It would not come to the surprise of most that the higgidy-jarble of a lawyer’s yarble can be confusing and unkind. This is perhaps best known by the people caught in the midst of litigation; the people whose livelihood depends on a man or woman in a funny grey wig saying words and using phrases designed to confound. Yet any opportunity to work with our profession’s most skilled operators is an opportunity well taken. For me, this was barrister Andrew Collett AM as part of the Aurora Internship Program. Andrew is a highly regarded and Order of Australia awarded barrister practicing in matters ranging from personal injury and workers compensation to criminal and administrative issues. He is also one of our country’s great native title lawyers, recognised, amongst other things, for his successful suit against the British government after the Maralinga nuclear tests between 1956 and 1963. Although I had known Andrew prior to my 4 week placement, the opportunity to watch him work and, in my own small capacity, assist him in a busy period of trials was an entirely new experience and undoubtedly the highlight of my tenure as a law student. What follows is an attempt to flesh out some of what I learnt in this period.
Life as a barrister provides a combination of nuanced complexity in questions of law, some fascinating characters and a fast paced, relentless work ethic to pull it all together. At times I would be working on 4 or 5 matters each day, jumping from one brief to the next like a frantic child on Christmas morning. What I didn’t expect was that opening a crisp new brief could provide the same enjoyment as unwrapping FIFA 16 at Christmas. This is because doing so opens you up to the intimately heart-wrenching, hilarious and sometimes utterly obscure lives of real people. You learn of the struggles of a widow whose husband was killed in the backseat of a car and go into bat against the insurance company attempting to deny culpability on the basis that he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. You engage with plight of the parents whose foster children were taken for unsubstantiated claims of child abuse and wonder why, even though the question is how. You scour over the scrawled notes of a psychiatrist to find chinks in the armor that is the opposition defence. You sit and wonder how your own life would look condensed into four or five hundred pages of interviews, reports and statements.
The pursuit of justice is an ugly thing because one’s vulnerabilities are displayed for all to see. Certainly it is a strange feeling walking into a meeting knowing things about a client who doesn’t even know your name. This is especially so when the material is inherently private and subject to contention. This point is one of the obvious distinctions between life as a law student and life as a lawyer. As a student the facts are never in question. Of course it wouldn’t do to have students attend a torts examination in which the question is whether A caused injury to B at work, however A asserts the impossibility of this because A was enjoying a steak dinner at home at the time of the alleged incident. I suspect this would not be a very compelling exam question as one would first have to determine whether, in fact, A was enjoying a steak dinner or at work causing industrial chaos. If this were at trial, however, determining the exact location of A is critical to the outcome of the case. While this is a very simple construction it’s true that the facts relating to where someone was at a particular time, what they said at a particular point or whether they are actually injured to the requisite sufficiency are facts that aren’t always clear before trial. In these instances the outcome often comes down to the credibility of a witness, how persuasive counsel is, or even how sympathetic a particular judge is to a particular cause. All these issues are thrown in the melting pot from which, hopefully, one can serve up a cup of steaming hot justice.
The great joy of working as a barrister is also part of what makes it a daunting task. You are the last line of defence. The outcome of the case, the result of hundreds of man-hours, countless meetings, research and discussion is concentrated on you in a final crescendo. The financial burden for your client can be crippling if you fail. The capacity for your client to support their family if you win, an unrivalled catharsis. The joy is in transcending pressure and getting the outcome intended to ensure your client can return to their lives happy. Ultimately, this is the true result of winning, however the process of litigation rarely leaves participants free from harm.
This experience has taught me a lot. First, a detailed chronology is the essential backbone for running a good case. Secondly, the art of good cross-examination manifests in one who is patient, cunning, charming and experienced. Thirdly, good relationships with other practitioners can make your life much easier and finally and perhaps most importantly, a career at the bar is no walk in the park, but representing those who need it most at the time it matters can provide an unparalleled sense of peace in a world constantly at odds.
I would like to thank the team at The Aurora Project for providing me with such a unique opportunity and I encourage students and graduates to apply for the Aurora Internship in the future.
More information on the Aurora Internship Program can be found on the Aurora website at: http://www.auroraproject.com.au/aboutapplyinginternship Applications for the summer 2016/17 round will be open on-line from 1 August through 26 August.