The death today of one of Australia’s leading lawyers, Melbourne barrister Peter Hayes, is another reminder of this fact: that the legal profession is generally beastly careless about the emotional wellbeing of its own, because it places too high a premium on the skill and intellect of its practitioners.
The last few years of life have not, by all accounts, been emotionally kind to Hayes. His marriage broke up, he coveted the presidency of his beloved Melbourne Football Club, only to lose by one vote, and, according to some, he would even turn up to court with odd shoes and with a rope hitched around his trousers instead of a belt. As Karen Kissane observed in The Age last week, Mr Hayes “has also long been known as a moody man, volatile and irascible”.
But he was a brilliant lawyer. With a razor-sharp intellect and genuine courtroom presence, it is no wonder that he was regarded by his peers as one of the best advocates on the circuit. Therein lay the problem. If you are battling mental illness, even if it is mild, the world of the modern litigation is likely to exacerbate the problem.
Running a trial for a client in cases where the stakes are high, either in terms for potential loss of liberty or the quantum of money at stake is not for the faint-hearted. You have to get out of bed and perform each day in a courtroom against highly competitive opponents and judges who will decide your client’s fate.
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And when you leave court, you work for hours, poring over transcripts and cases, making certain that you are well-armed for the next day’s battle.
Being an advocate is a solitary experience. There is no collegiality in this game. At the end of the day it is your judgement calls when you are on your feet in a courtroom that determine the fate of the cause you are defending or prosecuting. You cannot afford to be off your game — to let your mind wander or allow your emotions to settle uneasily into a grey space that leaves you feeling drained and flat.
And then there is the bitchiness of the profession. As is the case with politicians and high-flying business executives, the legal profession, particularly in the circles in which Hayes moved, is characterised by high achievers, egomaniacs, and narcissists. Sure, that’s not everyone, but it’s fair to fair to say there is enough of it to ensure that back-stabbing, gossip and taking perverse delight in the flaws and peccadilloes of your colleagues is rife.
Last week, for example, while Hayes lay stricken in an Adelaide hospital, those closest to him, had to read and hear the spectacle of the self-styled shock jock of the legal profession, Peter Faris, use the tragic circumstances in which Hayes found himself, as a ‘hook’ to launch an unsubstantiated headline-grabbing broadside at the legal profession over drug use.
The legal profession has much to recommend it, particularly in these dark days when governments seem determined to erode liberties whenever it is politically expedient to do so. But when it comes to caring for its own, one of the lessons we can draw from Peter Hayes’s untimely death, is that it needs to take greater account of the human cost that comes with walking the courtroom tightrope each day.