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Billable hours and lack of meaningful work driving depression

Billable hours and lack of meaningful work driving depression

Mental ill-health is the biggest challenge facing young lawyers today and billable hours and the changing nature of litigation are the key factors behind it, says immediate past president of the…

Mental ill-health is the biggest challenge facing young lawyers today and billable hours and the changing nature of litigation are the key factors behind it, says immediate past president of the New South Wales Young Lawyers Association (NSWYL) Pouyan Afshar.

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Afshar, who handed over the NSWYL presidency to barrister Daniel Petrushnko at the Annual Assembly over the weekend, said his time as president had alerted him to the fact that depression is a serious issue amongst young lawyers, and he believes the billable hour plays a central role in the deterioration of mental health.

"From my position, I get a good sense, every once in a while, of what's not right," he said.

"In commercial law and litigation, I think the pressures on young lawyers come from the billable hour. There hasn't been much of a discussion in the past - not in any sort of depth that you would want - about the billable hour and the effect it has on staff ... It is not the only thing, but that has an effect on peoples' mental health."

Petrushnko, who has been elevated from his position of vice-president to president, intends to put the issue of mental ill-health at the top of the organisation's agenda during his one-year term.

"Mental health is going to be a huge issue. We all know someone, or have heard of a story about a colleague, that is suffering from a mental health condition. It is something that, as a fellow practitioner, is close to my heart. Hearing those stories, it is something that we really want to tackle," he told Lawyers Weekly.

"Mental health will obviously lead to things like discussing and looking at ... the billable hour, retention rates amongst young lawyers, and how we can [improve them]. The last thing we want is for a quality young lawyer to leave the profession because of a mental health issue. When you hear stories about a fellow young lawyer committing suicide, it hurts ... You don't know them personally, but they're a young lawyer, they're a colleague."

Part of the strategy for dealing with depression in the profession will be making available resources and ensuring that young lawyers know that the NSWYL is an organisation through which they can seek support and assistance.

"A lot of young lawyers are suffering ... It's one of those things where, because of how close depression is, no-one really wants to admit to having it. [We need to] put in place certain systems for people to access if they see a colleague suffering from a mental health condition, or if they themselves are suffering, they are not afraid to come along and speak to us," said Petrushnko.

According to Afshar, young lawyers have also expressed concern about a lack of developmental opportunities within their firms, and he has urged partners to put more thought into what it is their junior lawyers are doing.

"The advent of large-scale litigation is ... really causing some problems for young lawyers, where their development is hampered by working on large teams where they are only dealing with really small aspects of that case, where they do not develop as lawyers," he said.

"We go through five or six years of university, we go through College of Law, we go through all of the things we need to do to become a lawyer, and yet after that, all we are document reviewers. There needs to be some thought given to the potential of young lawyers and the fact that we are lawyers, we're not just clerical staff. We have been trained to do a particular job, and once we step back and see that in perspective, then I think the lives of young lawyers will improve."

Afshar also believes that a lack of meaningful work, which is often the hallmark of large-scale litigation, leads to mental ill-health.

"[Young lawyers] are a very resilient bunch and, even though there have been a lot who have left the profession, I think a lot of them enjoy what they do," he said.

"It's about giving people who are, by nature, driven, the opportunity to learn and develop. If they're not, their sense of self and satisfaction with their work will drop ... and that's what leads to problems."

Claire Chaffey

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