Young lawyers are still going through hell
The legal profession must rise from the ashes of its own toxic culture, particularly as it pertains to young lawyers, writes Stefanie Costi.
In the cutthroat world of law, one would expect practitioners to have a certain level of toughness and resilience.
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Yet, a recent 2023 survey by the Victorian Legal Services Board + Commissioner has pulled back the curtain to reveal a distressing reality.
The legal profession, instead of shaping young lawyers into robust professionals, is subjecting them to a hellish ordeal of abuse, harassment, and neglect in their pivotal first three years post-law school.
Let’s dispense with the pleasantries and confront the harsh truth – the legal profession is not just failing its own. It’s actively thrusting them into the fires of a toxic culture, and it’s high time we rise with a vengeance.
The numbers don’t lie, they scream
The raw numbers from the survey scream louder than the silence of the victims they represent.
Out of 325 lawyers who voluntarily participated, an appalling 38 per cent reported experiencing abusive behaviours – a litany of shouting, bullying, and swearing perpetrated by those in positions of authority. This is not a minor glitch in the system. It’s a glaring symptom of the deep-seated sickness embedded within the legal profession. Is this the twisted professional initiation we envision for the brilliant minds forged through years of rigorous legal education? Apparently so. Everyone in the legal profession should hang their heads in shame.
Even more infuriating is the blatant disregard for the wellbeing of these young professionals. A staggering 60 per cent reported that their supervisors rarely or never engaged in discussions about the tools or resources to manage their wellbeing. Adding insult to injury, 44 per cent claimed their supervisors seldom or never bothered to inquire about their wellbeing. In a profession built on justice and fairness, compassion seems to be a rare commodity.
The damning dissatisfaction with the effectiveness of structured legal education programs (SLP) in promoting wellbeing is the final blow. Forty-two per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed that SLP helped them manage their wellbeing. If the very programs designed to support and guide young lawyers are falling short, it raises serious questions about the legal industry’s commitment to fostering a healthy work environment.
Reclaiming sanity: A call to arms
The legal profession is unequivocally failing its young professionals. Instead of being a nurturing ground for legal talent, it has morphed into a breeding ground for toxicity that leaves its members emotionally battered and bruised.
However, there are solutions, and here are the aggressive measures that must be taken to fix this broken system:
- Demand accountability and criminalise the abuse: Workplaces must be held accountable for perpetuating toxic environments. Implement and enforce strict policies that penalise supervisors engaging in abusive behaviours. Rainmaker status should not grant immunity. Publicise the consequences to send a clear message that the era of turning a blind eye is over.
- Revolutionise wellbeing initiatives and end workplace neglect: Every firm must implement regular wellbeing check-ins, empower people to use counselling sessions that they pay for, provide accessible resources, and create a culture that values mental and emotional health as much as billable hours. After all, we cannot bill hours if we have no humans in the firm to do the work.
- Overhaul university, SLP and practical legal training programs: Rethink and revamp university, structured legal education and practical legal training programs (PLT) to include robust wellbeing components. Make wellbeing education non-negotiable. It’s time for university, SLP and PLT to be beacons of support, not sources of disillusionment.
- Peer support networks beyond obligatory mentoring: Foster mentorship and peer support networks within the legal community. Beyond obligatory mentoring sessions, create a supportive environment that transcends hierarchical structures.
- Eradicate the enemy of silence: Implement robust whistleblower protections within law firms and legal institutions. Empower individuals to speak up without fear of retaliation through third-party applications where they cannot be tracked.
- Public shaming of toxic workplaces: Expose firms perpetuating toxic cultures. Publicly shame them, hit them where it hurts –their reputation. Make it crystal clear that the legal community will not tolerate environments that breed abuse.
The wake-up call from the Victorian Legal Services Board + Commissioner’s survey demands urgent, aggressive action.
The legal profession must rise from the ashes of its own toxic culture.
Demand accountability, overhaul wellbeing initiatives, reshape university, SLP and PLT programs, and dismantle the culture of silence.
It’s time to ignite a revolution that will redefine the legal profession and ensure that the hell young lawyers endure becomes a thing of the past.
Stefanie Costi is a lawyer who empowers victims of workplace bullying to take decisive action and educates organisations about its impact and preventive measures. Through her advocacy, Stefanie strives to create healthier and more respectful work environments where everyone can thrive without fear. You can find her here.