The first of two extracts from new book “The Powerbroker” explores the Jewish roots one of Australia’s most influential law firms and its senior partner, Mark Leibler.
Arnold Bloch Leibler is spread across three floors of the grand old Commercial Bank building at 333 Collins Street in central Melbourne. The white walls of the firm’s reception area on the 21st floor are hung with large paintings – the sort of business art that some artists specialise in, big bold paintings that are essentially decorative and speak of success and power.
To one side of the reception is senior partner Mark Leibler’s big corner office and three boardrooms. One is named after the firm’s founder, Arnold Bloch, one for Ron Castan, the barrister who led the legal team in the Mabo case, and one for the former governor-general, Sir Zelman Cowen. Sliding walls enable the rooms to be opened into one large area to host lunches for up to 200 people.
Long before you arrive on the 21st floor, walking through the foyer of the building, through the arched entrance with its marble columns on either side, gives you a sense of how ABL has changed in positioning and confidence over the years. The change reflects how its old clients, most of them Jewish and many of them Holocaust survivors, have gradually become more comfortable and recognised in business in the 60 to 70 years since they arrived in Australia.
A short walk up Collins Street is the Melbourne Club, where much of the business establishment and its lawyers gather and where Jews were not welcome until recently. Even now it is not clear whether Jews can join, as any prospective member can be anonymously blackballed, with no reason given.
Is ABL still a Jewish firm? Is there still a convergence of interests between Leibler’s leadership of the Jewish community and the wealthy Jews who were ABL’s base? Behind these questions are larger ones.