MALE SUBURBAN, sole practitioners with more than 10 years’ experience are the most likely to seek assistance for anxiety and stress-related illness, according to a lawyers’ help-line.
Richard Gulley, a sole practitioner in Sydney’s Bondi and deputy president of the Mental Health Review Tribunal, is also the coordinator of the Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) telephone counselling service. He described this at-risk group as a constant source of worry.
“Since we set it up in March 2001 I have had 751 telephone calls from solicitors in this state who are, in most instances, in a highly distressed state, in many instances extremely distressed and in some instances at the point of suicide. We had a very close shave with a male practitioner who decided that the Moonee Moonee bridge on the F3 was a way to go and it took a while to talk him out of that and get him back into society where we could address his problems — but we managed to do it,” he told a NSW Young Lawyers forum.
The forum was held to address high levels of dissatisfaction within the profession amongst young lawyers. According to the Law Society of NSW president, Geoff Dunlevy, around 25 per cent of NSW lawyers in the most recent practising certificate survey indicated that they were planning to leave the profession within the next five years.
Gulley, who keeps records of the phone calls he receives, said the reasons for dissatisfaction are numerous.
“The profession doesn’t suffer from a narrow corridor of problems — we are all human beings and it’s a stressful environment in which we work so people are facing a lot of problems.
“In a lot of cases solicitors are working on their own with mortgages, children and financial commitments. They are very vulnerable to make mistakes or have complaints made against them. Stress can induce errors in their work and then disciplinary action may be taken,” he told Lawyers Weekly.
Gulley’s observation that suburban lawyers are feeling the pressure seems to be supported by LawCover statistics. Between 2001/02 and 2005/06 firms with only one partner were most at risk of having a negligence claim brought against them. In fact, over 50 per cent of circumstances and incidents brought to LawCover’s attention involved firms with one partner. Thirty-five percent of incidents concerned real estate matters.
A decline in probate and personal injury work — the bread-and-butter for sole practitioners — is also causing financial hardship.
“There has been a substantial drop-off in work and when you get financial problems you get health problems too, and that encompasses a lot of things like stress and general ill health and anxiety,” Gulley said.
In the larger city firms, aggression was blamed as the primary cause for dissatisfaction, and according to Gulley this is one of the main reasons young female lawyers call the LAP.
“I have had to take an ever-expanding number of calls from distressed young female solicitors working for large city firms. For a long while it wasn’t the sort of call I was getting but after a while they started to come in.
“It never ceases to amaze me about the stupidity and ignorance of some of the partners in major city firms in NSW. At times they need to sit back and say, ‘What am I seeking to achieve here by encouraging young and talented solicitors to become aggressive machines?’,” he said.
Gulley warns that unless leaders within the profession recognise that aggression is an unhealthy way to achieve results, litigation is likely follow.
“It will not be long before [a young lawyer] runs a case and I can tell you now it will either settle or that person will succeed by a very substantial amount of money.
I saw one case in Sydney where I did the cost assessment, so therefore I read all about it, and it concerned a business firm in Sydney who settled a harassment case in Sydney for a massive sum of money against one of its junior employees. And we all know what happened in the United Kingdom. I just hope it never gets that far,” Gulley said.
If you or a colleague are suffering from stress, depression or any other personal difficulty, contact the Lawyers Assistance Program on 1800 777 662