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Lawyers urged to look inwards

Lawyers urged to look inwards

A judge has called for a culture shift in the legal profession, to put the focus on intrinsic fulfilment.

When lawyers ignore their intrinsic needs, it is a matter of “life and death”.

Speaking at lecture hosted by Deakin University’s school of law, Associate Justice Mary-Jane Ierodiaconou identified university as the place where lawyers’ obsession with extrinsic success starts.

The phenomenon creates a culture that makes lawyers seek out fulfilment in the wrong places, and they are being set up to fail, she suggested.

“A focus on intrinsic goals is better for wellbeing than a focus on extrinsic goals.”

“Lawyers and law students need to be able to paint their own personal picture of how success looks to them, [and] it will be a picture that includes their personal purpose for working in the profession,” the judge said.

Law schools are inadvertently cultivating a culture that drives people to pursue extrinsic signposts for success – affluence, luxury and power – the judge suggested, and the problem manifests itself in poor mental health throughout the profession.

Drawing on American research, Justice Ierodiaconou said personal reflection is “imperative” for individuals to develop their own values and purpose.

“Clinical professor Lawrence Krieger notes that the heavy workload of law students and lawyers can result in a focus away from intrinsic goals to extrinsic ones. 

“He observes that this ‘is truly unfortunate, since none of the external markers of achievement – class standing, financial success, image or status – has been shown to correlate with a good life’,” the judge said.

She went on to discuss how nurturing intrinsic values can lead to better personal and professional outcomes. Evidence also shows that legal ethics benefits from personal reflection and mindfulness practices, she said.

“Virtue ethics invites us to consider our identity, character and motivations at a profoundly personal level.

“Another ethical perspective relevant to the issue of wellbeing is the ethics of care. It focuses attention on people’s responsibilities to maintain relationships and communities, and to show caring responsiveness to others in specific situations,” the judge said.

Justice Ierodiaconou added that organisations and employers also shouldered a responsibility to give staff meaningful work – doing so will improve workforce engagement and wellbeing overall.

"[Some] may feel that they are a small cog in the wheel and unable to see how their work is meaningful. One of the most valuable things you can do is to explain to team members how their work contributes to the overall project, so they understand the importance of their work."

The judge also referred to best practice guidelines developed by the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation for psychological wellbeing, which links staff engagement and purpose. 

“[The guidelines] suggest that organisations can develop a vision and purpose and educate people about how their role contributes to their organisation’s vision and purpose. This is not inconsistent with running a profitable practice,” the judge said.

Mental health and wellbeing in law continues to be an important sector-wide issue, with national days of observance like ‘R U Okay Day’ renewing a commitment to tackle the issue in the profession.

This year Lawyers Weekly is supporting the 2016 Light Ball in Sydney, which will raise awareness of suicide prevention and depression in Australia.

The Light Ball is an opportunity to back a worthy cause with an important message: "With 7.8 Australians losing their lives to suicide each day, depression must be discussed more openly and freely," event spokesperson Ben Evans said.

The Light Ball event will be held on October 15th. For more information or to purchase tickets see here.

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