ALARMINGLY high levels of depression among law students may be linked to sponsorship from a handful of large law firms and narrow career advice given to graduates.
According to the Brain & Mind Research Institute, a University of Sydney-established research centre, 41 per cent of law students will suffer from psychological distress severe enough to justify clinical assessment at some point during their degree.
The levels of depression will be even higher than that suffered by practising lawyers, the Institute claimed.
Law firm sponsorship is in high demand from law school societies, Verity Doyle, president of the Australian Law Student Association (ALSA) said at its April conference. But those law firms can also have a massive impact on the inner-workings of the various societies and the way they promote law firms to the students.
“There is a conflict of interests, I suppose, because law student societies want to promote what’s best for the members … But they also need funding … so that can mean that the main career opportunities which are promoted through law student societies are those going through the clerkship process and going into top tier firms,” she said in an interview with The New Lawyer.
Doyle said this creates a lot of pressure for law students and the perception that “you can’t succeed unless you get a job in a big commercial law firm”. She said that the financial crisis has only made this worse as fewer jobs are available.
The major players in law society sponsorship in New South Wales include Clayton Utz, Freehills, Mallesons Stephen Jaques and Minter Ellison, the country's four largest by number of lawyers, all of which sponsor nearly all of the large law student societies across the state.
Attorney-General Robert McClelland has endorsed ALSA’s report on depression among law students, released after the April conference. “Without increased awareness about depression and its impact on the sufferer and others, Australia may lose some of its most talented and committed legal practitioners and law students.”
The Association also passed a motion that ALSA must offer free advertising to non-profit organisations to promote their graduate programs in their publications. They are hoping law student societies around the country will introduce similar schemes.
“We’re definitely not wanting to bash big firms at all but I think it’s really about ensuring that we present a balanced picture to law firms,” said Doyle.
“If we did get backlash from any sponsors that’s something that we would be very disappointed with.”
The ALSA president said law schools themselves “continue to perpetuate these attitudes” and need to take responsibility for “forcing students to have unhealthy sleeping patterns and unhealthy lifestyles” through the use of 24 hour take-home exams and other forms of assessment. Along with universities, Doyle said the government needs to pay attention.
“It would take the pressure off a little bit if there was more support from universities for law student societies and that obviously flows through to support that universities get from the government,” said Doyle.
The Law Institute of Victoria has said that depression in the industry needs to be dealt with collectively. CEO Mike Young said: “All lawyers should realise they have a responsibility to their fellow practitioners and not on a firm-only basis.”
The Brain & Mind Institute, which surveyed 2413 lawyers, including 738 law students from 13 law schools, also found that when compared to barristers and solicitors, law students were unlikely to recognise symptoms of depression or seek professional help and are more likely to hold negative attitudes towards those suffering from depression.
See the recent report: 'ALSA backtracks on impact of law school sponsorship'.