What Law School Taught Me About Death

by Arna Delle-Vergini

I remember this like it was yesterday. It was the first year of law school and we were studying Chapman v Hearse[1], one of the seminal cases on contributory negligence. You probably recall it – the one where poor Dr Cherry gets run down on the motorway. Cherry stopped to render assistance to Chapman who, having struck another vehicle and created an accident, was lying unconscious on the road. Moments later he (Cherry) was dead.

My first response to this case was to feel the awfulness of it all – what are the odds a doctor is going to be leaving the golf course at the exact time that Chapman is struck, and that the same doctor would come across the unconscious body, thrown from the car, and that he would then choose to render assistance despite the conditions being dark and dismal, and at the exact same time that he is rendering that assistance, have another vehicle come and kill him? It’s positively Shakespearean! I imagined his wife too – receiving the call notifying her of his death and I thought of his children who would never see their father again. I even considered the long-term psychological, economic and social consequences of the accident on his family. In short, I got it all completely wrong.

I discovered this quickly when we proceeded to discuss the legal principles of the case. It was a wonderful, intellectually invigorating discussion that felt somehow…’neater’. Suddenly, death receded into the background. Death had been cleaned of all its gristle.

I suddenly realised that Law had a lot more to offer me than I had previously thought. Law was offering me an out – an escape from the messiness of life and death; a comforting blanket of legal reasoning that I could literally throw over everything. The cold blooded murder in Euripides’ Medea that chilled me to the bone in high school became a common tale of manslaughter. And whichever way you looked at it, no legal liability whatsoever could attach to Hamlet for Ophelia’s trip down the river.

This was exceptionally expedient. I could be surrounded by death and despair but not be touched by it in any way. In this way Law acted like a kind of drug: if I wanted to stop feeling unpleasant feelings all I had to do was inject a bit of legal realism into the situation and I was completely protected. It took my whole degree but eventually I learnt how to apply this to my personal life as well – no doubt, to the dismay of the people who knew me well. By the time I graduated I felt that I was largely immune from life itself – even my own. Especially my own. I was ready. Ready to practice Law. So long as I was in that highly elite, overly protected tertiary castle in the air, I was able to persist in the illusion that despair was irrelevant and death was ‘a side-issue’. I was able to see myself as someone who existed outside the action that was going on around me, separated from it – cocooned, somewhat comatose. But then, of course, I graduated from Law School, started to practice as a lawyer and the inevitable happened: people started dying – for real.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear – it really was very inconvenient.

Not only were people dying but there were grieving relatives, orphaned children, mistresses coming out of the woodwork wanting recognition – the cast was endless. I held on to my legal principles for dear life and this worked reasonably well for a time. I was slightly shaken when a couple of my own clients died. But it was not until a situation occurred where it was pretty clear that had it not been for me, the client would still be alive today – that I gave death any serious thought.

It happened innocently enough. I had spent the day negotiating a large consolidation of matters on behalf of a client who had ‘arrived with his toothbrush’- meaning that he had come to court in the knowledge that he was going to prison that day. The negotiations took a lot longer than expected and by the afternoon the client had lost his nerve. While we were waiting for our matter to be called he told me about his one sadness – he would miss his brother’s eighteenth birthday. Then he turned to me and asked if there was any chance that I could adjourn the proceedings for him and plead him up the following week.

Now it’s not entirely unusual for clients to resolve on matters at court and then adjourn their plea for a time so that they might ‘get their affairs in order’. What was unusual about this case was that the client had arrived in the morning fully prepared to go to jail. Something had changed throughout the day. But that was not really for me to explore. My job was to act on my instructions so, even though I was doubtful (wasn’t he just putting off the inevitable?) – I sought an adjournment and it was granted.

And this is how it came to be that my client managed to attend his brother’s 18th birthday. He also died that same night, having taken a massive drug overdose. He was found a few houses away from the party – his body wedged awkwardly between two trash cans. Throughout his life – particularly in his teenage years – he had felt keenly as if he were ‘trash’. The irony was not lost on me.

His mother called. She said ‘well, at least he got his last wish‘. I thought: who cares? He’d be alive today if he had gone to jail. But I knew it was me who was missing the point. I sensed – though she did not say – that there was relief that the dreaded call she had been waiting on for years had finally arrived and now she could finally grieve the son who had been already lost to her through long-term addiction to drugs.

As it turns out, the ‘call’ that I had been waiting for came at the same time. It was if I had ‘woken up’ as a legal practitioner. For the first time since my university experience I realised how real this all was. It wasn’t academic. There was nothing academic about it!

Embarrassment prevents me from dating this story but suffice it to say that the training I had in law school took a long, long time to wear off. What did law school teach me about death? Regrettably little. What will legal practice teach you about life, death, the universe and everything? The answer to that will depend entirely on you. My advice to you though is to opt to learn as much as you can. Don’t shield yourself from the rich experience it will afford you. Legal Practice is not like law school. It is not a rehearsal. It is not academic. This is the real deal. Be brave. Be in it!


[1] Chapman v Hearse  (1961) 106 CLR 112

A version of this blog appeared in April 2013 in Arna Delle-Vergini’s “So you want to be a Lawyer” series written for ANU GDLP students.