In response to last week's cover feature on mental illness in the legal profession, Michael Bradley says it's time to start being honest.
|Michael Bradley, managing partner, Marque Lawyers|
It's good that we've moved on from denial of the problem's existence, but we appear now to be stuck in a bizarre and immoveable stand-off where the one thing we're not saying is the one thing we need to address.
On one side are the advocates of awareness and reform, like the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation and Lawyers Weekly, giving voice to the issue but unable to do anything about it. On the other stands the profession, engaged in very active and sincere hand-wringing and saying, "Yes, terrible, isn't it. If only we could find a way for our lawyers to feel comfortable about speaking out about their mental illness, we really want to help them."
And they really do, there's no doubt about that. Lawyers are not inhuman, and only a few are actually dedicated to the destruction of other people's souls. Law firms do carry an unusually high proportion of sociopaths, but they're not evil: they're crying out for help too.
So the initiatives taken by the large law firms to help bring this sleeping monster of an issue out into the open are commendable and shouldn't be cynically dismissed as just so much whitewash. But nor should the wilful blindness underlying the profession's approach to this issue be allowed to persist without comment.
Fact: lawyers suffer from anxiety and depression, and commit suicide, at a considerably higher rate than the general population.
What's missing is a real discussion of why.
As Lawyers Weekly has recently noted, lawyers are not speaking up about their personal problems, because they fear the consequences of doing so. The appalling spectacle of two magistrates having to abase themselves before State Parliament to plead for their jobs of course hasn't helped, but focusing the debate on why lawyers won't talk is missing the point.
"To have any hope of achieving progress with this problem, we have to name the cause. And it's very obvious. Our profession just doesn't want to say it."
There is no genetic or historical inevitability about lawyers being depressed. Law does not by its nature attract candidates who have mental illness. There's no basis for assuming that lawyers shouldn't have the same chance of happiness as anybody else. Therefore, whatever it is that's causing lawyers' unhappiness/anxiety/depression, or worse, must be something we've created.
To have any hope of achieving progress with this problem, we have to name the cause. And it's very obvious. Our profession just doesn't want to say it.
The cause is the institutional, corporatised, mercenary and singularly money-driven culture which has been created over the past few decades and permeates every aspect of how most law firms run. Timesheets are awful, soulless things, but they are a symptom, not the central cause.
If you work in a law firm, you know what I mean. Your destiny is driven by a linear relationship between the time on your timesheet, the fees next to your name, the clients you "own", the debtors you collect, the utilisation rate of your team and what you get paid, your status in the firm and, ultimately, how you regard your own worth. If that doesn't cause you to feel a little anxious, wow.
If there's no true desire to acknowledge and address this reality, that's okay. Just don't waste any more energy wondering what the problem might be, but be honest about its consequences. In the end, every individual lawyer has the freedom to choose their workplace, and they have to take responsibility for their choice.
It'd help a lot if everyone stopped lying to them while they're still law students, though. Maybe law firms could give some thought to being a little more honest in their approach to summer clerk and graduate recruitment. There's nothing more depressing than a hopeful expectation dashed.
Michael Bradley is the managing partner of Marque Lawyers in Sydney.