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Ray Ternes, Barrister

Ray was admitted to practice in 2009 after studying Arts/Law at Monash University. He undertook articles at Sparke Helmore Lawyers, practising there for several years prior to commencing a leadership position in the workers' compensation team at Telstra. Ray then signed the Bar Roll in 2014. He now works primarily in administrative law, personal injury and employment law. Ray was awarded the Public Interest/Justice Innovation Award in 2016. He was put forward for this acknowledgment by his peers in light of his pro bono work. For more on Ray's work, you can visit his VicBar profile here.

What has gotten you to where you are today?

Parents who valued my education and a well-rounded upbringing, a good education, no small amount of good fortune in terms of getting a start at a good law firm, taking opportunities when they present themselves, a dose of hard work now and then (regular doses, really), and possibly a little natural aptitude for a career in the law (which my family would probably describe as a love of arguing).

How much do you give credence to the phrase that haunts law students - “it’s all about who you know”?

Only some. Some people come from legal families where mum and dad were a judge and a barrister (or uncle/aunty etc). I didn't (my sister is also a lawyer, but we're the only two lawyers even in our extended family), and neither did a number of successful lawyers that I know. I think it's more about getting a foot in the door somewhere - some work experience or a summer/winter clerkship with a firm or an organisation. Getting a foot in the door does two valuable things: the firm/organisation gets to know you a bit and works out whether they want to take you on full time. The second thing is that you get to know the firm/organisation, and whether you'd like to work there.

Did you ever feel tension between choosing the corporate path or public interest path? How do you think these two relate to one another as a barrister?

I haven't really felt that tension. Corporate work contributes to the social good as does 'public interest' work. I was fortunate with the firm I worked for, and then the company that they supported, even encouraged me to get involved in pro bono work. That's something I've continued at the bar.

How strong a role does empathy play in your profession, given that the law can place so much emphasis on being objective?

Empathy plays a huge role. The law is ultimately about people, whether its two individuals suing each other, the state prosecuting an individual, or even a class action of shareholders against a company. Lawyers need to be good technicians, in the sense of knowing the law and how it applies to a particular set of facts, but also excellent communicators, which requires empathy. In my particular field I work a lot with people who have suffered various types of personal injuries, which have usually deeply affected their lives. The tricky bit is when a person is genuinely convinced that their condition is work-related (for example), but the evidence tends to show the opposite. Delivering such advice (or asking them some hard questions) requires empathy, but is never easy.

How do you approach stress management and your own well-being?

Fortunately I'm not a particularly anxious person; I think this job would be very difficult if I was. I do a fair bit of cycling, particularly to and from chambers, and find that riding up a steep hill is, counter-intuitively, very good for getting past the stresses and frustrations of the day. I'm still pretty early on in my career as a barrister, but already I've learned that if I want to sustain my practice for 15-20 years (or more), rather than 5 or so, then I need to plan regular holidays, and not let briefs encroach on those holidays. I also make sure that I have a life outside work, with friends that I don't work with. I'm also a Christian, which helps give me perspective, and grounds my identity - both useful thingns for keeping stress under control.

What are your hobbies?

Cycling up hills (and down them, which is more fun). Watching cricket (it's January as I type). Church-related stuff (sort of falls within the definition of hobby). I also enjoy a weekly park-run.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

I'm tempted to say writing out my fee-slips at the end of a case, but that would be a little too cheeky. It also wouldn't be true. Without sounding trite or cliched, the most rewarding part is helping people. I'll illustrate what I mean with two examples. One was a case where my client, a blue-collar worker of about 65, needed an operation because of injuries at work. The insurer had rejected the claim. We ran the case, and my client disclosed that his marriage had also been having real difficulties. Towards the end of the hearing, my client said to me that having someone go into bat for him meant a huge amount for him. He also said that the case had brought he and his wife closer together. The second example is a taxi driver who had been charged with assaulting his passenger's son. As it turned out, it was actually my client the taxi driver who had been assaulted by the son, and the still photos from the cab's cameras proved it. My labourious work in ploughing through hundreds (maybe thousands, I don't recall precisely now) of photos bore fruit the next day when I showed the police some of the clearest photos, showing my cab-driver client clearly trying to defend himself against the real assailant. The police withdrew the charges, and my delighted client offered to drive me wherever I wanted to go (I didn't take him up on the offer, but he was a terrific bloke).

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Last-minute briefs are a real challenge, trying to get across sometimes complicated, voluminous briefs in a short space of time. It's a challenge working across several areas of law, trying to keep up with the law in multiple areas is difficult. It can also, at times, be difficult to keep my working hours to something that vaguely represents a normal working week.

Did you always know this was the path you wanted to go down?

No, I never had any desire to be a lawyer during school, and even during uni - I took law because I thought Arts alone wasn't going to get me a job. I only discovered I wanted to be a barrister three or four years after I was admitted as a lawyer. That epiphany came upon me when I realised that barristers weren't supermen or superwomen, and that, in all likelihood, I'd have a reasonable crack at a career as one.

What does a day in your shoes look like?

Today it was swearing at my computer a fair bit because it wasn't doing what it should be, and moving as quickly as the Titanic turns. One of the down sides of being a barrister (unless you employ an admin assistant) is that you are running your own business - organising your IT, doing your own BAS returns, admin associated with briefs coming and going, as well as actually doing the work. A typical day varies greatly, and depends on whether I'm running a hearing or not. When I'm mid-hearing, I tend to dedicate most of my waking hours to the case. I then re-introduce myself to my wife at the end of the hearing. A day when I'm not running a hearing looks a lot like working as a solicitor (minus the firm surroundings) - prepare some advice, draw a pleading, answer emails, and so on.

How important a role does confidence play in your work?

Confidence does play an important role, but over-confidence can be ruinous. I was taught early on that confidence comes from good preparation, and I think that's basically true. Experience also brings confidence, and obviously it takes time to build up experience.

What has been your most valuable lesson learnt through your experiences with the law?

One of the most valuable things I've learnt is that we are really well served by our laws and system of justice in Victoria (and Australia). For all the foibles of our legal system, the judges, magistrates and Tribunal members that I see in my work do their utmost to achieve justice in whatever particular scenario that presents to them. And at least from my observations, they do a very good job in delivering that justice. This will probably sound terribly naive, but working as a barrister has increased my faith in the law.

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