Not a single managing partner in the Lawyers Weekly Managing Partner Survey 2013 believes abolishing billable hours is the key to reducing the high rate of depression among lawyers.
The overwhelming majority (89%) of respondents to the survey, which interviewed 20 of Australia’s top managing partners across global, national and regional firms, claimed more education and awareness at all levels is needed to tackle depression within the legal profession. The other 11 per cent nominated better work-life balance arrangements as the answer.
Marie Jepson (pictured), founder of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation (TJMF), a not-for-profit depression initiative aimed at lawyers, told Lawyers Weekly that she agreed greater awareness is necessary to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. But, she added, the more critical issue is workplace culture, which requires “fundamental changes”.
Jepson identified the 13 psychosocial factors assessed by [email protected] – a guide to workplace psychological health and safety – as being essential to meaningful cultural change within firms. These include ensuring workload management allows tasks and responsibilities to be accomplished successfully within the time available and recognising the need for balance between the demands of work, family and personal life.
“An environment where these 13 factors are an essential part of the organisation’s leadership policy and measurable review can lead to a major change in the psychological health and safety of the workplace,” she said.
Jepson added that to improve workplace culture, initiatives must focus on ongoing improvement, not blame and shame.
“The benefits of such an approach have been shown to create a positive risk management for organisations, increase productivity and profitability, improve staff retention and promote excellence,” she said.
Herbert Smith Freehills senior partner Peter Butler, who is also a director of TJMF, said firms are genuinely trying to tackle the problem of depression.
“Are we there yet? No, but huge efforts are being made to do better in this space,” he told Lawyers Weekly last month (February).
Butler highlighted [email protected], a collaboration of Allens, Ashurst, Clayton Utz, Herbert Smith Freehills, King & Wood Mallesons and The College of Law, to raise awareness of the causes and impact of stress, depression and anxiety across the legal profession.
“Firms are working collectively ... there is no competitive advantage in this space and firms want to share everything [they’re] doing,” he said. “If we approach depression as a collective issue we’re much more likely to get traction and move forward in the right way.”
The TJMF, which was founded in honour of Jepson’s son, Tristan, a young lawyer who committed suicide in 2004 after suffering from clinical depression, is currently investigating the triggers of depression in the legal profession.