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Repairing the paradox

Repairing the paradox

As a general rule, lawyers are smart, well-educated, financially stable, and enjoy high social status. So why are so many desperately unhappy? Claire Chaffey looks at why public perception,…

As a general rule, lawyers are smart, well-educated, financially stable, and enjoy high social status. So why are so many desperately unhappy? Claire Chaffey looks at why public perception, ethical dilemmas and dashed expectations are getting

lawyers down.

We've all heard the figures: one in three lawyers and law students will, at some stage in their career, suffer from depression serious enough to warrant professional intervention.*

More than 50 per cent of lawyers have already suffered from depression at some point in time, and the legal profession is amongst the most miserable in the world. Dissatisfaction amongst lawyers is rife.

But why? This very question was one which Dr Colin James, a lawyer and researcher at the University of Newcastle, asked himself when he first came across studies into depression within the legal profession.

"[US researchers] were talking about the high rates of depression amongst lawyers in the US," he says. "I thought that was an interesting paradox, given the high status, social power and high income that we generally ascribe to lawyers.

As a researcher, I thought I would try to investigate the situation in Australia and publish what I found out."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, what he discovered was that Australian lawyers, too, are not happy with their lot.

That old chestnut

James commenced his research by studying graduates of the University of Newcastle and found that amongst numerous aggravating factors, one stood out above them all.

"I found that there were high rates of dissatisfaction with practice," he says. "The biggest problem for them was the simple matter of time billing.

The interviews showed that if they could simply remove that part from their practice, then life would be very different."

"There is a conservative view that law is not suited to everyone, and that the anxiety it provokes in some might be a good way of filtering out those who should do something else. I strongly disagree with that view"

Dr Colin James, lawyer and researcher, Universityof Newcastle

James' subjects are certainly not alone when it comes to a deep anxiety in relation to the billable hour.

The primary driver for many private practice lawyers looking to go in-house is an escape from the six-minute unit. For many others, it leads to a decision to leave the law altogether. Armstrong Legal senior family lawyer Elizabeth Rusiti acknowledges that billable hours are an ongoing problem for the profession.

While her current role offers budget relief, she often hears complaints from junior lawyers struggling under the weight of time billing targets.

"The demands of the job are very high. To do the required billable hours in any given day - and to do that day-in, day-out for a week and then for 48 weeks of the year- is really challenging," she says.

"It can make one feel like one is selling one's soul to the devil. Billable hours are the main thing young lawyers complain about, and I understand why, because I have been there. But it's just like that. I don't have a solution."

That Rusiti can't see a viable alternative comes as no surprise. While some smaller firms are beginning to make the move to fixed-fee models, for the firms in which pressure to reach billable-hour targets is the greatest - the top and mid-tier corporate firms - moving away from the billable hour is not yet seen as a viable business option.

"Solicitors' wages in some firms are high, and with the overheads they have, profit margins are not that high," says Rusiti.

"I don't see a way around billable hours. It is the way it is because of the need to drive profit to an acceptable level. Most of these entities are partnerships and the partners are personally responsible for paying employees and paying the rent."I think it's fair enough that they have a return for the risks that they take."

We're not all bad

While arguably at the top of the heap, the billable hour is but one factor amongst many that gets lawyers down. Another of which all lawyers are aware - but which not many lawyers will admit actually affects them - is the public's negative perception of the legal profession.

"The vast majority of solicitors do the right thing the vast majority of the time, yet the publichates us," reflects Rusiti. "I get very tired of hearing, 'Lawyers are all fat cats, and they are all in it to screw people'. Really, most of us take our professional and ethical obligations very seriously.

"Rusiti is not alone.In fact, such is the dismay at how the public views lawyers, a new grassroots lawyer movement, OutLawyers, was established last week with the aim - amongst others - of changing the negative image which currently haunts the legal profession.

"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"

Neil Watt, lawyer and ethicist, OutLawyers

Lawyer, legal ethicist and OutLawyers founder Neil Watt says he wanted to alleviate the depression, isolation and vulnerability he witnessed amongst a growing group of lawyers.

"I saw a lot of lawyers struggling ... They were battling the negative public perceptions and feeling really bad about the law and their profession," he says.

This struggle prompted Watt to mobilise a group of like-minded legal professionals to createa group in which lawyers could feel supported, become part of a community, and feel good about the fact they are lawyers.

"Lawyers get a really bad rap, and they shouldn't," says OutLawyer and general managerof BlandsLaw, Vivienne Storey.

"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 and Storey know they've got a lot of work to do in order to break down long-held perceptions about lawyers, but it is just a part, they say, of a movement which aims to bring a renewed sense of positivity into the profession.

"OutLawyers is not a grumpy group of lawyers here to whine about the profession," says Watt. "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 often felt by lawyers."

All by myself

Increasing the happiness of lawyers by making them feel part of a community is also an idea that appeals to James.

"Law schools [must] think of ways of keeping graduates connected with each other and new lawyers to preserve supportive friendships," he says. "There is a risk that new lawyers become isolated as a result of heavy workloads and long hours in the office. They have no choice." James is also an advocate of mentoring, which he says has great benefits for mentors and mentees.

"The vast majority of solicitors do the right thing the vast majority of the time, yet the public hates us"

Elizabeth Rusiti, senior family lawyer, Armstrong Legal

However, Rusiti points out that in order for mentoring to be effective it must be meaningful,and not just provided on an ad hoc, once-in-a-blue-moon basis.

Her role at Armstrong Legal was designed as one in which she nurtures and oversees the development of young lawyers. She gets budget relief to be there for them three days a week.This tailored role not only saved Rusiti from her own impending decision to drop out of law, but is one which has seen both the firm's retention rates and the lawyers' productivity lift dramatically.

"It is a great job, because I really love seeing the junior lawyers progress," says Rusiti.

"I wokeup one day and had 18 years experience, so I am doing something with that experience and giving something back. It has enabled me to utilise the skills I have, build new ones, and continue to get value out of being a lawyer, instead of packing it in after 18 years.

"It is an interesting role: I am a bit like their supervisor and their mother. I get to check their work and tell them, 'Don't forget to eat' ... I am there to say, 'You don't look too good today. You seem really stressed. What's going on?'"

Do the right thing

Another issue creating high levels of stress andanxiety in the profession, according to James and Watt, is that of ethics - or lack of them. Watt, an ethicist who used to work at the Centre for Lawyers' Ethics in Queensland, says he has seen an increase in ethical dilemmas facing lawyers.

"We began to get a lot of calls from lawyers who were struggling with depression and abuse issues, but 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 a document that I didn't actually see signed. What should I do?'" says Watt.

"We had to say, 'You can't sign it, because that would be a breach of the law as well as your ethical standards' ... 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, another focus of OutLawyers is the discussion of ethics and ethical dilemmas in an environment in which lawyers don't need to befearful of the consequences.

"I thought, 'What do you do? How can you support them?'" says Watt.

"The Law Society is limited in what it can do. There really needs to be a grassroots commitment by a group of lawyers - by the profession itself - to say, 'Bugger it! We want to have high standards. We want to challenge what the public thinks of lawyers. We want to support one another and support those vulnerable lawyers, especially those young lawyers just starting out'."

According to James, the huge pressure placed on lawyers to reach billable hour targets contributes to an erosion of the ethical values that should, theoretically, be at the heart of the profession. And this, he says, is contributing to high levels of stress and depression.

"Several problems arise from time billing. Firstly, it drives inefficiency, for obvious reasons. Secondly, we believe, anecdotally, that there is a practice in some places of 'rounding up' or, worse, fudging the figures to meet targets," says James.

"This is not only unethical; it's fraud ... Those who do this have a big task in trying to rationalise it to themselves. It may have a negative effect on their self-esteem and, combined with other stressors in their practice, it can lead to depression."It can also, says James, be the beginning of a "slippery slope", where falsifying time sheets, or rationalising that it is okay to do so, makes it easier for lawyers to minimise the importance of other ethical breaches in the future.

"That leads to further deterioration in mental health,"he says.

James believes part of the solution is for law students to be taught that ethics is more than just another subject at university.

"We could do more around embedding ethics in law degrees, so students internalise an ethical view as a way of being a lawyer, rather than treating it as just another subject of memorised rules," he says."That will help protect [lawyers] from the attitude that it is okay to bend the rules if everyone else is doing it."

Home truths

According to Daniel Petrushnko, the president of NSW Young Lawyers, the biggest complaint he hears from constituents is the growing divide between what they were expecting from legal practice and what legal practice actually entails.

"I hear a lot of lawyers saying they don't mind the work, but are they really happy? No. And a lot of it has to do with reality versus expectations," he says.

"They get a job and expect everything they ever dreamed of and, when they actually get there, it is completely different. I think that is a huge issue."

Rusiti, too, believes many new lawyers need a reality check.

"[They] may be assisted by hearing, earlier on in their careers, a few home truths and some reality testing around what the job involves: the fact it is extremely demanding; what is required and why it's required; how demanding partnership is; and how much they still have to learn when they leave university," she says.

"That kind of reality check enables junior lawyers to say, 'Is this really for me? If not, what else do I want to do with this qualification?'"

Closing the divide between reality and expectation is something to which universities are starting to aspire, and the University of Technology Sydney has taken the step of engaging Petrushnko to lecture law students once a semester.

"I talk to them about some home truths.The lecturers want to help students adjust accordingly to the profession," he says.

"I have a lot of students asking me how toget into areas such as human rights, sports law or media law ... I even get students asking me whether they will be able to run their own hearings in their first year.

"There are times when I feel bad about bringing the 'bad news' to students."

While law firms are often accused of creating false expectations for law students -especially when it comes to how they "wine and dine" their summer clerks - one managing partner recently found it in himself to be a little more upfront at this year's Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation annual lecture in September.

"There is one single KPI in a law firm, and it's called profit," said Minter Ellison SA/NT managing partner Nigel McBride.

"That model is basically saying to a young lawyer, 'We've got a lottery. Come in, workhard for 10 to 15 years, never have a life, you may be one of the very few that get into an equity partner position where you start to earn seven figures and get on your way.

"And, as you fall across the line into an equity partner role ... the fun just begins, because you can't take the foot off the gas, you've got to press hard ... Then you've got to do that for another 10 or 15 years."

Clear as day

While dissatisfaction in the profession is still a significant problem, there is a general consensus that, when it comes to acknowledging the problem - especially in relation to mental ill-health - the profession has progressed in leaps and bounds.

Much of this is due to people like Rusiti's husband, ex-Freehills partner and KPMG's national head of state taxation Matthew Stutsel, who was last year brave enough to go public with his fight against depression.

Rusiti, for one, has noticed a huge shift in attitude since the profession began to face up to the high rates of depression plaguing its ranks.

"Years ago, you would never tell anybody that you had a problem. You would never admit to a weakness," she says. "Now, that is not completely fixed, and I think ... some people still feel shame around having a mental illnessor not coping well, but this is breaking down."

James, too, believes things are changing for the better and hopes change will lead to happier lawyers who find fulfilling and long-lasting careers.

"There is a conservative view that law is not suited to everyone, and that the anxiety it provokes in some might be a good way of filtering out those who should do something else. I strongly disagree with that view," he says.

"A developed society needs all kinds of people as lawyers; not just those with thickskin."

*Source: Courting the Blues: Attitudes towards depression in Australian law students and legal practitioners, Brain and Mind Research Institute 2009

Like this story? Read more:

QLS condemns actions of disgraced lawyer as ‘stain on the profession’

NSW proposes big justice reforms to target risk of reoffending

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