With personal experience and a comprehensive knowledge of the issues plaguing lawyers in Western Australia, the Law Society's new president has a very clear agenda. Claire Chaffey reports
A "bad experience" during his time as Dean of Law at Murdoch University has led the new president of the Law Society of Western Australia to make tackling mental illness a priority in 2012.
Dr Christopher Kendall, an intellectual property barrister, has been elected as the Society's president for 2012 and will embark on a mission to deal with the escalating issue of mental ill-health amongst lawyers in the state.
"I had a bad experience when I was the Dean of Law with one of my students," he told Lawyers Weekly. "I simply wasn't equipped to deal with [the situation] as well as I thought I should have. I always said that if I was ever given the opportunity to ensure that others weren't in the position I found myself in ... then I would certainly tackle that."
And that is exactly what Kendall intends to do as he takes the reins from fellow barrister Hylton Quail.
"Depression and anxiety lead to issues of suicide and self harm," he said. "There has been a real wake-up call in the last few years. All of the evidence points to a profession very much in crisis with respect to mental health and general wellbeing."
Kendall said his top priority will be the implementation of key recommendations outlined in a report commissioned by the Society last year, The Report on Psychological Distress and Depression in the Legal Profession, following concerns about the increasing trend of legal practitioners suffering from mental health issues.
Kendall, a former academic, authored the report and now hopes to implement the 29 recommendations contained within it.
"The Society is very keen to ensure that our members understand how to deal with and tackle depression and anxiety, but are also able to access help and assistance when that is required," he said. "One of the key recommendations that came out of our report was that we develop a stronger LawCare policy, which offers counseling services to members. We offer four free sessions to all of our members, education sessions to managers, and general mental health and wellbeing information to all members who need to access it."
Another major project for Kendall will be the implementation of widespread educational programs on resilience, which he said is particularly important for lawyers working in the state's vast rural and regional areas. "We are keen to ensure that sole practitioners and members of small firms are able to access the community support they need."
While mental health issues top the agenda, Kendall will also find himself at the heart of a comprehensive review of Western Australia's Legal Profession Act, in light of impending national reforms.
At present, Western Australia is not part of the national scheme, and Kendall said there is good reason for it.
"After listening to the concerns of the profession and the Society's members, the Government decided that the national scheme just wasn't in the best interests of Western Australian lawyers," he said. "There has always been a sense here that Western Australia is treated differently, but there is also recognition that it is different. It's just the view of members here that the concerns of local practitioners are best handled in Western Australia by Western Australians."
Kendall said the WA Government intends to establish a working party on the matter to ensure that practitioners from all across the country are able to function effectively in Western Australia.
"There will have to be some cross-referencing to ensure that practitioners here are able to do what they need to do within the context of a national profession," he said. "We also need to ensure that people from the eastern states are able to do what they need to do when they practise here."
Kendall has served on the Society's council since 2008 and was the senior vice president and chair of the education committee in 2010.
As well as being a practising barrister, Kendall is a commissioner with the Insurance Commission of Western Australia, and was formerly the Dean of Law at Murdoch University and a commissioner with the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia.