Marie – Mater Matris

by Arna Delle-Vergini


Today I sat in a lecture hall at the Leo Cussen Institute and listened to a talk given by Marie Jepson, Director of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation – a charitable organization whose objective it is to decrease work related psychological ill-health within the legal community and to promote workplace psychological health and safety generally.

Throughout the lecture, Marie Jepson, in a rather sedate fashion, took us through what is ailing the legal profession at the moment. She described the high incidence of anxiety and depression (about 1 in 3 lawyers will suffer from depression and/or anxiety; the highest rate of any profession); she introduced us to the typical lawyer personality profile; provided us with a vision of how we could be if only we learned how to look after ourselves a little better, and encouraged us to work together to heal our profession. She said that we could learn a lot from geese (you didn’t expect that one did you?) and she finally told us about the launch this coming Monday of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation Best Practice Guidelines, aimed at improving the mental health of lawyers working within law firms. The guidelines promote work-life balance and promote a working environment based on authentic engagement and respect.

I don’t propose to write about the guidelines, but you will be able to read more about them as of Monday on their website. What I want to write about is something quite different. I want to write about what she did not talk about. I want to write about the fact that she has suffered the worst tragedy imaginable to any mother: the loss of her child to suicide. Out of that tragedy, there is no question that Marie has created this groundbreaking foundation; she has literally changed the face of the legal world: she has become the mother of radical change within the profession and all of us who strive for similar goals literally revere her. But it doesn’t change the fact that she suffered and she continues to suffer. Nothing can change that.

You know, there are few topics closer to my heart than that of creating a better working world for lawyers to practice their profession in. I see lawyers as performing such a critical function in this world – why would we not invest in them? Why would we not strive to ensure that they were able to perform that function without it taking too great a toll on them or their families? It sounds so simple and yet, in order to have this conversation at all we have to acknowledge a couple of things: lawyers, as a profession are suffering and – this is the part that we talk about even less – when lawyers suffer, so do the people who live with them and love them.

I’ve heard Marie Jepson talk before. She rarely talks about herself. She downplays her achievements. She will often tell you “I’m not a lawyer” which always strikes me as ironic given that she has probably done more for lawyers than any lawyer I know. She has one vision – that is to create a safer working world for lawyers – and she devotes herself to it entirely. All she asks is that we (the lawyers) step up and take responsibility for our own health and, even though she would never say this, in reality she is asking us to do in not just on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of those who love us as well.

Thank you Marie. Thank you once again for putting this in context for me once again.

Bloody Mondays Musing AND Writing Competition!!!

by Arna Delle-Vergini

bloody ink 2

I have a challenge for you. My challenge is for you to journey back into your past and ask yourself: what are the events that led me to be the kind of person who would choose a career in law over any other? When you have selected a few, write them down. Create a story out of those experiences or even select one. It doesn’t have to be completely factually correct. In fact, they couldn’t be – memory simply doesn’t work that way. Ever. Instead, tell the story in the way that makes most sense to you. Because, that is actually what you are doing when you unravel the narrative of your life – you’re simply making sense out of it all. What I am asking you to do then is quite specific: I want you to undertake a process whereby you “make sense” out of your decision to become a lawyer. And I want you to do it now – before you begin practicing law or, if applicable, shortly thereafter.

Now I would not ask you to do something I was not prepared to do myself which is precisely how ‘Bloody Mondays’ I, II and III came to be. Well, almost precisely. Not quite. There was another story behind that task so before I tell you about how ‘Bloody Mondays’ ultimately came about, I need to describe a conversation I had a few years ago.

I was once asked by a mentor why I had chosen to be a lawyer. This mentor was no ordinary person. He is one of those people who just seems to understand things. He carries understanding in his eyes so that when he asks you a question you know that he both has a keen interest in the answer you’re about to give, but also somehow knows the answer you’re about to give before you do.

So here we were sitting across from one another in a café drinking coffee. He asks me why I chose to be a lawyer. Why law? Why not dentistry? I, naturally, pull out one of my stock standard phrases: “because I could”. Or, – since I actually have a couple – “because it was the sensible thing to do.” To which he replies: “Really? Is that the real story? Is that all there is?”

I let his incredulity hang in the air for a while. What else was I to do? It was a difficult moment for me because I value myself on being ‘straight down the line’, ‘direct’, a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of person. But, in fact, I had just delivered a classic obfuscation. I’d said nothing really about why I had become a lawyer because – and this was the saddest part – I had not actually even worked it out myself.

I was almost forty.

Being almost forty and still not having an understanding of why I chose to practice law was, can I say, a little embarrassing. But not as embarrassing as the fact that I realised that I had taken no responsibility whatsoever for having made that choice throughout my entire career. The narrative I had always chosen to describe why I became a lawyer was designed to divest myself of responsibility and, as my mentor astutely pointed out, it wasn’t the real story. It wasn’t all there was at all.

So what was the real story? How does one tell the story of how they came to decide on one career over another? I pondered this for years before I chose to set myself the task of writing that story down. The ‘Bloody Mondays’ trilogy is really just an exercise (like the one I suggested to you above) in unpacking various events of my life and looking at them for clues as to why I might have chosen to pursue law. The three events I chose all involved a ‘murder’ (of sorts). They were all real events and the stories were based on my recollections of those events and, particularly, how I processed those events at the time.

In truth, I could have chosen several events throughout my life. I chose these three because they captured how I became a person who valued – above any other quality – the courage to speak out about injustice. As Martin Luther King Jnr so aptly put it: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Can I suggest to you that lawyers lead the populace in the capacity, willingness and courage to speak out against a range of injustices in ways that can (and does) effect real change? (But then I’m biased.)

The three events I chose also described how I came to be a person who felt compassion for people even when they were acting at their worst. Even when they acted in utterly unspeakable ways. And they also describe the sense of responsibility I came to feel toward people who were suffering. And, to be honest, I saw suffering everywhere. My desire to alleviate people’s suffering was critical to my decision to practising law in the social justice field.

Not everyone becomes a lawyer for the same reasons. We are all unique people with our own drivers. But there is something very freeing about finally coming to an understanding of why you have chosen the career you have. Of retracing your steps throughout your life to uncover various events that you now see, in hindsight, were actually pivotal to making what is probably one of the most critical decisions of your life: what will my life’s work be?

To kick off 2014, newlawyerlanguage will be running a writing competition. In not more than 1000 words, tell us the story of why chose the practice of law to be your professional calling.

The winning entries will be judged by lawyer turned writer (no irony intended here) Tony Wilson. Tony is the published author of 9 books – 3 for adults and 6 picture story books for children.

1st prize – $200.00

2nd price – $100.00

3rd prize – $50.00

Entries due by 10 March 2014.

All entries will be published on the website. Since every story is unique and potentially quite personal, we are open for the stories to be published via a pseudonym. Submit to Good luck!

In case you missed Arna’s Bloody Mondays series, you can read them here: 

Bloody Mondays – Part I

Bloody Mondays – Part II

Bloody Mondays – Part III

Bloody Mondays – Part III

by Arna Delle-Vergini

blood spatter 3

Winter, 1986. I was fifteen years of age – a permanent resident in the land of forgotten gods. It is an age when you discover that the world has let you down – before even beginning and without even trying – and you’re mad about it. You can’t talk to anyone about it either really. The adults around you KNOW NOTHING! Your house is a veritable prison. Disappointment hides in every corner. Even the décor lets you down.

Suddenly the familiar sounds of the house begin to grate on you. You switch off. You check out. You play another Bob Dylan song or maybe Neil Young because you’re feeling mellow. You play Kate Bush for profundity or David Bowie because he spins you out. Violent Femmes takes care of your two remaining mood states – angry and angrier, and, if you want to really make a statement, you play Tom Waits, because everyone in the house hates him, but no-one can argue with poetry.

Every feeling had a song, every song had a message, every message meant everything but, paradoxically, nothing meant anything anymore. I was in hell!

Enter Brian and Kev.

First I hear, the Malaysians are going to kill two Australians and if we don’t act real quick they’ll be dead by next week. Everyone is following this on the news and everyone is suddenly forgetting how much TROUBLE I am being lately. What is the big deal? They are criminals aren’t they? Do we really care? Have I ever trafficked heroin? Well, have I? HAVE I?

No-one was listening to me. Really, for the first time in a long time.

There was a pall over the house. Things were quieter. Sadder. Barer. And yet, there was an extra presence in the home. There were suddenly two extra people – Brian and Kevin. How had they come to be here? How had they suddenly made it into my home where only my drama reigned supreme? I wondered about them. Who were they? Who were they when they weren’t on death row? Why did my Mum care so much? She explained it to me, over and over and the more she explained the more I knew that frankly, I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t prepared for two men to die in this way. I felt a dreadful anxiety, a crushing weight. Surely there was something I should do, but what could I do?

I knew things were really getting serious when Mum wrote to the Governor of Penang. She wrote: “I abhor the situation”. Other people wrote as well. Even the Foreign Minister. The question was, would the Governor of Penang receive the letter in time? I’m not referring to the Foreign Minister’s letter of course. That letter he would be expecting and probably would take no notice of. But would he receive my mother’s letter?

This seems unbelievably naïve now but I actually visualised the Governor receiving my mother’s letter, knowing in his very bones that my mother abhorred the situation and, suddenly appreciating the gravity of the situation, relenting and agreeing to grant a stay of the execution. Indeed, one night I had trouble falling asleep – what with the worry about Brian and Kevin – but I eventually comforted myself with the thought that this actually could be the night that they  would be granted their freedom. Surely the post would have arrived by now.

The next morning I woke up to the news that Brian and Kevin were dead.

It was that quick. Suddenly I cared. Suddenly their lives meant something to me. Suddenly I wanted them in the house forever. Suddenly they were taken. Suddenly I was bereft.

I wasn’t quite sixteen. There was only so much I could take from this but what I took from it would stay with me forever. And it’s not the obvious lesson. I didn’t really come away with views about capital punishment. I didn’t think a great deal about politics and I cared even less about international relations. I didn’t have any delusions whatsoever that individuals could change the world – goodness, it was obvious that there were times where very little could be done.

But there it was – the lesson uncovered, bare. It was simply this: even when you couldn’t make a difference, even when it was impossible for you to change something, you still had to make a stand. You had to stand for something.

I never loved and admired my mother more than when she sent that simple letter to Malaysia; the whole time knowing that it would make no difference whatsoever, and yet, also knowing that if she didn’t write – if she sat and did nothing – she would not be able to forgive herself. I knew then, palpably, like I know now, palpably – that one can never stand idly by in the face of injustice. It’s not okay. It’s not an option. It’s not worthy of who we are.

On Monday 7 July 1986, Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, two Australian men found guilty of trafficking heroin in Malaysia were executed. At the time of their death, Barlow and Chambers pleas for a stay of execution were still pending in the Penang High Court. Bob Hawke, the then Prime Minister of Australia, called the hanging “barbaric” and yet the death penalty was not effectively abolished in Australia until 1985, the year before. Incidentally, the last man to be actually executed in Australia was Ronald Ryan, who was hung in Pentridge Prison in Victoria on the 3 February 1967.

It was a Friday.


kev and brian

Image from: Unspoken Codes

This blog was first published on 20 January 2014. It is re-published in May 2015 as history has a way of repeating itself.

Bloody Mondays is a three-part series describing how our regular blogger, Arna Delle-Vergini, came to be a lawyer. Come with Arna on this journey; unpacking some of the experiences and events that led her to choose a career in the Law over any other.

Bloody Mondays – Part II

by Arna Delle-Vergini

Bloody Mondays is a three-part series describing how our regular blogger, Arna Delle-Vergini, came to be a lawyer.  Come with Arna on this journey; unpacking some of the experiences and events that led her to choose a career in the Law over any other.

blood spatter

There was nothing peculiar about this day. It was a day like any other. I was at school. I was nine. Then for one reason or the other the teachers began to cry. One of them – a female – I can’t recall her name – rushed down the hall, her hands cradling her mouth. I don’t remember the rushing part actually. I just remember the sight of her crying into her hands. I must have filled in the gaps later on. Of course she was rushing. Something had happened. Something really big.

It was December 1980. School was not quite out for the year but it was getting hot. I remember the heat most of all because I experienced this event as heat mostly – the heat of the sun burning down on my bare neck as I collected my bag, sick with the knowledge that something incomprehensibly awful had happened. The heat of the thick, dry air that I breathed as I walked slowly home, not even trying to guess what had happened because that seemed largely irrelevant to me at the time. My greatest concern was whether the teachers would ever be happy again or was this, somehow, a permanent thing. This was an overwhelming thought and I wilted under the weight of it all.

Was my mother crying when I arrived home? I can’t remember. If she was, she would have been sitting in the lounge room – or perhaps in the kitchen, drinking a cup of tea. She would have looked up from her cup and smiled faintly. She would have said: “John Lennon has been shot”. Her eyes would have been reddened but she would not be crying. She would not cry in front of me. I would have then sat in her lap and cuddled her. I would have sensed her shock but I would not have known what it really meant to her because, even though I knew that John Lennon sang songs, I had no idea that he sang songs that changed the world!

Did she try to explain it to me? I bet she did. And I would have sat there with my rabbit-in-the-headlights stare knowing exactly what she meant without understanding a word of it. Like when my mamina, who didn’t speak a word of English, would talk to me. We understood each other perfectly but I didn’t speak Italian so it was only “understanding” in that incomprehensible way that children understand things – without words – that everything and nothing way of understanding that we all seem to lose as we age and reason takes us over.

It was many years before reason took me over. Thinking was not my superior function as a child. I experienced things instead. I understood the world largely though my senses which, if I tried to make any meaning out of them at all, were often unhelpfully influenced by ill-timed facts and miscommunications. That’s how I came to know that the man who shot John Lennon later appeared on television and sang about it. He sang “Jealous Guy” in this beautiful, haunting voice that made everybody cry all over again. It was a difficult moment for me. I hated this man for killing John and making the teachers cry. At the same time, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. He didn’t mean to hurt John. He was just a jealous guy.

At some stage, I’m quite sure, someone must have told me that the man singing the song wasn’t John’s killer at all, but a singer – and that it was a ‘tribute’ to John that he was singing, not a song actually describing why John was killed. But it wasn’t any time soon.

I probably don’t need to point this out to you but John Lennon never came back. I waited and waited and waited for God to bring him back to life. It was, after all, the only sensible solution. Everybody loved John. Nobody loved the jealous guy. Nothing else made sense to me. I did not believe in a world where wrongs could not somehow be made right again. Surely, if there ever was an occasion for God to intervene, this was it. What was taking so long? When would John be back? When would the teachers be happy again? Was there something I should be doing that I wasn’t? Anything?

Children can accept the incomprehensible even better than the adults around them can. But it does something to them. It changes who they are. This is not such a bad thing. Life alters us. And, in some circumstances, what alters us has the capacity to “make” us also. This was one of those events for me. I was going through a religious phase at that stage of my childhood and yet, quite clearly, my God had forsaken me. Well, at the very least he had forsaken John. This was troubling. Very troubling. Because if God had abandoned John, myself and all of the teachers, then who was left to right all of the wrongs in the world? Who was left with that incredible power? I would mull over this for many, many years to come and by the time I had the answer to it, not only did I not believe in God anymore, but I was at an age where I didn’t believe in ANYTHING!

On Monday 8 December 1980, Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon five times with a .38-caliber revolver outside his home in New York City. His official explanation was that he thought by killing John, he would become famous himself. He also said that the copy of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” he was carrying at the time of the murder was his ‘statement’. Which, of course, made no sense whatsoever…

Image from:

Bloody Mondays – Part I

by Arna Delle-Vergini

Bloody Mondays is a three-part series describing how our regular blogger, Arna Delle-Vergini, came to be a lawyer.  Come with Arna on this journey; unpacking some of the experiences and events that led her to choose a career in the Law over any other.

bloody mondays 1

It was summertime, 1979. I was eight years of age. Somehow my brothers and I had got our hands on a vinyl – Boomtown Rats “Tell me why I don’t like Mondays”. We probably got it for Christmas. My brothers were older than me so it no doubt belonged to them, though I felt a certain ownership over it. It was me that played it every day that summer. It was me who memorised all of the words.

Was it they who told me what the song was actually about? It was the sort of thing they would gleefully do. Then they would get into terrific trouble because I was fearful and sensitive and I never missed an opportunity to tell my mother if I felt gravely abused by them. I imagine it happening this way: them telling me that the song was really about a young girl who shot at a crowd of children and me running to my mother in tears because “the boys are trying to scare me again!

But of course I cannot remember how I found out. I just remember being fascinated by the song, and about the story behind it for that entire summer.

To me, by far the most fascinating aspect of the song was how no-one could possibly have known that this girl was going to shoot the whole day down. Not even her father! Probably not even herself! Was it truly possible? Could a silicone chip inside one’s head just switch to overload, just like that? With no prior warning? With no provocation even?

I decided to test it out myself.

We lived in the same street as our school, about half a dozen houses away from the back entrance. While this was not really quite “living right across the road” from a school, I reasoned that the situations were similar enough for me to put my silicone chip to the test.

My methodology was simple – I would put on the ’45 roughly at the time children were walking to school. Then I would climb up onto the couch, part the curtains, and I would stare out of the window at the passing children intently. The curtains could only be parted slightly because I wanted to be able to see them but I certainly did not want them noticing me. It was quite a covert operation and I was proud of myself at the time for coming up with it.

I remember one morning only. There could have been more but I doubt it. Like most experiments, the actual experience of it was a little tedious. This was is in the days of vinyl and, if you wanted to listen to a song more than once, you had to crouch down by the stereo, lift the arm of the needle and take it back to the start yourself. This meant that just as I was getting into the swing of the experiment I would have to stop, hop off the couch, re-start the song, hop back on the couch again, and ensure the exact amount of curtain parting before I could start the experiment again. Fortunately, I was a determined child once I had set my mind to something. And I had certainly set my mind to this.

The first child – a boy – walked by. I couldn’t immediately find anything to fault him but I tried very hard and then noticed – unforgiveable – that he had pigeon-toes. “HOW ANNOYING!!!” I screamed inwardly. The next child – a boy again – HUGE PROBLEM!!! His pants were way too baggy. Next there was a girl wearing glasses. FOUR EYES! And another kid had an old, tatty bag. TATTY!!!! Goodness knows what words I used back then but I certainly somehow managed to find a fault with every single child passing by my window that day. Every one.

Nothing happened.

My silicone chip did not switch to overload. It lay dormant and bored stiff and, before too long, I tired of the experiment and went to school myself. As I was walking to school that day I had to wonder if my neighbours were sitting by their windows with their guns looking at me and thinking -“nobody’s gonna go to school today.”

I didn’t solve the mystery of what makes a person want to shoot a whole day down. But I didn’t stop looking for answers for a long time though either. Sure, Bob had said that “We can see no reasons because there are no reasons. What reasons do we need to be shown?” But as a child I felt that there had to be a reason.

A world where random, inexplicable and unexpected events could happen was not a world that I could belong to emotionally at that time. I needed to believe that there were answers. And I did believe that there were answers, even if those answers weren’t available to me. Adults were always saying: “you will understand when you get older” – and I was content with that – at least for one more year of my life. That all changed when I was nine though. Everything changed when I was nine.

On Monday, January 29, 1979 Brenda Ann Spencer, a 16 year old girl, picked up a .22 calibre rifle and shot randomly at children waiting at the gate at their school in San Diego, California. She killed the Principal of the school and another custodian. She wounded eight children and also a police officer who attended the scene. When asked why she had committed the massacre she shrugged her shoulders and said “I don’t like Mondays.” Which, of course, made no sense at all…


Image from: Crime Magazine: Brenda Ann Spencer

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.

To be or not to be (seen as being) a lawyer – that is the question

by Arna Delle-Vergini

It happened innocently enough.

I bought a new car. By ‘new’ I mean, ‘newish’ or ‘pre-loved by someone else but new to me’. People do this all of the time, but readers of my “Glory Days” blog will know – I don’t have a lot of luck with used cars. This time was no different. Somehow, in what seemed to me to be uncannily like déjà vu, I found myself again owning a car with a stuck door. Thankfully, this time it wasn’t the driver’s door. The offending door was the back passenger door but that was bad enough; every parent knows that it is safest for kids to get in and out of the car, curb-side.

Refreshingly, the used-car salesman immediately agreed that the door must be fixed prior to delivery. And I can confirm, that when the car was delivered, the door did actually work. Unfortunately, that was the only time the door worked. After that it would not budge!

From my perspective, I then did what any normal person would do. I rang the dealer, told him I wanted the situation rectified immediately and informed him that I was going to put it all in writing. At my request he gave me his email address but when I sent my letter, it bounced back. Curious! I tried to call him several times to confirm the address but he didn’t answer. Curiouser and Curiouser!  I was not, under any circumstance, going to be left with another car with a stuck door so I went down to the local post office, faxed the letter to him and then, since I was there, and for no other reason really, I sent the original letter via registered post.

Let me be frank, this bloke was going to get my letter even if I had to hire a plane to sky-write it!

It didn’t come to that. The next day I received a call from the salesman and, I think it is safe to say that he was angry. Even, very angry! He could not believe that I had treated him that way. Why could I not have just trusted him – just taken him at his word? What was wrong with me? Don’t I trust anyone? He has never been so humiliated in his life. He felt “demeaned”.  That was the word he used: demeaned. Never before has he received a letter like that from a customer. “You’ve got problems” – he then told me. “You’re not normal. You don’t live in the real world!” Then he told me that I needed “a big cuddle”.

My confusion then turned to chagrin when he suggested at a later stage that I actually go out to dinner with him. Stop it right there! No need to go any further! You had me at “Arna you’re not normal. You don’t belong in the real world”!

Indeed! I am guessing in “the land of “normal people” salesman ask their customers out to dinner all of the time! The very thought of it!

When I was “unpacking” this experience later I consulted two people who I was quite sure would see my side of the story – who would declare me “normal” and “part of the real world”.  One of them, a female colleague, read my letter to the salesman and described it as “positively cheerful – as far as legal letters go”.  My other friend, a psychologist, thought for a moment, nodded his head and then said: “Used car salesmen and lawyers do have a lot in common.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! Did he just compare me out loud to a used car salesman?

(Yes. Yes he did.)

When I had recovered from that comment, my friend went on to explain that people are highly suspicious of used car salesmen, just as they are of lawyers.  We both have experience of belonging to a class of people who are routinely maligned, whether or not there is any truth to it. The salesman felt unfairly maligned by me because I didn’t take him at his word. He felt that I was putting our understanding in writing simply because he was a used car salesman. Actually, I would do the same in any similar situation. From my perspective, I was just doing what I have been trained to do – nothing more or less. I was just being a lawyer!

Now look, I don’t mind telling you this but this is not actually the first time that I have frustrated someone so much that they have wanted to embrace me. In fact, I think I occasionally bring this quality out in people. What I learned through this experience though (and others if I am truthful) – is that our legal training does actually teach us to relate to other people in a certain way, and non-lawyers sometimes find that unusual.

Is it possible that lawyers go through their lives…ho hum…just imagining that their training only comes into play when they are in court or in a legal situation? Do they believe that non-lawyers think, reason and act exactly as they do?  I’m now convinced that lawyers are oblivious to the effects their legal training has had on them and, particularly, their communication styles. I’m also convinced that other people want to cuddle us because they sense very strongly that we are actually oblivious to our own “weirdness” (for want of a better term) and that makes them, frankly, feel very sorry for us (and/or, in my case, on occasion, want to date us).

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! I’ve suddenly realised why lawyers are so sought after in dating circles: we’ve cornered the ‘wealthy but pathetic’ niche (as opposed to the ‘pathetically wealthy’ niche reserved for slightly less irritating professionals).

Someone has to tell lawyers that though they feel normal, other people don’t always experience them that way and this needs to be taken into account when they’re communicating with others. In my case, the salesman’s version of “normal” was perhaps always going to be highly incompatible with mine but the point was still made. I had not intended to upset him and felt that I was just doing what I was trained to do. It made me wonder, when else have I upset people just being my (lawyer)self? When other people have said to me: “stop being such a lawyer, Arna,” is this what they really meant?

I have a friend. She is a lawyer too. Her father was a judge. Whenever she wanted something she had to ‘appear’ before him with a fully formulated argument and she also had to be in a position to defend it or else she did not get what she wanted. Her sister would have to do the same. It was not unusual for them to have to argue against one another either, with the ‘judge’ ultimately making a decision on the basis of the most cogent and persuasive argument presented at the time. She still talks about this as being normal for her family, and yet so very odd.

I rest my case.

Carry on Counsel

by Arna Delle-Vergini


This happened.

A few weeks ago I drove out of town to visit my mother. By the time I arrived it was after dinner. I pulled up in front of the house and the moment I turned off the engine I heard a man screaming “F–k you, f—k you”. I didn’t recognise the voice.  It was so loud it felt as if he were standing by my car, but when I looked around, there was no-one there.

It was dark and the street was poorly lit. I wasn’t about to take any chances so I drove and parked around the corner. I sat in the car for a few minutes. Nothing. I looked around. Still nothing. When I had satisfied myself that it was safe, I got out of the car and started walking up the path towards her house.

Then I saw him. He was standing directly across the road from my mother’s house, parallel to her front door. He stood in an exaggerated, almost comical stance – hyper-masculine, his legs spread out and his arms – hanging to the sides of his body but a little elevated and ever so slightly crooked at the elbow – as if he were a cowboy getting ready for a shoot-out. I thought: “this is like a Western”. Then, to my dismay, he slowly pulled back the right side of the jacket and reached into his pocket. I thought: “oh no, he’s got a gun”.

When you find yourself in what you perceive to be a life-threatening situation, two things happen: firstly, you enter into a surreal space where words and images coalesce into a David Lynch style story-board with you as its main character. Secondly, you have to make a split-second decision: am I going to fight? Am I going to take flight? Or am I going to carry on as if nothing even remotely significant is happening?

I chose the latter.

Turning my back on this man to walk up the path to my mother’s door took some resolve. It also felt very much like I had selected the wrong option the moment he spoke again:

I’ve got a gun you know”.

The words, like gossamer, floated across the road and landed softly, like a shroud over my head. I should have been more frightened. But I wasn’t. It seemed like he had suddenly confided something in me. It was a secret. Some kind of pact. An invitation? A script?

What were my lines? I could not for the life of me remember. I waited for the shot to ring out. But a strong part of me could not accept that this might be “it”. I had no intentions of dying on my mother’s doorstep. Quite the contrary. Within seconds it seems, I had considered my imminent death, decided very much against it, and chose to carry on as per the original plan.

I knocked on the front door. No-one answered. I knocked again. No-one answered. In a voice that was calmer than it should have been I called out “Mum open the door”. At this point it seemed as if a spell was broken. I heard him now – behind me still, only closer – saying “Um…I’m sorry. I thought you were a Saudi”.

Indeed! Never before had I been so relieved to have an Aussie accent.

And then he walked away.

When my mother finally opened the door I said: “Mum…he told me he had a gun.” This immediately had the desired effect. Mum made me a cup of hot tea and put a blanket around my shoulders while my niece prepared a water bottle. Perhaps out of an excess of caution, she also called the police. The next person might not be so lucky. The next person might actually be Saudi!

It took hours for my body to return to normal after that event. I was cold. Ever so cold. I also found myself replaying the incident over and over again in my own mind over the next couple of days. It was just there in the background, like a silent-movie, flickering from one image to the next. For a cameo appearance, the man in the shadows with the gun, certainly had given me quite a startle.

When discussing “the man in the shadows with the gun event” over the next week or so, I was often asked why I had chosen to act as if nothing was happening (as opposed to say, jumping behind one of the bushes in the garden). I didn’t really have an answer other than to say I seem to be always “carrying on regardless”. Indeed, in my profession, it is rather to be expected.

On my noticeboard at home I have a picture of Joan Rosanove smoking a cigarette through a long, black elegant cigarette holder. Underneath her picture is the quote: “To be a lawyer you must have the stamina of an ox, and a hide like a rhinoceros, and when they kick you in the teeth, you must look as if you hadn’t noticed.”

As lawyers, we routinely develop tough exteriors in order to manage the nature of our work, the competitiveness of our profession, and the combativeness of court life. But what is the true cost? What is the price we pay for going about our business acting as if nothing of import is happening to and around us? Is there a cost? There has to be. In “the man in the shadows with the gun event” the cost was a shock response that lasted hours and some mild trauma symptoms lasting a day or two. That’s ‘small change’ really. But if you were to carry on acting as if nothing of import is happening throughout your entire career, well, I imagine it’s quite possible that the ‘small change’ might gradually add up to quite a sum.

Why Genius Isn’t Everything (Phew!)

by Arna Delle-Vergini

vintage owl

It happened innocently enough.

I was at a children’s birthday party. A bowling party to be exact. As riveting as watching children bowl can be, most of the mothers were chatting and watching a 70’s and 80’s revival on video hits while we drank coffee and ate chips with sauce.

For a good half of that party, I could have passed for a normal person. I’m confident in this because no-one was staring at me in that slightly surprised, slightly amused, slightly uncomfortable way they sometimes do. And then it happened. Meatloaf came on the video screen to sing “You Took The Words Right Out of My Mouth”. Suzie (one of the other mothers) and I were quietly singing along when it occurred to me: who is that backup singer in the video clip? I know Meatloaf did duets with Bonnie Tyler but it’s definitely not her. She looks like she might be on drugs. Or maybe she is just the theatrical type. Wonder what her name is? Which is pretty much when my social skills packed up and went home.

I had a question. It needed an answer. At that point, nothing else mattered.

At first, Suzie was content to help out. We googled the song on the i-phone. Then we googled the band. Then the YouTube video. Then women he did duets with. Surprisingly, it turned up nothing. Suzie suggested that perhaps it was Ellen Foley given that Ellen Foley’s name appeared regularly in connection with the song. I was not satisfied. It did appear regularly with the song, but not the video clip. Could there be a difference? I wanted proof and I was not about to rest until I found it.

Suzie suggested that she text a friend. A Meatloaf expert nonetheless. He quickly replied with ‘Ellen Foley’. Sounds good. But the question was phrased incorrectly. I did not want to know who sang the song with Meatloaf. I wanted to know who appeared in the video clip (albeit, undoubtedly singing at the time).

Are you bored? I think you can empathise with Suzie at this point. But it gets worse.

Forty minutes later, everybody is singing “Happy Birthday” to the birthday boy but I am still searching for proof that Ellen Foley did not appear in that video! At one point Suzie suggested that I might be content with the answer that I had on account of how a) it was probably right and, b) it’s actually not that big a deal anyway.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! Content with the answer being probably right? I think not!

While the presents were being unwrapped, I was still surfing the net and shouting every now and then: I think I’ve found her (only to discover that it was a dead end). At one point Suzie said drily: Arna, you would even do this on a date, wouldn’t you?

Yes. Yes I would.

You will be relieved to know that I was able to uncover the answer before the party ended. (Just.) It was ‘Karla De Vito’. The answer was elusive because she did not sing on the album but was called upon to appear on tour because she had more of a ‘stage presence’. As it turns out, I was actually right to keep looking.

Afterwards, I was reflecting on this incident. I thought of a couple of things. My first thought was: poor Suzie. How unutterably dull that must have been for her. My second thought was: it really is true that being dissatisfied with anything falling short of “cogent, probative and non-prejudicial evidence” is what separates lawyers form the layperson. I guess when all of the signs were pointing to Ellen Foley, I could have been satisfied. But unless I can be fully satisfied of the answer, the reality is, I will keep looking. It is my training. Which is a perfect segue into my third and most relevant reflection:-

This may or may not shock you, but I am no genius. I have long come to terms with this but feel particularly better about it lately because there is a growing body of research that supports the proposition that genius and creativity are only part of the equation. The other lesser known ingredient, and the part that is more determinative of success than any other, is “grit” or, the combination of perseverance combined with the ability to overcome obstacles.

If you are not a genius either, this will give you some comfort. Certainly, I have found (routinely) in my teaching that emerging lawyers often carry a secret suspicion that they are not as smart as other lawyers. This may or may not be true but it is largely irrelevant anyway. What is pertinent, and what I encourage my students to focus on instead, is their capacity to persevere. As Einstein succinctly put it: “It’s not that I’m smart, it’s that I stay with problems longer.”

Lawyers sometimes make poor dinner guests and we might be a flop on dates. We might even occasionally miss the birthday cake. But when you want the correct answer to something – you know who to call. Right?

(Learn more about “Grit” from Happier Human)

Waking the (Real) Lawyer Within

by Arna Delle-Vergini


This may surprise you but, in the main, people tend to be ambivalent about lawyers. That is, when they are not being downright negative. Certainly, if lawyer jokes are anything to go by, lawyers are greedy; unethical; out for themselves; could sell ice to an Eskimo; are conservative and elitist; and couldn’t lie straight in bed if their lives depended on it. And yet, the minute a person finds themselves in trouble or mired in a dispute, who do they call? A lawyer!

This ambivalence is not restricted to Australia either. Recent research in the US lists lawyers as one of the most despised groups in society. And yet, at the same time, 64% of US parents apparently want their children to be lawyers, or at least to marry a lawyer.

Oh dear oh dear, oh dear! Which is it? Do we hate lawyers? Or do we love them? Or, perhaps, do we have a love-hate relationship with lawyers that we barely understand ourselves?

Where our poor reputation comes from is also anyone’s guess. In reality, lawyers are at the coalface of social justice and law reform. Nor are they fiscal bloodsuckers.

According to the Bureau of Statistics, in the 2007-2008 financial year Australian lawyers spent 955,400 hours undertaking pro bono work. That amounts to $238.2m worth in free legal services. FREE legal services! I’d challenge any other profession to match that!

And yet, despite this reality, the Law Institute of Victoria recently felt moved to launch the “Reputation Project”. Designed to inform members of the public about the true nature of lawyering and to remind them of the positive contribution lawyers actually make to the community, the project is an obvious attempt to improve the public perception of lawyers in our community. This is laudable. But I wonder if it is a little misguided. Is the public really ignorant of the good lawyers do, or are they just happily recalcitrant in their ambivalence?

Is it possible that people are ambivalent about lawyers because when the proverbial hits the fan, they are largely (painfully) dependent on them? This is somewhat reminiscent of adolescents’ dependency on their parents. You know… “Get out of my life but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the Mall” type of dependency.  Or maybe people just love to hate lawyers (followed, no doubt quite closely, by politicians and journalists) because people must have ‘enemies’ or life gets rather too boring.

As fascinating a topic of public ambivalence about lawyers is, I have a much keener interest in how emerging lawyers develop resilience when the public perception of them is so different from their lived experience. I can well recall, as an emerging lawyer, feeling very confused at the simultaneous mixture of hostility and admiration I experienced from non-lawyers. At dinner-parties everyone had a lawyer joke and yet, privately it was very clear that these same people accorded me a higher status than my peers because of my occupation. This simply didn’t make sense.

I never worked out what lies beneath this ambivalence but I did come to understand that it could actually act as a strong catalyst to promoting resilience in new lawyers. The stark incongruity between a new lawyer’s lived experience of lawyering and what they come to understand is the public’s perception of them, can actually promote deeper reflection about who they are and what the precise worth of their work is. Am I what they say I am? And if not, what am I? When this reflection is supported by dialogue with colleagues and mentors, it certainly has the potential to develop and enrich a lawyer’s perception of themselves.

The process of ultimately rejecting an external definition of the Self in preference for your “discovered self” lies at the heart of any journey of self-discovery, whether personal or professional. And this is a journey. It is a process that takes time.  Don’t allow it to become unnecessarily thwarted by adopting a defensive attitude and refusing to engage with it at all. Rather, embrace the caricature – prop it up in the corner of your house somewhere and look at it regularly. Compare and contrast everything you learn about being a lawyer with it, and you will quickly discover little resemblance between the two. When you stare at it full in the face like this, you will come to see it for what it is – a chimera, a largely inaccurate daydream, from which you too must eventually wake.