by Joel Orenstein
Whilst at a recent event at the Law Institute a fellow practitioner introduced himself and we struck up a conversation. When I told him that I was now back practicing in the city after working in regional Victoria over the last 7 years, he began to reflect on the time he had spent practicing law in the bush some 20 years previous.
He noted with a sense of nostalgia how congenial, civil and generally good-natured practitioners were with each other in the country, even when on opposing sides of hotly contested matters. He further lamented how his experience in legal practice in the city was so rarely like this – that oftentimes interactions with other lawyers were replete with posturing, obstruction, rudeness and aggression. He wondered whether it was a city/country thing of whether it was just in his area of law that was like this.
I shared with him that this had also been my experience of legal practice since returning to the city – that the default mode when engaging with another practitioner seemed to be aggression and opposition, as opposed to shared experience and problem solving. I went on to explain that I felt there was a real sense of heaviness in city practice that simply was not present during my time in the country
After our interaction, I began to ask myself what is it about legal practice in the country that makes practitioners seem to treat each other so much better? Is it that in the city the game is played that much harder that there is no room for softness? Is it this same hardness that seems to lead to such poor mental health outcomes amongst the profession?
What makes country practice kinder and more gentle? After all, the law is the same in the city and the country, as are the prerequisites of practice. Apart from the specific details of legal matters, the casework is also largely the same. It appears to be practiced by human beings in both city and country. Yet it also appears one default approach is congeniality and the other is opposition and defiance.
Although my observations of country practice are purely anecdotal, and no doubt largely subjective, I wonder if my conclusions about how law is practiced in the bush are reflective of a culture of practice that leads to generally higher levels of contentment amongst practitioners there.
In terms of a successful and fulfilling legal career, the city has many attractions – but the culture of practice in the city is certainly not one of them. I’m not suggesting that we should all up and move to the country – but I do believe we can all do something to improve the way law is practiced here. We actually have a choice about how we treat each other and what type of environment we want to work in. That choice can be practiced in each and every interaction, be that with fellow practitioners, our kids, our neighbours, our husbands and wives, or those who serve us our morning coffee. We can also exercise that choice regardless of how we ourselves are treated. We can refuse to engage on a level of aggression and emotional reactivity no matter what the apparent provocation or justification.
Some may suggest that treating others with kindness is pie in the sky – that really what I’m advocating is that we all become pushovers and that the only way to meet aggression is with aggression. That there is a reason that we practice law like this in the city and that those that don’t like it just need to harden up. What this view fails to recognize is that we have been unsuccessfully attempting to deal with conflict through aggression since year dot.
The reality is that the country has a lot to teach the city, and not the other way around. Treating someone with dignity and respect, and in doing so acknowledging our shared humanity, is not a sign of weakness. It is quite the opposite. It demonstrates a level of emotional maturity and wisdom, which has real positive power for change. This not only makes us happier but extremely effective advocates.