Faculty of Law

A Career in Conflict, in conversation with The Honourable Justice David Porter

From the ‘Stories of our Law School’ Pod-Cast Series. By Grace Williams

Law is hard, both in study and practice. From a student’s perspective, many hours are spent pouring over pages of cases attempting to decipher the reasoning of judges. In lectures students are often confronted with difficult questions that can be intimidating, even for the most proficient undergraduate. In those late-night readings and early morning submissions, the law degree can sometimes become an ordeal that one must survive. A student of law is a consumer of judicial reasoning. In law school, we discuss how judges reason, what cases they cited, but we never discuss the judges themselves.  Because who they are is irrelevant to our study of law. It is as if judges are abstract humans. We know that they have a body, which houses the brain that allows them to reason for the continuation of our legal system, but everything else is a mystery.

While in conversation with Justice Porter, discussing his address to the inaugural Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation on the topic ‘A Career in Conflict’ it dawned on me that every esoteric common law doctrine had a source, which was a thinking and feeling person, a human being. In the study of law, it is hard to digest the concept that law makers are real people. This is perhaps the reason why the legal profession can be isolating. Detachment from feelings to find the facts – pursing rationality at all cost to be the best lawyer that one can be, can be isolating in a world filled with non-lawyers. In this Podcast, Justice Porter explores these issues of isolation and conflict.

In our conversation, Justice Porter suggests that lawyers and judges are at the pinnacle of conflict, consistently throughout their careers. Lawyers are paid to ‘fight battles’ for their clients who desire a specific outcome. Lawyers live in a world that strongly discourages failure or mistakes. It is this extremely pressured context that breeds such high levels of anxiety and depression. Justice Porter also explains that this conflict can extend to relationships within the legal profession, as young practitioners are sometimes bullied by senior lawyers. This bullying and harassment often occurs without any adverse consequences for perpetrators.

Justice Porter poses a critical question: Can we reform the law to promote wellness and empathy rather than detachment and conflict? Is it possible to have a supportive legal community rather than a ‘spiteful and backstabbing’ one? The cultural change necessary for these ideals to be realised has already started to take place due to the work of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation. The foundation has published guidelines which provide a framework to create a psychologically safe workplace. The renewed focus on wellness in the work place specifically in relation to mental health instigates the cultural change necessary for a supportive legal community.

Having an ordinary conversation with Justice Porter was wonderful. It was fascinating to discover that as a student at the law school, he helped to fund his university education by becoming a miner. Justice Porter was an underground miner, and worked with explosives on a stope firing crew. Learning that outside the law, Justice Porter was a keen target rifle shooter and represented the state of Tasmania. This is a remedy for the detachment of disconnecting the judicial reasoning from the person.

Published on: 25 Aug 2017 4:16pm