By Christine Yunn-Yu Sun
Those favouring John Grisham’s numerous legal thrillers and Michael Connolly’s “Lincoln Lawyer” series will find Alan Dudley Alpass’s Grass Roots: Adventures of a Suburb Lawyer both refreshing and endearing.
Lawyers are required by their profession to be good storytellers, but Alpass is a collector and conveyer of great stories of humanity, gleaned from nearly half a century of legal practice across Greater Melbourne. In his words:
“Everyone I know is aware that I love my work, and it really is still a great pleasure, after all these years, to immerse [myself] in people’s real-life problems, many of which the best fiction writers could never imagine.”
Initially, Alpass composed this engaging book to help families and friends better understand his demanding life as a legal practitioner. However, in this process the writing transcended, transforming the book from a mere documentation of life to a conscious and compassionate representation of “the diversity of personalities – their drives, reactions and responses – the array of human strengths and frailties” that makes life rich and rewarding.
Alpass started out as a 25-year-old newly qualified solicitor supporting his family with part- time bartending work in 1975. Gradually his practice grew, mirroring the evolution and revolution of the judicial and court systems in Victoria.
Without burdening readers with disorienting jargons and detailed descriptions of legal proceedings, the author vividly recalled some of the unconventional characters as well as bizarre, sad, and complex cases that he had encountered. Where personal and professional lives collided, he had also been provoked, arrested, sued, and threatened.
On one occasion, Alpass found “four bleached human skulls gaped at me, their empty eye sockets dark and surprised” while trying to catalogue the estate of a deceased client in Sassafras. On another occasion, he successfully arranged for the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court to convene at the bedside of a dying client in the Yarra Valley – the first for any court in Victoria.
On still another occasion, the author had to dig for a tin containing $30,000 in cash that was buried “one metre south of a maple tree” in a grand old garden in the outer east of Melbourne. That was rather pleasant, compared to being threatened with violence against his innocent children.
To this reviewer, the story of the “Building Society Bandit” is perhaps the most amusing, where Alpass had a brushing encounter with a bank robber who is known today as Gregory David Roberts, the author of Shantaram. But Grass Roots is ultimately about the human side of legal practice, where the sometimes humours, often harrowing stories of real people are respectfully reflected upon. The keyword here is
“respectfully”, as writers are duty-bound to strive for the same kind of professionalism and accountability as their counterparts in the legal field do.
As Alpass describes it, these true stories “serve as a reminder that we share the world with an unending parade of people whose lives are varied and whose need for a dependable legal system is central to society”. An excellent point.