Peter Butler

Law is, and should be, a team game

(Words by Jerome Doraisamy, photograph by David Field)

As a university student, Peter Butler saw himself becoming a barrister, given his competitive nature and lifelong love for debating. But, instead of this path, he chose to serve in a firm environment, which, he says, has proved more personally rewarding because it allows him to work within a team.

 “The concept of collegiality really does resonate with me,” he said.

 “There’s probably nothing I like more as a lawyer than working as part of a team, including counsel, to achieve a positive outcome for a client.”

 Whether it be celebrating or commiserating following the outcome of a particular case, or in the management of the firm within which one works, there are a number of ways in which collegiality can benefit not only the individual, but the team around you, he argued.

 “It’s wonderful to win a case, but, when your case doesn’t go so well, it can be challenging - the thing that makes it possible to get through that is working with a collegiate team, and having a mutuality of support,” he noted.

 “Also, management roles can be very challenging in law firms; sometimes in management, you do need to make decisions that can be tough where you can approach it from a direction that not all your partners agree with. And, again, being part of a strong team that has a clear direction and a level of resilience can help.”

 Such an approach to legal work has served Butler well, a partner at international firm Herbert Smith Freehills and recently retired chair of The Starlight Foundation, who loves nothing more than spending time with his three daughters or down at his family farm every weekend.

 However, the nature of competition has changed the dynamic of collegiality, he lamented, with less emphasis on the community atmosphere within the profession nowadays compared to years past.

 “I relish opportunities to interact and work with lawyers from other law firms as I do with the bar – whenever we do that, whenever we work on our project together, it just reminds me that we have so much in common,” he said.

 “Working together with those people allows you to see them as people, rather than seeing each other as business competitors.”

 Those commonalities become even starker when facing problems in the profession.

 The legal community must be united, he argued, in doing what it can to address the prevalence, causes and effects of depression and anxiety among Australian lawyers.

 The fight for wellbeing in the workplace can be won through collective action, he said.

 “I think the answer is doing what we can to help in the effort to recognise that depression and anxiety is a very real problem and working together with other firms, who have many people who feel equally passionate about it, in trying to find a solution,” he said.

 “I’ve seen the devastating effects of depression in my family and with friends, as most of us have and, fortunately, through terrific work from many people, it’s an area where one can truly say that we are making progress. And to be a part of that drive makes me feel incredibly proud, not just for me but for the whole profession.”

 And, at the end of the day, whether he be facing such challenges, or reveling in the success of a client matter with colleagues, Butler is reminded of the beauty of the knowledge-sharing and educational experience that is a lifetime in the law.

 “I’ve been a lawyer for a long time, but I still feel my learning curve is deep in terms of dealing with people, dealing with clients, and in terms of some legal concept, new case, or a different way to put an argument,” he concluded.

 “I don’t think there are many jobs where you can say that, so it’s endlessly interesting and challenging at the same time.”

 One of the best things about being a lawyer is that you can never really master it, he said. Being part of a team can only bring you closer to such mastery.