LAWYERS ACROSS Australia will next week wear blue to mark mental health day, acknowledging that the profession has not escaped the “devastating reach” of depression.
The Australian Legal Practice Management Association (ALPMA) is urging lawyers and legal professionals to take seriously the problem of depression in law firms. A spokesperson for Maddocks Lawyers told Lawyers Weekly that along with other Australian firms, it is taking part in mental health day on 10 October to improve awareness of the illness and help reduce the stigma associated with it. Melbourne law firm Russell Kennedy is also taking part in the initiative, while other firms are considering how they can become involved.
ALPMA is now undertaking a fundraising and awareness campaign in association with Beyond Blue: The national depression initiative. Members of the legal profession have shown considerable interest in the new initiative, said ALPMA. “Anecdotally, we have a lot of interest from lawyers groups. Depression and these problems are evident in the legal industry as they are in any businesses, but quite often because people are strapped for time with demands and pressures, often they don’t take the time to be proactive about mental health or have the time to observe if someone else is not coping,” said Beyond Blue deputy CEO Nicole Highet.
“Because they don’t have background in health and mental health, they don’t recognise common signs and symptoms and they don’t know how to respond. It’s very easy to put it down to work pressure or work stress. And as a result, underlying depression becomes more severe and it impacts on their career and their ability to function in all areas,” Highet said.
Lawyers Weekly has in recent months covered the issue of unhappiness in law firms, revealing that law firms are not doing enough to satisfy their staff — from new entrants to partners — who are too often unsatisfied and not working to their full potential.
Former managing partner at law firm Freehills in Melbourne, Paul Montgomery, said that unhappiness has serious ramifications for senior partners, who are often dismissed as their productivity is affected. “They’re not neglecting [the partners], there is coaching going on. Firms recognise they do have this issue of lawyers’ unhappiness facing them, but if coaching doesn’t work then they tend to take that action [of letting them go]. Coaching seems to be quite prevalent and a lot of firms resort to it, but the level of assistance they give runs to that,” he said.
The legal profession needs to get more information about depression, said Highet at Beyond Blue. “[We need to] get people to recognise how common it is. Of course, depression will affect one in five people at some point in their adult lifetime, so that is one in five people in any organisation and any one profession as well. The cost to the profession is very high.
“We know that six million working days are lost every year to depression alone and we know that most people with depression don’t get treatment, particularly males, who are so busy running around and not taking time to monitor how they are travelling or changes in their colleagues,” she said.
The cost to firms is also considerable if it is not taken seriously, Highet said. “It has been estimated that one person with depression will cost their organisation around $10,000 a year. When you consider that 62 per cent of people with depression don’t get treatment, the impact of that in terms of productivity and absenteeism is massive.”
Former Clayton Utz partner Mike Lyons said earlier this year that there is an “internal strife of partners”, in which they are prepared to be miserable to make money. Some partners do not want to risk going on leave because they are concerned that when they come back they will not have the same clients, said Lyons, who is now managing director at SOLS Legal. He remembered a partner at one firm telling him, “we are all in partnership … but my biggest competitor is sitting in the office next to me”.
As well, “they share money which creates pressures of its own”. Although accepting there are many happy lawyers, Lyons argued “a lot of people find it difficult”.
But law firms are now taking this issue more seriously, said Highet. “We have had a lot of interest from lawyers groups so obviously there is some awareness around the issue, and this has culminated in looking at how they can increase awareness of depression amongst lawyers.
“Part of this is about raising awareness of depression overall, but also we need to be thinking how can we educate ourselves to look for signs. As well, we need to know what do we do if we think someone is at risk of depression in our working area,” she said.