ONE suspects Bill Madden’s nondescript tie, with its diagonal stripes in various greys and blues, was a practical choice, made on the basis that it would team nicely with most other outfits in his wardrobe.
His grey pants, pleated at the front, have ample room in the back. His blue shirt pulls slightly over his middle and his rumpled sleeves have had a busy morning of being rolled up and down.
There is nothing slick, showy or self-important about Madden, 49. If you bumped into him on the street, you’d never pick him as one of the country’s leading plaintiff lawyers.
Slater & Gordon is the largest plaintiff law firm in the country and he’s responsible for the firm’s professional negligence work. His opinions of doctors and the health system have been coloured by more than 20 years of hearing angry stories about patient suffering and injustice, yet his views on health care are almost as straight and sensible as his tie.
Working as a plaintiff lawyer has made him realise that, as a patient, “it’s often wise to pay attention”.
“I don’t think you can abdicate responsibility when you go into the health system,” he says.
He doesn’t dislike doctors. And if that’s a little difficult to digest, consider that he sometimes helps angry clients see doctors in a different light.
“There are some cases where the activity of the doctor has been appalling,” he says. “But what you usually find is that there’s been a mistake and there’s probably no great medical culpability. Sometimes it helps people to know that it’s human frailty involved, not that they’ve been singled out for some kind of arrogant behaviour.
“Just because something goes wrong, it’s not necessarily the result of negligence or failure of the hospital system.”
Inner-Sydney GP Dr Brian Churnin has clearly enjoyed being Madden’s doctor for more than 20 years.
“He’s not a doctor-basher,” Dr Churnin says. “He’s a very normal person doing a job, just as I’m doing a job. I find him a very-easy-to-get-along-with gentleman, who listens to advice and has the utmost respect for the medical profession.”
The former Chief Justice of NSW, Sir Laurence Street, agrees. As a mediator, he has worked closely with Madden for about a decade and says he lawyer’s calm and reasoned style serves him well.
“The flamboyant lawyer may be good on television, but in the real world of lawyers, they don’t cut much ice,” he says. “He’s trusted and respected by his colleagues – including those on the other side.”
Clutching tissues and shaking with grief, two traumatised parents sit in Madden’s Parramatta office, reliving the death of their baby at a major Sydney hospital. There is plenty of opportunity for Madden to reinforce the evils of the hospital system or the shortcomings of young doctors. He doesn’t.
The mother is disturbed the staff seemed so casual when their baby was so ill. Madden gently suggests this approach could be preferable to panic. She’s had letters of explanation and apology from the hospital, but still doesn’t understand how things could have gone so wrong. Madden reassures her the hospital is one of Sydney’s best and has a reputation for openness.
Along the way, he’s encouraged the couple to work out what they would like to achieve if they opt for legal action. The case would be likely to offer some money and maybe more answers, but gently woven through his explanation is a reminder that it won’t wind the clock back.
The parents leave the meeting upset by the memories they’ve relived but, it seems, no more disillusioned with the hospital system than when they went in.
Madden is the kind of legal big wig who makes his own cup of tea. As he strolls towards the tearoom, he reflects on the meeting.
“Every now and then you find cases that are more upsetting than others, especially when other children were involved and if the children are the same age as your own,” he says. “It’s always very distressing, but it’s unhelpful for me to get emotional in these situations. My role is to find a way to navigate the legal system for them.”
Madden spends most of his time talking to distressed people and medical experts, usually with the aim of trying to answer one basic question. If the problem had been recognised and treated earlier, or if the treatment had been different, what difference would that have made to the patient’s health outcome>
“I try and find [a medical expert] who is competent and skilled in the area. There has always been this debate as to whether court experts are a hired gun,” he says. “That’s very unhelpful for me. It doesn’t help me predict the outcome of a case. I want someone who is going to give me a nice, conservative, well-balanced opinion.”
The firm receives about 250 inquiries each month and Madden reviews a two-page summary of each to determine which cases warrant further investigation.
“At any one time there are 80-100 matters under investigation here,” he says.
He needs to do a quick calculation of some pretty large figures when deciding whether or not to pursue a case.
“Some doctors have a sense that lawyers will take on any case, regardless of whether they will win or lose. I can assure you that is not the case,” he says.
“I have a budget in terms of how much I have to produce for the firm, a budget for medical reports and staff I can employ. At the end of the day all of those numbers have to add up to make sure its financially viable.”
If Slater & Gordon loses a case the firm doesn’t get paid; not for lawyers’ time or money invested in medical reports. But Madden also has a responsibility to protect his clients from unwise decisions, since losing could mean having to pay the other side’s legal costs.
“It’s the risk to them [the client] that’s the problem, not to us,” he says.
“[Sometimes] people are forced to compromise because they can’t run that risk.”
These days, most cases settle before they get to court, which is why Madden doesn’t have a list of high-profile medical cases that he’s lost or won.
“It’s rare to run a case to trial these days,” he says. “That’s not to say they don’t get close.”
He strolls back to his office, which has views through sheer black blinds to the barred windows of a carpark across the lane, and reaches into a tiny bar fridge beside his desk. As he grabs a can of coke, he sheepishly confesses the fridge is dedicated to that particular beverage.
“You’ll see that it is Coke Zero,” he smiles. “Otherwise I’d get into all sorts of trouble.”
His voice is matter-of-fact and without colour when he speaks to clients over the phone. It’s a style that seems to enhance his ability to sensitively glean the facts from people who are emotional and have long stories about how they’ve been wronged.
“Obviously all that would have been devastating for you, and no doubt still is, but I need to be able to demonstrate that there would have been a different outcome if something had been done sooner,” he says to one.
He gently steers another back on track. “So, before we get into that level of detail, I’m just trying to get my head around…”
He started work at 7am and his voice is starting to crackle as he calls another client. Hand clenched around his Coke, he takes a sip through the straw.
Discussing he potential outcomes of the case, the client says: “It’s never been about the money.”
“Unfortunately that is the only thing I can do, and in the process get some questions answered,” Madden says.
He takes a break from the phone to explain the importance of clients having realistic expectations.
“The term that gets used in the profession is ‘expectation management’,” he says. “Similarly to the medical profession, I need to ensure people understand what the broad range of outcomes might be. If I’ve done my job well enough, by the concluding phase they’ve been able to understand what is and is not realistic.”
Listening in on Madden’s conversations it’s clear he has extensive clinical knowledge – a point not lost on his GP. D Churnin says he doesn’t treat the plaintiff lawyer any differently from his other patients, except that at times it’s like treating a medical specialist.
“It’s almost like talking to a doctor and probably on some topics he knows more than me,” Dr Churnin says. “I think he knows a lot about the topics because he researches very thoroughly and has a very retentive mind. I certainly wouldn’t like to have him on my tail.”
It’s probably small consolation for those who do find Madden in pursuit, but Dr Churnin thinks the plaintiff lawyer’s expectations are reasonable.
“He has a very good understanding of what a normal doctor should do, not what God should do,” he says.
A MAN FOR JAPAN
We settle on a quick bite of sushi for lunch and Madden looks amused as he ponders how this trivial decision might look in print.
It’s the second day in a row we’ve had Japanese and it’s been noted several times that Madden’s interests outside work seem very consistent; anything to do with Japan.
“It will give you scope to portray me as entirely one-dimensional,” he chuckles as we head for a table.
Madden has been to Japan three times, but no other country, to date.
“Japan is a terrific place to go with kids and it’s like visiting the past and the future at the same time,” he says.
He has created a Japanese garden in his backyard at home and there are three photos on his office wall, each taken in Japan. One small shelf in his wall of textbooks and folders holds a collection of Japanese trinkets.
“Once you have these up,” says Madden, gesturing at the photos, “people give you Japanese things.”
Madden says Japan and photography are the two obsessions in his life, aside from his 14-year-old son, Ben.
“Everyone is obsessed with their children, of course.”
But there is one other dust collector in the bookshelf that varies from the theme. It’s a silver model of a VW Beetle, complete with sun roof – a miniature version of Madden’s first car. He spent many hours restoring the grey 1962 Beetle, hand stitching old seats, rubbing back paintwork and searching for a radio that operated on six volts (his father found one in Papua New Guinea in the end).
He remembers the car fondly, even with its limitations.
“If you opened the sun roof, it slowed the vehicle to half its speed,” he says.