THE MANAGING partners of four of Australia’s biggest law firms have expressed a commitment to work together to tackle depression within the profession.
Peter Butler of Freehills, Craig Pudig of Clayton Utz, John Aitken of Blake Dawson Waldron, and Andrew Cunningham of Minter Ellison have affirmed their cooperative stance on the issue.
Their alliance came following the Tristan Jepson memorial lecture delivered by former Premier of Western Australia, Geoff Gallop, last week.
The lecture was held in memory of Jepson, a young lawyer who suffered from depression before taking his own life.
Gallop, who resigned as Premier of Western Australia in 2006 citing depression, said there was a disconnect between what the law sought to achieve and the experience of legal professionals.
“To me the apparent contradiction is the driving force of the law as a liberating instrument in our community, for challenging our society is so many different ways, and creating so many opportunities for individuals as a result of those.
“But at the same time we see the [profession of law is] having extreme difficulty finding a model that can lead to, if you like, the mental wellbeing of many of the people working in the law,” he said.
Gallop reminded the audience that admitting you had a problem was a positive step.
“Seeking help is not a sign of failure but it can be the first step to a real and lasting freedom,” he said.
Following Gallop’s speech, the four managing partners spoke of how they planned to work together to address the issue, with Clayton Utz’s Pudig pointing out that any attempt to have a competitive edge over competitors in this area was “inappropriate”.
All four managing partners said they had witnessed the effects of depression either in their firms or personal lives.
Butler said: “I long to do something about this issue. Again, like many people … I’ve seen firsthand the devastating effects. I have seen it in my family and I’ve seen it in my friends and I’ve seen it in my firm so I want to do something about it.”
Butler hypothesised that the high rates of depression in the profession were linked to how driven and competitive many lawyers were, possibly fuelled by feelings of inadequacy.
“There are very high stress levels in our profession. It’s a hard, tough game. People learn that right from the start,” he said.
Aitken admitted depression was health issue he had struggled to deal with from a management perspective during his career.
“It’s an issue we face as a firm and I’ve had direct experience of it in having to manage situations myself which I probably came to very ill-equipped,” he said.
Aitken said the profession needed a cultural change to help combat the issue, saying that law firms have let themselves be regarded purely as businesses for too long.
“We are more and more in our firm emphasising that we stand for the professional values of the law and that in doing that we realise we have a social obligation which is first and foremost before our obligation to the client, and certainly before our self-interest in terms of whatever remuneration,” Aitken said.
Aitken also announced that Blake Dawson Waldron was working with the psychology department at the University of Sydney which was carrying out research in conjunction with the Prince of Wales Hospital into how best to help professionals in complex working environments. The results of that research would be shared with other firms, he said.
Cunningham said it was imperative that law firm staff learn how to identify the symptoms of depression.
Minter Ellison is using Beyond Blue to train close to 130 staff members on how to respond if they suspect someone is depressed.
The Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney is planning to carry out a national study examining the actual incidence of depression in the legal profession. It will also look into the level of depression and mental health literacy of lawyers and law students, and evaluate whether mental health literacy interventions targeted specifically towards law students and lawyers are needed.
Tax deductible donations to the Brain and Mind Research Institute project to The Tristan Jepson Memorial Research Program.