The story of the relationship between Lawyer X, her clients and the Victorian Police filled inches and hours of media in Australia at the end of 2019. Over days before a Royal Commission in Melbourne, witnesses told the story of how a Victorian criminal lawyer ended up becoming a police informant, sharing information about her own clients with detectives. Despite its Melbourne focus, it quickly became front-page news across Australia. As a law teacher and a lawyer, the story itself is concerning, distressing and even frustrating at times. But, it prompted me to start asking a question about my teaching. ‘How do I explain Lawyer X in the law school classroom to future lawyers?’
There are some valuable lessons about the law and its application that come from the Lawyer X story. Lawyers Weekly, among others, has published columns on some of those issues. The story is not something that law schools or law students can ignore. But, rather than stepping over it, or focusing on some of the technical questions, the Lawyer X story provides an extensive gallery of real-life dangers and pitfalls for young lawyers in the real world.
The material produced by the Royal Commission and the media also provides a rich source of discussion points and examples for the law school classroom, especially for later-year students. And it’s an ‘authentic’ teaching source in the sense that it is real. It’s told in the players’ own words. It’s not the Tom, Dick and Jane type hypothetical that law students tend to treat as ‘just another tutorial problem’.
So, are there materials that we could use in the law school classroom? And how can we use them?
The Lawyer X Interview
One of the most compelling artefacts to come from the Lawyer X story is her interview with the ABC 7.30 Report in December 2019. I’m not using compelling here as an assessment of its truth or persuasiveness but in the sense of capturing the viewer’s attention. It starts with a story to which lots of law students can relate. The first-generation daughter of an immigrant ‘does good’ and gets into university. She works ‘cooking chips at the MCG’ while going through law school. It’s not really unique or remarkable other than its ‘ordinariness’, especially in the light of what happens.
Using the interview as a teaching tool offers opportunities to stop and talk to our students about some key concepts. Here are three ideas to talk about Lawyer X in the law school classroom.
‘I couldn’t walk away.’
One theme that comes through the interview, and that gets repeated in evidence at the Royal Commission, is that Lawyer X wanted to ‘belong’. For a profession that specialises in ‘service to the community’, and works closely with individuals, forming personal relationships with clients can be a tricky line to walk. Especially when those clients are vulnerable, in need of help and at rock bottom. Altruism is something that we value in lawyers, but it can also put them at risk.
One of the things that I often talk to my students about is that your client is never your friend. And a friend is never a client. That’s deeply embedded in Australian professional conduct rules. The conduct rules that apply to solicitors and to barristers make the duty to the court and the administration of justice ‘paramount’. Both sets of rules prioritise it above the duty to a client.
It’s also woven through other rules. For example, the rules that apply to both solicitors and barristers compel them to exercise independent and forensic judgment.
Who do I talk to?
That can make legal practice sound pretty lonely. When I talk to students about being independent, they often look worried, especially when they talk about their motivation to help clients. Where do we draw the line between helping and standing back?
I’ve written a post about giving students the tools to manage emotional fatigue using their box of PHUCs. There’s a limit to (what I’ve called) the number of Personally Held Units of Caring (PHUCs) we have. Confidence and competency can play a role. So does how well we look after ourselves. Running out of PHUCs starts to create problems. Figuring out how many PHUCs we have, and how many we give a client, can be an excellent way to think about where to draw the line.
It’s also a good point to talk about sources of advice. Working with law students there is often a real sense of individualism and individual competition. But the job is a demanding one. Finding a mentor, a colleague to talk to or even having a confidential discussion with an expert in professional conduct is an essential source of support. It’s an excellent opportunity to talk about how the conduct rules that apply to solicitors allow for that sort of professional help without breaching confidentiality.
What happens when a client doesn’t do what I tell them?
Even the fact of the interview itself provides another excellent talking point.
The day after the ABC aired the interview, the Commissioner asked some pointed questions about it.
I would like to know why the commission was not informed that at or about that very time she was flying to an international destination and giving a lengthy interview to nationwide media and that was not disclosed to the commission when I was being told, instead the commission was being told that she was too unwell to give evidence.
Counsel for Lawyer X was, understandably, embarrassed.
Clients don’t always do what they’re told. It’s disappointing and frustrating. And sometimes, just like it did here, it can lead to some incredibly awkward discussions with the bench. As law teachers, it’s an excellent opportunity to talk about the options lawyers have when dealing with uncooperative clients.
Lawyer X in the law school classroom
The Lawyer X story is not a happy one. But it provides a ‘real-life’ story about what can happen to young lawyers about managing risks to themselves from a demanding job.