14 August 2023

Compassion over combat in court? The 'Kind Lawyers' movement is redefining the legal profession

| Dione David
Join the conversation
The Kind Lawyers

The Kind Lawyers movement looks to reshape the practice of law. Photo: Jenny Wu.

Perpetua (Pepe) Kish entered the law profession bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but, like so many of her peers, it wasn’t long before she was ready to cut her losses.

Lawyers are leaving the profession in droves. One in five leave before practising for five years, many of whom move into law-adjacent areas such as mediation or law education. And Pepe says it’s pretty obvious why.

“We’re losing some of our best legal minds because they think they can’t align their values with work practices in the current climate,” Pepe says.

“Current climate” refers to the often combative nature of legal processes, and the ways this has contributed to a toxic culture within the practice of law.

“The process is inherently adversarial because when you come into contact with the law, there is typically an opponent, dispute or conflict. There’s no questioning that,” Pepe says.

READ ALSO Fair treatment long overdue for migrants waiting 30 years for parent visas, Canberra lawyer says

The Kind Lawyers is a movement of lawyers, or practitioners working alongside them (including mental health and finance professionals, mediators and academics), who seek to humanise the practice of law, minimise the damaging long-term impacts of litigation on clients and promote wellness among professionals.

Alongside Pepe, its founding members are Flourish Family Law’s Kirsty Salvestro, Baker Deane & Nutt’s Tanya Nadin, Breath Counselling & Mediation’s Amy McGinn, Balance Family Law and The College of Law’s Jonathon Naef, University of Canberra lecturers Iveta Bales and Anya Aidman and Alliance Family Law’s Cristina Huesch.

Having experienced similar challenges throughout their careers, over the years they have built relationships of trust and respect and a shared vision to make a difference.

“We like to say conflict is natural, but combat is optional,” Pepe says. “Sometimes the law doesn’t prioritise or even acknowledge the human component in a dispute. So what can we do to constructively manage the conflict and help people resolve it while prioritising doing so in a way that’s kind and human?”

Pepe, now the principal lawyer at Balance Family Law and the Kind Lawyers chair, first fell in love with the law for the underpinning imperative to seek justice. She remembers well the case that made her question it all.

Perpetua Kish

Balance Family Law principal Perpetua (Pepe) Kish was compelled to start The Kind Lawyers movement alongside her fellow founders. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

As a young litigator she was involved in a complicated, combative family law case that involved a gruelling 10-day trial, during which the opposing party walked in on their new partner attempting suicide.

Though in a vulnerable state from the trauma, they were still subjected to a four-day cross-examination by a barrister colleague.

“During a cross-examination, barristers will sometimes employ aggressive tactics – attack a person’s character, undermine them in order to bolster their client’s case,” Pepe explains.

“The client was a vulnerable person and at the end of it they had a real outburst directed at that barrister. They said, ‘Being cross-examined by you has been more painful and difficult than walking in on my partner trying to kill himself’.

“The barrister in that case used that line to sell his services to other clients. He wore it as a badge of honour, as if to say it spoke to how effective he could be at destroying someone.

“All I could think about was the impact on that family. It does nothing to heal relationships, it does the opposite; it destroys them. That’s not why I got into the law.”

The alternative, Kind Lawyers, was the answer. And the burgeoning movement is gaining traction among progressive practitioners who are banding together to overcome the disillusionment of a problematic practice to deliver on a higher purpose.

“The law can be black and white and incongruent to human experience. But as lawyers we have a real responsibility to think big picture, reflect on our actions beyond what the law dictates,” Pepe says.

“It’s about lawyers being more accountable for what might impact people after their legal experience is over, owning their role and not just saying, ‘This is what the law and legal precedent says, I’m just the messenger’.”

READ ALSO Queanbeyan lawyer Bill Baker retires after 50 years

As with anything, the approach works better with high levels of buy-in – something early adopters are working on.

“The law is a very deferential and traditional profession, anything new and novel is sometimes met with a bit of resistance,” Pepe says.

“Lawyers take a lot of comfort in rules, processes, procedures and what we call legal precedent; we like to do things the way they’ve always been done.

“The Kind Lawyers believe a lot of practitioners will be interested to understand how we can collaborate to bring people closer to peace and resolution rather than setting them up for harm and unhappiness.”

They will have the opportunity to learn all they need to know at the inaugural Kindness in Law forum, exploring kindness as innovation in the legal sector through a thought-provoking program of events.

These include the “Humans First, Lawyers Second” panel discussion moderated by Sarah Elke Kraal, a keynote address from Justice Chrissa Loukas-Karlsson looking at courtroom advocacy, therapeutic jurisprudence, restorative justice and mental wellbeing in the legal profession and the “Walking the Talk” interactive session during which attendees will be challenged to view the legal profession through the lens of humanity.

The Kindness in Law forum will be held from 9 am to 5 pm on 8 September at Old Parliament House. Tickets cost $495 – book here.


Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

I know nothing about law. But there has to be something wrong with the whole system where a judge allows a four-day cross examination of a vulnerable person! The Kindness in Law Forum sounds interesting. But being a non-lawyer, I can’t afford the fee.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.