It is 1:15 pm and I receive a text from him: “Sorry, won’t be long. Judge still on bench… can you order me strong mac, no sugar and an almond biscotti”. He is in the Downing Centre, once known as Mark Foy’s department store, Sydney’s own version of the illustrious Bloomingdale’s in New York.
His clients, and there have been many, have never been far from front page news. Despite his reputation, described by those who know him professionally as a “smooth and compelling advocate with sartorial flare” and an “uncanny gift for mimicry”, I am half expecting to meet a stereotypical defence lawyer with a bad suit and a personality to match.
He is just over ten minutes late when he walks in, briskly, but composed. I acknowledge the notebook with so many coffee stains that it looks like a strange copper-painted version of the Olympic rings. Under his left arm, his evidence brief is stuffed to the brim, loaded with multi-coloured fluorescent post-it notes, and in his right hand is his iPhone, impressively shock-absorbing, and pressed hard to his ear, mid-conversation.
It is a wet Wednesday afternoon and Omar Juweinat (‘the Jury Rat as he is affectionately known) is appearing for what he calls “Australia’s very own American Psycho mixed with that guy from Wolf Creek.”
He explains that his client is charged with a series of vicious attacks on a woman that he allegedly held captive. To most people, just a few of the grisly facts that he recounts in the following minutes would cause even the toughest of people to grimace, although to those select few working at his level in the legal profession, it’s just another day at the office.
He explains that he prefers not be portrayed as ‘a rags to riches’ success story, but rather as he is to those closest to him, a hardworking professional and a passionate family man who spends his weekend tending to his considerable garden.
Three jokes and 15 minutes into our meeting, it’s clear that Omar has the temperament and ‘gift of the gab’ to justify being considered one of Australia’s most sought-after defence lawyers, a job he describes as being “no different from anyone with a trade or skill, the only distinction is a lawyer is required to make stories out of the facts gathered during the course of a trial. Some are good, some are bad but most of them are plainly sad.”
Omar is not the only one of the Juweinat siblings to claim such an admirable professional success story. His eldest sister, Abeer, is in Chinese Medicine and brothers, Peter and Mark own a chain of dental clinics across Sydney. This is the type of sibling success that would make even the most assimilated of immigrant parents burst with familial pride.
Omar Juweinat is the middle child and son of Jordanian immigrants who like many families fled to Australia when things got too hot in the Middle East. Although Omar was born and raised in Sydney, he retains his personality and demeanour retains nostalgic poetry of the Middle East. In looks, he resembles the actor, Stanley Tucci, and those who work with him often joke that if he grew tired of the court room, he could make a handsome living as his double.
I mention in passing that he could be described as Australia’s very own Lincoln Lawyer (without the Lincoln) as his job sees him traveling across the country in service of his clients. It is a reference that elicits a hearty laugh, although not, I note, a denial.
In my brief conversations with other peers and professional acquaintances, almost all of them point out that he is well-liked by the judges and magistrates before whom he appears. In fact, the word ‘likeable’ comes to mind and continues throughout the course of our interview. You can clearly see that when he talks about his clients, he does so with respect and genuine empathy. To Omar the lawyer, no one client commands more attention than another.
From millionaires to the homeless, he states with emphasis: “each of them demands and gets the full attention they deserve in what is often relentless circumstances. That is my job and I particularly enjoy the longer drawn-out trials where the devil is in the detail and the relationship to my client is complex…”
I ask, somewhat casually, whether he considers himself an optimist. A state of mind that I have observed is rare in those faced with the often-crushing emotional extremes of the legal process. “I don’t think we need to necessarily feel hopeful in order to act.
If there is no action, then there is no hope, and a lawyer plays an integral role to maintaining that hope. Organisations such as the Aboriginal Legal Service and Legal Aid produce some of this country’s finest lawyers and it is the mere existence of those services that provides that much needed hope to those often denied a voice…”
With that said, a quick glance at his watch confirms that he has five short minutes to be back into court. He thanks me for my time and rushes off, back to as he calls it, ‘the belly of the beast’.
With my afternoon open, I decide to pry into his world to observe him at work. His entrance into court is greeted by what I can only assume to be the families who have a vested interest in the proceeding case.
In our interview, Omar would quip “crime is a family business, not because the families are necessarily involved with crime, but rather if a son, brother or uncle faces the court, it is a family’s duty to support them, and it is them that often bares the full brunt of the harsh reality of the court …’’.
The Judge walks into court and after the formalities are over, Omar goes to work, juggling what he has to say as if it were his Sunday prayers. Despite some push-back from a bullish prosecutor, he asks for a short indulgence, whispering in the prosecutor’s ears. He quickly and deftly re-commences his case for his client’s bail. His courtroom elegance is a careful and measured combination of both toughness and tenderness. The judge reserves his decision.
After the proceedings are over, I sneak out before Omar can see me and observe the lawyers shuffling out of the Downing Centre, resembling war veterans who have barely survived a day’s battle. A quick Google search confirms that second only to dentists, lawyers have the highest suicide rates of all professions. The Juweinat brothers have all chosen brave professions.
As was pointed out to me by one of his peers, part of the secret to Juweinat’s professional success is his uncanny and enviable ability to hold the most complex and distinct facts of each case in his head without needing to glance at his papers.
I witnessed this myself days later when reading the second page of the Herald where it was reported that the judge had granted bail to the “American Psycho” referred to in our brief meeting. Amongst a thousand other stories of violence and despair that fills the pages, it stands apart, eliciting a slight smile. Rare is the day that brings good news.