When did you know that you wanted to be a lawyer?
A long, long time after I became one. I was young and restless and no matter where I was in my life, or what I had achieved, I was always searching for the next Troy to burn. At first I thought this was because I had potentially chosen the wrong career, but eventually I realised it was actually a pattern throughout my life, and what I really needed was to learn the simple art of contentment. It sounds easy, but it is one of the hardest disciplines I have ever tried to master and I am a long way from achieving it. The best I can say is that I am committed to trying.
What attracts you most to the profession of law?
I am one of those people who loves through acts of service. Even when I was a teenager I was volunteering in social justice projects. I believe it is incumbent upon all of us to contribute to our community, and the more skilled you are, the greater your commitment should be. To be able to do this as a means of earning a living is an incredible privilege. People might say that makes me an idealist. I don’t believe I am. I just have an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the rare opportunities that I have had and a strong feeling that if you are given a gift (which is essentially what our privileged existence is), you really must share it.
What was the single moment, case or event that you feel defined you as a lawyer?
The defining moment of my career was, oddly enough, not even related to my practice. I undertook a subject in my Masters of Laws because the times of the class suited me. The subject was called ‘Dealing with High Conflict People in Legal Disputes’ and it advocated a completely different style of lawyering to the adversarial style that I was trained in. To say that this subject annoyed me would be putting it mildly. In fact, I wrote a 10,000 word, fairly defensive, paper on how adversarialism was a necessary prophylactic for lawyers. I actually received top marks for the paper but it was a Pyrrhic victory because by the time I had finished writing, I didn’t even believe in my own thesis. By the time I finished writing the paper, I was a convert to therapeutic jurisprudence and I haven’t looked back since.
What would you say are the hazards of this profession?
In my view, the hazards of this profession relate solely to the personal cost of practice. Most of us in the profession know by now that lawyers are disproportionately overrepresented in the professions for depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction and marital breakdown. There are a lot of theories as to why this might be and trying to work out the answer to this puzzle keeps a lot of us in the ‘health and well-being for lawyers space’ gainfully occupied. I don’t have the answers. If I had the answers, I wouldn’t have started a website to promote dialogue about the meaning behind being a lawyer with a strong emphasis on health and well-being. Essentially, being a professional should not cost you your health or your well-being, or, indeed, your life. It’s pretty simple really.
If you could only give one bit of advice to new lawyers, what would it be?
There is a quote that I love: ”The first forty years of childhood are the hardest”. I mentor many law graduates and they always shift a little uncomfortably in their seats when I share this with them because they’re often still in their twenties. I deliberately share that quote with them though because they need to understand that it’s okay not to have all of the answers now. They’re not supposed to. Nor will they ever have all the answers for that matter. I don’t have them. Neither do our (legal) heroes, the judges and justices of the higher courts. New lawyers need to take the pressure off if they want longevity in their career. They expect to have ‘arrived’ the moment they get their practicing certificate. Unfortunately, that’s effectively where their journey starts. The process of becoming a good lawyer is a long one. This is why I ultimately focus so much on self-care and how you conduct yourself as a lawyer. I’m sorry but knowing and applying the law is the easy part. Being a ‘good lawyer’ though is a real challenge and one that is likely to be a life-long career journey. This is the next level of lawyering and it is arguably more of a challenge because lawyers are only trained in what the law is and/or how to apply the law, but not how to be an actual lawyer.
If you had your time again, would you choose to practice in law? If not, what else would you choose to do?
I did a Law/Arts degree at Melbourne University. My focus in Arts was Classics. In fact, Classics has been a life long passion. I traveled to Italy in my twenties to get my copy of Roberto Calasso’s “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” signed by the author himself. He was a little surprised, but mostly delighted, that his novel had so much appeal to a lawyer as his father was a Law Professor. I still occasionally dream about being a classicist and spending a life attending archaeological digs all around the world but I daresay, if I had my time again, I’d make the same choice. Firstly, I dislike heat. Secondly, I am afraid of snakes, spiders and scorpions. That rules out probably 99% of all digs. I think this is why sometimes I like to toy with the idea that there are parallel universes. It makes me happy to think of myself somewhere in another Universe living the life of Indiana Jones, but I would never go so far as to give up my comfortable little patch of green on Earth for it.
How can one distinguish himself or herself as a legal professional?
Be yourself. After all, as Oscar Wilde so aptly puts it, everyone else is taken.
Arna Delle-Vergini is a Victorian Barrister, accredited mediator and a legal coach. A therapeutic jurisprudence convert late in her career, Arna has developed a particular interest in practitioner health and wellbeing. In 2013 Arna convened www.newlawyerlanguage.com – a website she hoped would promote dialogue amongst lawyers about the meaning of their professional role in a dynamic legal climate. She also explores her interest in practitioner health and wellbeing through her Masters, her role as a member of the Victorian Bar Health & Wellbeing Committee, and by regularly facilitating training and workshops with new and emerging lawyers.