A key submission in a report into psychological distress in the legal profession has said the focus on billable hour targets can amount to bullying and lead to depression.
The Report on Psychological Distress and Depression in the Legal Profession was commissioned by the Law Society of Western Australia, following an increase in the number of legal practitioners suffering from mental health issues such as anxiety, stress and depression.
An Ad Hoc Committee conducted a thorough examination of existing information about wellbeing issues in the profession, the concerns of several key legal bodies, and initiatives already in place to address mental health problems. The Committee made 29 recommendations for the Law Society, with the report's author, Law Society senior vice-president and barrister Dr Christopher Kendall, also providing other suggestions as to how mental health issues can be effectively dealt with.
Included in the report's suggestions was the notion that facilitating greater dialogue about issues which contribute to poor mental health is an important step to "getting started".
"The Ad Hoc Committee supports the importance of dialogue in issues affecting the profession, clearly in keeping with the Society being the 'voice of the legal profession in Western Australia'," states the report. "To this end, the Ad Hoc Committee strongly encourages the Society to provide practitioners with the opportunity, perhaps via a Society-held forum, to discuss and debate matters such as billable hours.
"It is clear that the Society needs to take a systemic approach to mental health education, ensuring that as many Society initiatives as possible address what is clearly a growing professional need."
Amongst the concerns raised by the Ad Hoc Committee on Bullying was that "imposing excessive billable hours targets upon employees and adopting an unhealthy focus on billable hours in measuring employee performance may, in some circumstances, constitute bullying and/or cause depression or other psychological distress and depression".
The Law Society's Equal Opportunity Committee also expressed concern about the effect of billable hours on the wellbeing of lawyers.
"The literature is replete with complaints from young practitioners about the unsatisfying nature of legal work in a time billing environment," said the committee in its submission.
"High levels of dissatisfaction are evident in surveys, computer blogs and in the high number of young lawyers who leave the profession. The emphasis upon the production of billable hours creates a working environment which ... discourages professionalism and reduces work satisfaction to unacceptable levels.
The committee added that this is driving young lawyers away from private practice.
"Clever young lawyers are leaving the profession in droves, or shifting to corporate, government and NGO roles where their motivation is provided, and their performance assessed by outcomes other than the production of billable hours."
Amongst the report's 29 official recommendations was the availability of a comprehensive and free counselling support service, LawCare (WA), which is available to the Society's members and employees.
"The Society places a great deal of importance in the wellbeing of our members and we have taken appropriate measures to effectively support those members who may be suffering from psychological distress and depression," said Society President Hylton Quail.
"While working in the law can be a very rewarding profession, it is also incredibly demanding and this can place undue pressure on practitioners who are working in a competitive, high pressure and perfectionist environment."
Other recommendations included that the Society prioritise the development and delivery of educational and information strategies aimed at addressing mental health and wellbeing issues in the profession; mental health related seminars should be promoted to law students and graduates via all WA law schools and Practical Legal Training Providers; the Society establish a Members Advice Service to assist the Legal Profession Complaints Committee; and the Society review and expand its member privilege offerings to include more health and wellbeing related services, such as health insurance initiatives incorporating regular medical assessment and wellbeing products, services and related activities.
To see a full copy of the report, visit www.lawsociety.wa.asn.au