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The serious business of mental health in law

Make no mistake, mental health in Australia is serious business, costing the broader economy millions and having untold personal impact on individuals and their families, writes Mellissa Larkin.

user iconMellissa Larkin 08 August 2019 Big Law
Mellissa Larkin
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Lawyers are by no means immune from the effects of mental health impacts given the inherently demanding nature of the field in which they choose to practice – in fact, studies have shown that lawyers experience much higher rates of depressive symptoms when compared to other professions.

On the surface, the culture of the legal industry has begun to shift slightly in an effort to address mental health issues among lawyers, however there is still a long way to go.

Now, more than ever, legal industry leaders and policy makers should be actively campaigning for systemic change in how lawyers are supported for the duration of their careers. Those very leaders need to be supported too, by both their industry and the wider community.


BigLaw culture undoubtably needs to do more at a deeper level, however small practices too have a role to play and both must take their responsibility for the wellbeing of staff seriously.

Feeling part of a healthy, positive culture is essential, in law particularly because the work itself is stressful and the deadlines are ever present.

Having a supportive, “safe space” internal culture, encouraging a collaborative approach and prioritising the wellbeing of team members, are vital pieces of the wellness puzzle. Now, thanks in part to continual advances in communication and workflow technology and applications, smaller, independent firms are free to create their own vibrant new cultures unrestrained by the traditional, inflexible model.

The price we pay

New ABS data has shown that mental and behavioural health conditions were the most prevalent chronic health conditions recorded in Australia in 2018.

More than one in four Australians of working age are now living with depression and anxiety.

According to the Australian Mental Health Commission, even by 2016, the cost of mental health conditions to the Australian economy had soared to an a whopping $60 billion annually.

The rub – lawyers doing it tough 

So how do those figures manifest in the legal industry? Lawyers don’t fare any better, unfortunately – in fact, by some accounts, lawyers are doing it even tougher than the general population.

Renowned for producing historically toxic workplace cultures that ignore – even endorse – poor working conditions, bullying, and harassment, and for ignoring important health issues such as exhaustion, stress, and alcohol and drug abuse, the legal industry has long been criticised for its lack of acknowledgement or support for mental health awareness.

Lawyers are often represented as workaholics highly competitive workers who demand perfection. Unfortunately, it may in fact be these traits that exacerbate their susceptibility to mental health challenges. Coupled with operating in an inherently stressful workplace – characterised by stressed clients, long hours, high-pressure situations and the lack of work/life balance, this intensity may create a perfect storm for mental health issues to arise.

Richard Collier, from Newcastle Law School in the UK, who is currently researching the causes and impacts of mental health issues on the legal profession, believes that “long working hours, client demands, poor management, stigma around reporting mental health problems, and a hyper-competitive billing culture create [such] a toxic mix,” fuelled by a culture of extreme competition.

Vulnerability and emotional intelligence, both crucial to leading a meaningful life and developing deep, authentic relationships, are in contrast to the logic, pragmatism and disengagement from emotion that has historically been expected in legal practice.

Any deviation from the traditional approach, in particular in an effort to better balance the intense pressures and demands of the job and to foster a healthier workplace culture, is sometimes viewed by others in the legal industry as weakness – or even desertion – and a reluctance to “pay their dues” by enduring the same conditions as those who have gone before.

Driving change – from the top down

Support from business leaders – founders, CEOs, directors, and other management – is the key to driving change in the wellbeing of staff. But paradoxically, it is those very leaders who are also the ones who are most at risk – long-term late nights, high levels of stress, high-stakes and inadequate support can all contribute to poor mental health outcomes for senior executives.

In October 2018, eight of the UK’s top law firms, along with three major banks, signed the Mindful Business Charter. Uniting to achieve a common outcome, these industry leaders have now forged “an unprecedented alliance to change avoidable working practices that can cause mental health and wellbeing issues for employees,” pledging to “promote a culture of openness about mental wellbeing” and actively take steps to drive positive cultural change in the industry.

Similarly, “promoting and supporting lawyers’ mental health is a Presidential Priority for the Law Council in 2019.” In April it submitted its report The Social and Economic Benefits of Improving Mental Health, to the Productivity Commission. The report had two distinct focus areas – the impact of mental health issues on the judiciary system, and importantly, how the legal profession itself has responded to “challenges relating to mental health” within its membership.

The way forward

Change is often painful as it requires honesty and vulnerability. But it can also be deeply rewarding. Undoubtedly, positive lifestyle changes need to take place at an individual level for lawyers’ wellness to improve. But it’s critical that industry leaders also not only acknowledge, but endorse, the institutional change that’s so desperately needed, enabling legal practitioners to go about the business of improving their health and lifestyles.

For example, a more flexible and collaborative workplace can impact positively on the wellbeing of individuals. Two of the top ten factors listed by the Black Dog Institute in Australia as impacting on workplace wellbeing, include “[r]elationships with colleagues and managers” and “work/life balance”.

A collaborative, collegiate environment, in which staff feel trusted, supported and included in decision making can have an extremely positive impact on staff members and their perception of their workplace culture. Equally, leveraging advances in communications technology to support flexible working arrangements can assist staff to find their personal equilibrium in the work/life juggle.

Both of these initiatives are being championed within the smaller NewLaw firms, unshackled by traditional law firm hierarchies, high overheads and ingrained office bound practices.

Unencumbered by the restraints of the traditional legal model, smaller, innovative firms are faced with an historic opportunity to champion a new, healthy culture for staff, leading from the top down, and the inside out. For many lawyers, the disruption to the industry cannot come soon enough – their wellbeing depends on it.

Mellissa Larkin is the CEO/founder of Peripheral Blue.