Written by Emily Cook and Tania Tan
John Corker, CEO of the Australian Pro Bono Centre, has a line of career highlights including helping the Aboriginal people attain their first media license.
He shared about his contribution to them gaining their first radio station, including CAAMA radio and 8KIN radio, which were broadcasted in Aboriginal languages.
“…We built the CAAMA empire, which started with one public radio station and ended up with a television studio, commercial television license…all of which continued to today as media properties,” he said.
An experienced lawyer of over 30 years, John has been with the centre for nearly 14 years and is now an academic for Media and Communications Industry Regulation at UNSW.
He found that throughout his career, working for Aboriginal legal aid had “certainly changed my whole perspective on what it means to be Australian, what Australia is as a country, and what its future is as a country”.
“I think changing the law and takings things on appeal to the Supreme Court in the Northern Territory and seeing the common law develop is a very exciting thing to do,” John said.
“And then, you know, Australia’s first owned commercial television station – [it’s] incredibly exciting to be involved in that as the only lawyer on the team.”
Before joining the Pro Bono Centre, John experienced many aspects of the legal profession, including being on the General Counsel for the Australian Broadcasting Authority.
But he states working as the CEO at the Australian Pro Bono Centre “ticked a lot of my boxes.”
“I liked managing things in a strategic way with a small team, and essentially very interested in, broadly, a public interest and social justice lawyer, that’s certainly my background and my driving,” he said.
“I can bring the experience of working in private community and commercial settings and government settings to this job…it’s ideal because it looks across the whole profession and deals with lots of different situations and different types of lawyers and I’ve been in a lot of those situations.”
John is dedicated to the Centre’s mission to engage more of the legal industry in pro bono work and that includes expanding the pro bono movement internationally.
For the past six to seven years, John has been on the international organising committee at the Asian Pro Bono conference.
He said it reflected the pro bono culture and its promising future in the region.
“There is a fabric of organizations around the world and it’s consistent in many ways with the push by law firms becoming more globalized and therefore do more work in various parts of the world,” he said.
Behind all these developments, John said that there are still challenges that the pro bono movement has to overcome.
He said: “The broader challenge in a sense, is placing pro bono within an inherently commercial culture and for those that are leaders of that culture to recognize that as a vital value of the legal profession.”
Despite these challenges, the pro bono movement has moved forward, nationally and internationally, and so has John’s legal career over the years.
When involved in managing the cash-for-comment inquiry in the late 90s, he was part of experiencing one of the first uses of video splitting technology in an electronic courtroom.
“We had over 20 parties, each one needed their own screens so they could follow the documents,” he said.
“We hardly had any money, we were up all night trying to get the video splitting technology together so the hearing can go ahead.
“Certainly that part of my career, I found pretty interesting and stimulating.”
John remains passionate about his role in the Australian pro bono landscape, and is currently sharing his experiences and knowledge to his post-graduate students.
Teaching has allowed John to reflect on his own journey in the legal profession and use the lessons that he has learnt to help young, promising law students.
He said that he hopes to help his students find what they are passionate about, regardless of whether it may be in the legal industry or not.
“Law is very adaptable to many different lifestyles and I think the challenge for younger lawyers is to be true to themselves and follow a lifestyle and use the law to pursue that passion, that objective,” John said.
He has a clear definition of what is means to be a lawyer, believing the search for justice is the number one priority.
“One of the key values is all lawyers must contribute to that sense of access to justice, they must have it within them,” he said.
“It’s part of being a lawyer that we all contribute to make the system as good as it can be to deliver legal outcomes which are as just as possible.”
Although he understands justice can not always be obtained, John firmly believes in the rule of law “which seeks to provide justice, [and] seeks to provide remedies”.
His passion for what he does and what he can achieve drives John forward in his legal profession.
Besides bringing justice to as many cases as possible, he aims to change society’s perceptions of lawyers.
“…to continue what I do today is to sort of have the public see the legal profession not just as selfish, money sharks, which is the traditional image…[but rather] as people that do have a conscience, that do believe in justice and access to justice, and do believe in the legal system and also the importance of rule of law,” he said.
John was not explicitly taught how to move forward in his legal profession when he first started out.
Instead, it was one of his first cases in the late 70s that molded him to be the person and the lawyer he is today.
“I helped a woman who was facing forced sterilisation and had already lost a couple of kids,” he said.
“I suddenly realized as a young person that I could actually be useful to people and it was great sense of satisfaction associated with that.”