by Arna Delle-Vergini
We have all done this. At some time or other, all of us have committed this error of judgement. And so, whilst I write of this one anecdote, I am reminded that I could choose many more, and, worse, could even have chosen some of my own from my early career. I write about this example only because it is the most recent. This could have happened at any time and to any one of us.
I was at court a few months ago when I overheard two lawyers in conversation. They were sharing examples of recent and dreadful cases that they had been working on. One lawyer would share a case and that would be followed by an exclamation from the other lawyer, something along the lines of “that’s nothing!” – and then that lawyer would share an even more impressively depressing case. I like to call this game: “That’s Nothing…!”.
On the face of it, this is a game that could be seen as just a competitive game between lawyers. But it has some sinister overtones, as you shall soon see. It is a game which, when played to its end, gets more and more disturbing; prompting each lawyer to search for the most extreme example they can recall. On this occasion, I kept silent until the last player dealt her finest hand – describing how the father in a recent case had beaten his child so badly that the boy had almost passed out. As is often the case in this game, the anecdote was then followed with peels of laughter from both lawyers.
I was having one of those days where I like to share some of my thoughts. I said: “you know there is nothing actually funny about that anecdote”. Firstly, I was annoyed that this game was being played out in my hearing. Secondly, there really was nothing funny about the anecdote and I was irritated by their laughter. Mostly it was the latter: they were laughing about a man who had beaten a child and I was in the mood to be quite cross about it.
To their credit, the lawyers did not get defensive. In fact, one of them tried to placate me: “no, no, no….”, she said, “you don’t understand. If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry!”.
I understand. Oh, I understand completely!
At that point I was called in to court so I never did get a chance to continue pontificating. But had I had the chance, I would have liked to at least say this:
I know that it’s hard. I know that you care a lot. You wouldn’t be here if didn’t care about people; if you didn’t believe in what you were doing. And I know that, at first, it seems like the smartest thing in the world to avoid the tears that ought to come with each fresh story you hear. What better way to do this than to bury them with mirth and laughter? Mostly likely, you make this choice unthinkingly. It’s reactive. Just something you do because to feel hurt, defeated and dejected by the work that you do seems too much to bear.
And yet, I have two words for you: Temporary. Measure. As Hagga from Thurber’s ‘Thirteen clocks’ once wisely put it: “…there’s a thing that you must know, concerning the jewels of laughter. They always turn again to tears a fortnight after.”
Meaning – in this context…laughing at the tragic is a quick fix. And it is a time limited quick fix. It’s not sustainable. Because eventually, what happens is that you start to calcify within. Eventually, it’s almost impossible to feel horror at the stories you hear anymore. Eventually even the laughter disappears and there’s just a grey space where the colourful brushstrokes of your life used to be. In short, you wither and die on the inside.
Call me crazy but it seems far too great a price for any lawyer to have to pay. So what can be done about it? We can’t all drag ourselves about the court in tears.
It goes without saying, tears are neither an appropriate nor proportionate response for a lawyer in the face of almost all cases. It would take a very rare, particularly heart-wrenching case to bring most lawyers to tears and, even then, they are most likely to drink that particular cup of sorrow at home and alone.
But neither is laughter an appropriate response. The trick is to respond with emotional intelligence. The appropriate response to our clients and to the legal cases that we play a small part in is not sadness and it’s not mirth. The appropriate response has to be – give the matter the dignity it deserves. Treat it with respect.
Our entire court system is designed to engender a sense of gravitas in the people who operate within it. Whether this be lawyers, clerks, accused people, applicants, respondents, prosecutors, witnesses, jurors, magistrates, judges etc and so forth. Respect is what is asked from us as practitioners. Respect for the stories we handle. Respect for the people we touch and who touch us. Respect for the system that is set up – sometimes ineptly, but with good intentions – to handle these stories and to reach some kind of resolution/outcome/closure. Respect for each other. Respect for the process we engage in on a daily basis for the good of others because that is what we do as lawyers: that is our job.
I have a reputation for trying to keep things simple and, perhaps, this is another example of my desire for simplicity in a complex world but I do recommend you try it: next time you find yourself quick-fixing, replace giddy, dizzy mirth with complete presence and gravity and you will come out of it – perhaps not unscathed – but certainly a lot more grounded.