THROUGH GOOD TIMES AND BAD
With all the talk of depression in the law over the last few weeks, I couldn’t help but think of a bigger picture — that of the umbrella of a profession in supporting and protecting its individuals.
For the most part, lawyers seemed lucky. Few job types, and indeed professionals, have the support networks that are wrapped around the legal profession. I wondered if discussing the realities affecting individuals in law was merely a matter of a profession continually looking inward at itself, instead of taking some perspective and seeing the broader world for what it is.
Then I too got some perspective.
After reflecting on life for a lawyer in a large law firm, it is not difficult to find some of the external factors that — on top of a predisposition to depression or not — may well contribute to a lawyer’s mental health. Factors that relate to a working environment that by many other professions standards, is simply not natural.
From there, a range of other factors become pertinent. At a recent seminar on depression in law, Professor Ian Hickie from the Brain and Mind Research Institute said that autonomy was a critical factor in mental health. Are young lawyers — often creative minds, intelligent and at the top of their game at university — simply set up to be disappointed by their lack of ability to make decisions and take control of their work when they start in a law firm?
Not only that, but isolation also appears to be taking its toll. Where many industry sectors are moving to open-plan offices, creating potential for more communication and interaction, law firms are retaining their culture of private offices.
Such physical isolation, along with the number of hours spent in the office on a weekly basis, goes against the regular socialising priorities of the human condition.
Ambitious as young law students are when studying, it is also a tough job attempting to land that first position within a law firm. And the fact that a buyer’s market turns so significantly in favour of the buyee when lawyers gain around three to five years experience, can only suggest that plenty of lawyers quickly realise that life in a firm is not for them.
For those that stay, they remain at the coalface — and the mercy — of the economic cycle, a notion that has become all too familiar in the last few weeks for lawyers in traditional hotspots such as New York and London. The Lawyer reports that Freshfields has just become the first magic circle firm to raise the axe, while in the United States, plenty of legal jobs in financial institutions have disappeared.
But still, lawyers are lucky enough to operate under the banner of a “profession” — and a strong one at that. Such an identity is limited to certain job types and lawyers are in one professional sphere offering the chance to discuss such issues as depression and the support structures to help.
It’s a privilege rarely seen in the real world. And one that should be exploited for all it’s worth.
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