Reflections on a career in the High Court fuelled by a quest for learning

"If you can't find the fun in it, give it up. I found the fun in it."

This philosophy underpinned the distinguished career of the Hon. Kenneth Madison Hayne AC, former Justice of the High Court of Australia.

Mr Hayne spoke to a captivated audience and reflected on his career in the law as part of this year's Constitutional Law Conference at Melbourne Law School.

Recently appointed a Professorial Fellow at Melbourne Law School, Mr Hayne retired as Justice of the High Court of Australia on June 5 after 17 years.

Speaking of his appointment to the High Court of Australia 17 years ago, Mr Hayne said he was incredibly grateful for his wife Justice Gordon's support at the time, and joked he could now begin to repay the favour, following her appointment to the High Court of Australia; the fifth woman to be appointed to the role in its 112 year history.

"The debt I owe Michelle is immense and can never be repaid…My gratitude to her knows no bounds," he said.

Mr Hayne graduated from a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Melbourne. He was admitted to practice in 1969 and in the same year was Victoria's Rhodes Scholar. He then went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Civil Law from Oxford University.

Mr Hayne says he entered law school with no real idea about what the law or the practice of the law was about.

"I entered law school not really knowing why it was I wanted to study law. But I found I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of the law," he said.

Studying at Exeter College at Oxford in 1969, Mr Hayne described the tutelage there as "alive and flourishing. It felt like, in part, I'd died and gone to heaven and, in part, terrifying," he said.

Upon joining the Bar in 1971, he began to see the real-life impact of the law.

"When I went to the Bar, the staple diet was the crash and bash jurisdiction of the Magistrate's Court," he said.

Appointed as a judge of the Victorian Supreme Court in 1992, Mr Hayne said it takes four to five years to learn to be a judge, and that the good work of a judge is to send the losing party away absolutely certain that the court had listened to them.

"One of the joys of being a trial judge is the endless parade of witnesses; a rare and remarkable experience," he said.

Mr Hayne said one of the biggest challenges as an advocate in the High Court was preparing for the differing interpretations of a case, which could derail a carefully-considered approach to legal argument.

The reality of working in the High Court was that you "get one shot at it" to make a suitable judgement.

This was, he said, "a terrifying aspect of advocacy in the High Court. I have never forgotten that the loneliest place on earth is the lectern at the High Court of Australia."

However, one of the most rewarding aspects from his time in court was developing lasting relationships with his Associates. Mr Hayne emphasised the importance of laughter in chambers and working with a team you could get along with.

"I had the privilege of 36 Associates from my time in court. I am still in touch with them all. You hope it will be a relationship that will continue for their whole professional lives," he said.

Mr Hayne believes law schools should be concerned with passing on to students a capacity to deal with the knowledge and application of legal principles.

Throughout his career, teaching and learning remained a clear priority.

"For a number of years, really for most of my time as a Judge and at the Bar, I tried to keep at least a finger in the pie of teaching something to someone. Mainly because I enjoyed it, but almost always because I ended up learning much more from those that I taught.

"I think it can be a remarkably rewarding thing to teach. Especially is it rewarding to teach young people who come at things with new, fresh ideas," he said.

As the beginning of semester two approaches, Mr Hayne said he would like to get students to think of the law as one cohesive entity.

"I want to try to persuade them that although they have studied law, inevitably in separate disciplines, the law in fact is not a lot of little silos. It is in fact a big, joined-up system.

"There is always guidance to be had outside the immediate confines of your own narrow discipline. There is something to be learned from another area that is of immediate and direct application in their own area," he said.

There is also much to learn from Mr Hayne himself.

By Liz Banks-Anderson