Goodbye job applications, hello dream career
Seize control of your career and design the future you deserve with LW career

Senior lawyers ‘can’t dissociate or absolve ourselves’ from psychological risks, says former KWM head

Former King & Wood Mallesons (KWM) chief executive partner Berkeley Cox, and KWM solicitor Margaret Cai, delivered a joint keynote at the 2022 Minds Count Annual Lecture last night, with the latter saying an “inevitable shift” is coming, whereby mentally healthy workplaces will be the bare minimum expected.

user iconReporter 28 October 2022 Big Law
Senior lawyers ‘can’t dissociate or absolve ourselves’ from psychological risks, says former KWM head
expand image

Speaking at the Federal Court of Australia in Sydney last night (Thursday, 27 October), Mr Cox — who was the firm’s Australian chief executive partner from 2017 to 2022 — said that there is a “grave danger in othering” the prevalence and experience of mental health issues as something to be solved by someone else, or as a problem with the system or a particular generational attitude.

“This is perhaps more of an appeal to the senior ones among us, at a personal level, please recognise that we can’t dissociate or absolve ourselves from this,” he implored.

“Each of us has a critical role (and fabulous opportunity) to play, especially those who are in leadership roles whose impact on those around them is profound.”


“Compassion, awareness and intent will go a long way, as will showing some genuine signs of vulnerability yourselves. Being human is endearing and creates an increased degree of psychological safety within your teams, which will go a long way,” Mr Cox posited.

There will, he continued, be a distinct advantage for employers who are proactive.

“Rather than seeing this as a burden driven by current and emerging legal obligations or just based on the need to support those with known pre-existing mental health issues, we can see it as a fabulous opportunity to create a more engaged and successful organisation and to look at this through a preventative lens,” he said.

During his time as chief executive partner at KWM, Mr Cox explained, he "maintained a willingness" to share that he, like many others in the profession, has a predisposition to anxiety.  

"Sure, it has had and still has an impact on me from time-to-time, where worries get out of proportion and the better of me, but with a growth mindset and help and support, I've learned to manage it effectively," he said. 

‘Harden up’ and ‘poor snowflakes’

Ms Cai, who has been with KWM since February of last year, remarked that she would be lying if she said that there had not been days on which she had questioned whether a career in law was something that she was cut out for.

“When I was in high school, I had my first experience with anxiety. It was consuming and manifested in a constant state of overthinking, worry and physical illness — and I was deeply ashamed about it,” she recalled.

“I remember being so conscious of how fast my heart was beating and having to sit on my hands in class to stop them from shaking. These are still things that I experience from time to time.”

In 2020, Ms Cai served as the president of the Australian Law Students’ Association, and mental health was one of her committee’s top priorities, alongside bullying, sexual harassment, and diversity.

The committee largely received positive encouragement for its advocacy on these issues, she noted, but added that “it definitely wasn’t universal”.

Among the comments she received at the time were: “When some judge roughs you up, what are you going to do, start crying at the bar table? Your client is depending on you. Harden up,” and “Sweet young things. Why on earth are they doing law?” and “Poor snowflakes…can’t handle the rough and tumble of real life…blame harassment…blame anything except themselves for not having what it takes.”

Such comments have stuck with her, Ms Cai reflected.

“I sometimes worry [that speaking up] continues to be perceived as a sign of weakness.

“Yet, I am here because I’m optimistic,” she announced.

“There will be major questions around the future of the legal profession, and the sustainability of a career in it, if mental health is not taken seriously. In many cases, those questions are already being posed.”

What juniors need

The workplaces that Ms Cai thinks will truly champion a mentally healthy environment are the ones that recognise the “importance of shared and sustained responsibility”, she said.

“This means consulting and co-designing workplace initiatives and policies with people across different roles and levels of seniority. It also means implementing them and regularly assessing their effectiveness.

“Prioritising such long-term objectives over short and specific activities also signals that a workplace is committed to its people,” she submitted.

This is fundamental, Ms Cai outlined, given that it is “incredibly difficult” for a junior member of a workplace to ask for help or even identify that they need help “when everyone around them is seemingly fine”.

“If a constant state of high stress, urgent deadlines, long days, and perfectionism are merely part of ‘business as usual’ — then, as a junior lawyer who doesn’t have an established career or track record, being the first person to say that you’re not OK, risks communicating to others that you don’t have what it takes to be here,” she espoused.

Moreover, Ms Cai detailed, a natural part of being a junior member of the legal profession is that you have less experience and autonomy, perhaps less agency over what kinds of work you do, and how and where you do it, and less visibility around when things are coming in and when they need to go out.

“The confluence of these factors has the potential to undermine feelings of stability at work. And that lack of stability can turn into feelings of helplessness or isolation,” she said.

In light of such experiences from those coming through the ranks, Ms Cai noted, we are “moving towards an inevitable shift” in the profession.

This shift, she explained, is one “where mentally healthy workplaces will be the minimum expectation for those who set foot in the profession”.

Be guided by urgency

Law firms should be guided, Ms Cai suggested, by a sense of urgency when it comes to psychological risks.

“This may look like resourcing additional staff on extra demand matters; ensuring that juniors are not given unsustainable hours or unattainable goals that are tied to their pay or progression; and promoting people based on proven managerial competence and not just technical abilities,” she said.

The issue of mental health, Mr Cox said in support, is “relevant for everyone”.

“Whether or not there is a known chronic issue or a predisposition to a mental health issue, with the right (or wrong) conditions, mental health issues can creep up on anyone. By focusing on this issue for everyone, we have an opportunity (and a responsibility) to create a safety net through which less people will fall and (more brightly) to turn on a level of engagement, creativity, goodwill and discretionary effort that will propel our organisations and our profession forward,” he listed.

BigLaw firms like KWM do not, Mr Cox mused, have all the answers.

“This is an ongoing journey for us,” he said.

“Like all professional services firms, we need to stay very focussed on it. I acknowledge the lived experience for some of our people may remain challenging from time to time.

“Challenges in law firm life are not going away. We can, however, do our best to create positive conditions in this context.”

A profession we can be proud of

Ultimately, Ms Cai concluded, wellness concerns “are for everyone” in the legal profession.

The expectations for workplaces are “clearly changing”, she proclaimed.

“Law students and early-in-career lawyers want to see psychological safety in practice. What this looks like is a shared responsibility between individuals, teams and organisations. To communicate openly, to build, consult on and co-design teams where everyone has a sense of ownership, and to train people on the protective and risk factors associated with mental health,” she said.

It will be easy, Ms Cai went on, to be proud of a profession that cares about the wellbeing of its people.

“To me, as a junior lawyer, the career I aspire to have in the law will be closely aligned with a workplace that prioritises these things: initiatives that focus on preventative measures and an environment that empowers its people through psychological and cultural safety,” she said.

Note: The editor of this publication sits on the board of directors for the Minds Count Foundation.