New psychological wellbeing guidelines are a start in tackling legal depression, but the link between billable-hour targets and long working hours deserves further scrutiny, writes Leanne Mezrani.
Last month the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation (TJMF) launched world-first psychological wellbeing guidelines for the legal profession.
Lawyers Weekly commends the TJMF and the 26 founding signatories of the guidelines for taking this important step to help curb the high rate of depression in the law.
The voluntary guidelines are detailed and practical without being overly prescriptive, which gives firms flexibility in how, when and to what degree they are followed. The initiative also trusts firms to be authentic about their level of compliance, with no current reporting requirements or performance scorecards associated with the guidelines.
So it is hoped that firms would not, for example, claim their organisational culture promotes psychological wellbeing (the first and arguably most important guideline) if that firm tolerates bullying behaviour or rewards lawyers who spend unreasonably long hours in the office.
Head in the sand
As one Lawyers Weekly reader rightly points out, long working hours is still “one of the big elephants in the room” in discussions about depression, with billable-hour targets raised by numerous lawyers as the reason for working in excess of 70 hours per week.
The connection between billable hours and the high rate of depression is obvious to some, but not the profession’s leaders. In a survey of 20 managing partners conducted by Lawyers Weekly last year, not one agreed that ditching billable hours would solve the problem.
However, there is no doubt that billable-hour targets force lawyers to work long hours and, in doing so, they sacrifice sleep, family time, social events, exercise and healthy eating habits – all of which promote positive mental health.
Not even high salaries, status and the promise of intellectually stimulating work is offsetting the psychological impact of time-billing demands.
The legal profession continues to receive undesirable awards for having the highest rates of depression, with a quarter of barristers, a third of solicitors and almost half of all law students at a high or very high risk of suffering from a diagnosable mental illness.
The TJMF guidelines represent the start of a groundswell of support for change to the practises of firms and organisations which are damaging the mental health of lawyers.
One of the more vocal critics of large law firm culture is John Poulsen, managing partner of Squire Sanders in Australia. In a recent interview with Lawyers Weekly, Poulsen said the guidelines will succeed in creating a healthy firm culture only if partner performance is assessed against organisational values, such as supporting employee wellbeing and encouraging a fulfilling personal life.
“That way you make sure values are not just something that sits on the wall, they are something people live by,” he said.
Lawyers Weekly agrees that giving partners a financial incentive to champion depression initiatives will make a difference; as will firm leaders sending the message to staff and clients that psychological wellbeing is more important than billable hours and firm profits.
Leanne Mezrani (pictured) is the deputy editor of Lawyers Weekly.