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Inside stories: Worth the walk

Inside stories: Worth the walk

By Donald Betts

Interviews Legal Biography 

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The new president of the North American Australian Lawyers Alliance Donald Betts tells of his extraordinary journey from Kansas via US state politics to Norton Rose Fulbright in Melbourne. 

My parents were married in Kansas at 18 after my father enlisted in the United States Army. I was born two years later, my brother 22 months after me. I couldn’t imagine the difficulty of marriage at 22 with two children under the age of four. My mom finally decided to leave an abusive marriage. With a suitcase in one hand and my brother in the other, we were practically homeless. Stable accommodation was short lived and meant we transitioned to different schools each semester. There was no consistency, just survival.

Vegas village – Teenage years 

In 1988 my mother’s father, a Baptist minister, contacted her for the first time in 30 years. What was to be a two- week holiday in Las Vegas lasted nine years for me. Grandpa was the first real man in my life. His life was also one of triumph having escaped an attempted lynching in Louisiana in the 1930s. He was the first black man to run for mayor of Las Vegas, a street was even named after him, but the only regret in his 91 years of life was not earning a law degree.

Church attendance was compulsory to live in Grandpa’s house. My mom’s job required her to work most Sundays which prevented her from attending church, so my mother was asked to leave, and with Grandpa’s help, the three of us moved into Carey Arms apartments. It was close to his house, and affordable government subsidised housing. But everyone at Carey Arms carried a firearm. Gunshots rang out every night. It was hell. I missed Kansas terribly.

Over time I became immune to the violence, avoiding drive-by shootings became a way of life. My uncle wasn’t so lucky, he was caught in the crossfire while driving between rival gangs. Death was an everyday occurrence. Although life was a constant survival exercise, there was a community of senior citizens and other single parent families and friends that we had come to love as extended family.

I refused to be another statistic, so I focused on the positive. I spent my free time at the West Las Vegas library where I became involved in many activities and programs that kept me on the straight and narrow. Nevertheless, the programs and activities could not prevent me from being robbed at gunpoint when I returned home.

My freshman year of high school was met with metal detectors at the entrance, so when the assistant principal of the Advanced Technologies Academy (A-tech) presented a new opportunity, I applied and was accepted in the law program. 

The A-tech village was a turning point. Educators, friends and their parents changed the trajectory of my life. I could not imagine life without them. At 16, I worked in the casinos after school until 12am. I would study during my breaks and on the city bus. School started each morning at 7.10am. My principal, Michael Kinnaird, was concerned about my tardiness, and requested a meeting with my mother and me. He was shocked to discover why my eyes were red and why I was occasionally late. He later recanted that that meeting changed his life, and he changed mine.

After graduating from A-Tech, I moved back to Kansas to study at Friends University.

Kansas village – Young adult years

My dad asked to join me at freshman orientation. He had missed so much of my life and was oblivious to my mother’s struggle, but for some reason, there was no resentment. The many nights I dreamed of him taking me to school had finally come to pass. I was proud to have my dad right next to me. For the first time my soul felt restored, I was safe. That was one of the greatest days of my life.

At Friends University I majored in political science and history under the guidance of CG Chacko and Dr Gretchen Eick. I was quite involved in university life. I even joined Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. In addition to student loans, I was able to attract scholarships for football, the symphony orchestra, jazz band and the choir. During my first serious campaign the student body elected me to serve as president (the first African-American in the university’s 100 year history). 

Prior to graduating from Friends University I’d applied to study at Washburn law school. I was not accepted. After graduation, I applied again and was not accepted. I felt defeated, but failure was not an option. I walked into Democratic headquarters where I was greeted by the executive director. I told him of my desire to serve in political office, and was willing to challenge any office open. 

North American Australian Lawyers Alliance president Donald Betts running for state representativeTwo days later state representative Jonathan Wells resigned which left an open seat. I filed by petition, secured the 1200 signatures required and hit the ground running. My grassroots campaign started in my grandmother’s living room. We strategised every night with Judge Mathis playing on the television in the background. Together our small campaign team captured 47 per cent of the vote in a three way primary to become one of the youngest state representatives in the United States.

During the first year of a two-year term as state representative, I was nominated by Representative Rocky Nichols to study the Australian federal and state parliamentary system on a political exchange program with American Council of Young Political Leaders. It was on that trip that I met and would later marry Tania. 

Senator UL “Rip” Gooch announced his retirement and left one year unexpired in his term. Former representative Jonathan Wells insisted that I challenge the senator’s nominee. In a highly contested special election, I captured the seat by one vote. The headlines read “Youngest Senator replaces the eldest”. I still would have resigned at the chance to study law. A letter of recommendation from Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice McFarland was included in my third and final application to Washburn, and yet, I was denied. 

In 2008, I challenged a 14 year incumbent for a seat in the United States Congress, but was defeated. My wife and I agreed, had I lost, we would move to Melbourne and start over. 

Australian village

The multiple visits to Australia made the transition seamless. After several years, I applied to Monash Law School. Finally, I was accepted to study, but new challenges emerged. I was a father of two young children, running the family business with my wife, and raising our teenage nephew. I could complain, or venture boldly, together we chose the latter.

My first law lecturer was Justice Martine Marich followed by all of the remarkable lecturers at Monash Law Chambers. William Lye OAM QC never let loose his grip on my legal journey, and often reminded me that it takes grit to make it in the law. Justice Marich read in my admission on the papers over Zoom due to COVID restrictions.

Today, I’m a commercial disputes lawyer at Norton Rose Fulbright under the supervision of partner and head of office Peter Cash. He introduced me to Bevan Mailman, managing principal at Jaramer Legal, and together they have been champions in the acceleration of my legal practice. In 2018 at the encouragement of William Lye QC, Paul Cenoz and I co-founded the North American Australian Lawyers Alliance (NAALA) of which I currently serve as president. Giants in the law like Associate Justice Rodney Randall of the Supreme Court have been a saving grace during my legal journey.

After looking back over my life I am most appreciative of the villages I’ve encountered in every segment of society. No matter the colour, creed or financial background, I could always depend on the village to light my path. There’s a certain character about the Australian legal village that lets me know that my journey is worth the walk. ■


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