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Profession continues fight against mental illness

Profession continues fight against mental illness

Whether lawyers can achieve profit, success and happiness was an important issue explored at the sixth annual Tristan Jepson Memorial Lecture. Briana Everett reportsLast night on 29 September,…

Whether lawyers can achieve profit, success and happiness was an important issue explored at the sixth annual Tristan Jepson Memorial Lecture. Briana Everett reports

Last night on 29 September, members of the legal profession gathered in the Federal Court of Australia to hear a seven-member panel address the ongoing issues of workplace culture and mental health in the legal profession, and whether lawyers can have it all when it comes to success and happiness.

Facilitated by freelance journalist and University of New South Wales law alumna Julie McCrossin, the discussion was led by panel members Gareth Bennett, national HR director at Freehills; Bruce Humphrys, managing partner of HopgoodGanim; Nigel McBride, managing partner of Minter Ellison (Adelaide/Darwin); Patricia McDonald SC of Selborne Chambers; Damian Sturzaker, partner of Marque Lawyers; Alex Boxsell, legal affairs editor of The Australian Financial Review; and psychiatrist Dr Michael Diamond.

Telecast live from Sydney to venues in South Australia, Western Australia and the ACT, the lecture was held to raise awareness about the culture of law firms and mental illness, which affects the legal profession more than any other.

In his opening address, chair of the TJMF and former president of the NSW Court of Appeal, Keith Mason, noted the need for more education and the generation of ideas concerning mental health. He compared the lack of attention to mental health with the "national furore" triggered by the live export debate earlier this year that led to vigorous action.

"With all respect to our animal welfare friends, the situation that has energised the Foundation and the work that we're continuing to do is more serious," said Mason.

While McCrossin provided some welcome comic relief during the intense discussions, members of the panel spoke about the issues of timesheets and the pressures placed on young lawyers, with some panellists sharing their own personal experiences with mental illness.

Humphrys described how his personal experience with depression has helped him to be more aware of the dangers of mental illness.

"My awareness of the danger of the illness has heightened," he said. "The key is to work out how to prevent the disease rather than how to deal with it once it has occurred."

One of the causes of mental illness in the legal profession, according to some panellists and audience members, is timesheets.

"When you treat people on the basis of only measuring their time and not by the value they give to a particular client or to someone working within the organisation, you're reducing that person to a very low common denominator. It's a very lonely experience," said Sturzaker.

While the panel and audience members debated whether timesheets or workloads are to blame, one audience member asked, "The profession is competitive, so why would I, a young lawyer, give a partner of a firm any reason to think I'm not capable?" to which McBride responded with a brutally honest account of the difficult climb to partnership.

"It's a lottery. You can come in, work hard for 10 or 15 years, never have a life and you may be one of the very few that get into an equity partner position," he said.

This sobering account of the reality of life in a commercial firm then provoked discussion of the importance of continuing to encourage sufferers to speak up and seek help - a key aim of the TJMF.

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