood Pincott in the late 1800s, and then Harwood Andrews when it merged with Andrews Backhouse in 1992.
Locals and visitors to Geelong with an eye for history will know that the bluestone Sladen House, built for Charles Sladen in 1849 and situated at the river end of Pakington Street, Newtown, is one of the city’s major landmarks. But its presence is only one of the more obvious ways in which lawyers associated with Harwood Andrews have helped make Geelong the city it is today.
In the early part of the 19th century, farmers, especially squatters, were Geelong’s main business people. Harwood Andrews’ forebears acted for Victorian squatters who were major players in developing Australia’s then thriving wool industry. As squatters sold their wool on consignment nationally and internationally, Harwood Andrews was there helping them through the legal issues associated with a new and burgeoning industry.
Through decades of its incarnations, Harwood Andrews has invested itself deeply in building Geelong’s commercial, social and charitable interests in a way that is unique amongst Australian law firms. Since 1842 Harwood Andrews has acted for or helped support the development of almost every major Geelong institution.
As well as acting for a large range of businesses, the firm has through its history acted for the Geelong Harbour Trust and Geelong Water Board, as well as the Geelong Council from its earliest days. It drew up and executed wills for many of Geelong’s major founding families, and Harwood Andrews solicitors were heavily involved in helping establish the Anglican Church in Geelong. A number of solicitors were also board members at Geelong Grammar, while others helped, financially and administratively, to support the development of Geelong Hospital, Geelong Football Club, Geelong Yacht Club, Barwon Rowing Club, and Geelong Theatre Company.
Harwood Andrews solicitors have also been involved in establishing and merging charities that have served Geelong – and Australia – with distinction for decades. John Backhouse and Vautin Andrews were involved when Brotherhood of St Laurence began operations in Geelong in 1952. The recently formed Karingal St Laurence (KSL) is now one of Australia’s largest charities. One of Harwood Andrews’ principals, Rod Payne, served for 17 years on the former Karingal board, and is currently Deputy Chair of KSL.
The firm also helped support the development of Baxter Homes charity, which aimed to provide emergency relief to the poor, particularly women, as well as housing for elderly single women. Harwood Andrews continues today its involvement with charities and community organisations, currently partnering with KSL, the Give Where You Live Foundation, and Runway Geelong Start Up program among many others.
While it’s true contemporary clients prefer their lawyers with steady hands and calm personalities, 175 years of history has seen some interesting characters pass through the ranks of Harwood Andrews. Back in the days of the firm’s Harwood Pincott incarnation, partner Henry ‘Percy’ Douglass, a Geelong footballer from the 1880s, was one of the owners of the Geelong Advertiser. Harwood and Pincott acted for the newspaper and, in an attempt to keep his interests separate, Percy could be found in his office writing legal letters from the firm to the Geelong Advertiser.
Sir Charles Sladen was known for his combative nature, which he carried beyond the legal profession to stoushes with the Presbyterian Church and, in his role as a politician, blocking legislation and causing the resignation of a State Premier. Eustace Wilson, a partner from 1948 to 1977, was a state Square Dancing Championships competitor and sailed the Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race. Other colourful characters were former mayors and sporting identities; some were involved in shipwrecks and strange disappearances to Fiji; others enjoyed long nights reciting entire Shakespeare plays aloud and arguing about poetry; a few made flights to the goldfields to make their fortunes, while others fell to poverty and still others rose to knighthoods.
No matter how history judges these characters, one thing is certain: they were deeply involved in the fabric of Geelong’s community life. Today Harwood Andrews still makes a strong point of encouraging its entire staff to make significant contributions to their community, and especially to become members and supporters of not-for-profit charities.
Communities, of course, go through their times of prosperity and hardship. One of the biggest hits the Geelong community has taken in its history came in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Pyramid Building Society. Thousands lost life savings, houses and employment as the flow-on effects from the financial institution’s downfall reverberated through the city and the rest of Victoria.
In the early ‘90s, Harwood Pincott and Andrews Backhouse were still separate firms and they both experienced hardship as a result of Pyramid’s and the community’s misfortunes. Andrews Backhouse were the lawyers who acted for Pyramid, and insiders note it is a credit to how ethically the firm worked with the building society that it faced no legal repercussions during or after Pyramid’s collapse.
But it did, of course, lose a significant amount of its business; with 100 employees, Andrews Backhouse was then the largest law firm in regional Victoria and suddenly it could no longer support its staffing levels. The entire legal profession thought the firm’s days were numbered. At the same time, Harwood Pincott was enduring the downturn in business that the rest of Geelong – and Victoria – was suffering as a result of so many enterprises losing their major source of finance.
As so often happens with events that change an enterprise, the merger that created Harwood Andrews in 1992 came down to a quirk of fate, in this case a well-timed cup of coffee. A chance meeting between an Andrews Backhouse partner and a Harwood and Pincott partner led both firms to realise they could improve their situations dramatically if they united, and Harwood Andrews was born.
It is said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and that adage firmly applies to Harwood Andrews. Birthed in a time of economic woe, it has become a powerful entity that serves and supports the Geelong community, proudly offering a capital city legal experience from a regional base.
Key to Harwood Andrews’ ongoing success was its decision soon after the merger to embrace the then new reality of specialisation. Before the early 1990s, firms were not allowed to claim specialisation in any area of law. But a Law Institute of Victoria ruling changed that and, if firms passed a stringent set of tests and accreditations, they were permitted to note their lawyers as specialists.
Harwood Andrews once had more accredited specialists in more disciplines than any firm in the state. It maintains a high level of specialisation, including in tax law, where it brings its expertise to the public realm by publishing the industry go-to book Trust Structures Guide Australia annually.
The firm’s expertise, size and experience adds up to a simple equation for Geelong businesses and community members; they don’t have to travel to Melbourne to get the highest quality legal service. In fact, through its history, Harwood Andrews has expanded into other regional areas, including, Ballarat and Albury. And it has since 1994 run a Melbourne office, that is now called Sladen Legal in homage to Sir Charles Sladen’s role in building the firm in the mid-1800s.
Harwood Andrews is not a firm resting on its considerable laurels. It knows that being the oldest and largest firm in Geelong is not enough to ensure its future will be as strong as its past. Attuned to the benefits new technologies are bringing to the legal profession and fully up-to-date with 21st century legal complexities, Harwood Andrews will always rely on its time-honoured strengths: a commitment to personalised service and deep involvement in the Geelong community.
An interactive timeline of Harwood Andrews and its history can be viewed here:
175 years timeline