Battling negative public perceptions about lawyers is a key focus point for a new grassroots lawyer movement.
OutLawyers was launched last Friday (21 October). It is the brainchild of lawyer and legal ethicist Neil Watt and is aimed at providing a forum in which legal professionals can come together to share knowledge, network, discuss concerns and legal ethics, and support other lawyers.
One of the central issues OutLawyers hopes to combat is the negativity leveled at lawyers which often manifests in lawyers feeling bad about themselves and their profession.
"I saw a lot of lawyers struggling with depression, isolation and vulnerability. They were battling the negative public perceptions and feeling really bad about the law and their profession," said Watt.
"The group is still evolving, but a lot of it is about lawyers feeling good about the profession. A lot of it is going to be about encouraging lawyers to see the positive attributes of what they are doing and feeling good about themselves."
Fellow OutLawyer and general manager of BlandsLaw, Vivienne Storey, agrees with Watt, and said the public doesn't often hear about the good work lawyers do.
"Lawyers get a really bad rap, and they shouldn't," she said. "Lawyers and law firms put huge amounts back into the community, but you never hear about it. Why is that? The Law Society doesn't tell people about it and lawyers don't tell people about it, so let's talk about it."
Watt said the idea for OutLawyers was born through his work at the Centre for Lawyers' Ethics in Queensland.
"We began to get a lot of calls from lawyers who were struggling with depression and abuse issues and those sorts of things," he said. "We would also get a lot of young lawyers calling in and saying, 'I have been asked by my managing partner to do something ... I am being pressured to witness documents that I didn't actually see signed. What should I do?' It made my heart bleed to hear from numerous young lawyers who wanted to do the right thing but were fearful of their employment and their future."
As such, Watt was determined to provide a support network that was outside the limitations of the Law Society and which would confront and deal with difficult issues faced by the profession, but in a positive way.
"It is important to say that OutLawyers is not a grumpy group of lawyers here to whine about the profession," he said. "It's a group of positive people who believe in the profession, and who also believe we can do it better, we can do it differently, we can do it less adversarially. We can build a community in order to provide support. It is really a way of combating the isolation that is often felt by lawyers."
Watt said that as he began formulating ideas for the group, he found other people, like Storey, were excited by the notion of a group which could provide meaningful support outside the confines of a lawyer's own firm.
"The idea gained some currency around the country, and a couple of weeks ago I just put it out on Twitter to see what happened. Within 24 hours we had over 100 followers. It seemed to strike a nerve all over the country," he said.
"It is about challenging the way things are, being innovative and doing things differently, sharing knowledge, sharing experiences, networking and maintaining high ethical standards. There are three key principles which have been there from day one: innovation, ethics and collegiality. They were the three things that I wanted OutLawyers to be about.
OutLawyers' only presence thus far is on Twitter (@OutLawyers), though Watt and Storey are in the process of building a website which will be launched in the coming weeks.
To read more about OutLawyers, their philosophy and their plans for the future, pick up issue 558 of Lawyers Weekly.