A survey finds legal professionals experience high levels of depression and anxiety. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
Balancing the scales of justice is an onerous responsibility for legal professionals when the freedom, futures, families, and finances of their clients are on the line.
- A survey finds 85 per cent of lawyers experience anxiety in the workplace
- 60 per cent of respondents had experienced depression or knew someone who had
- The Victorian Law Society president says lawyers are prone to mental illness because of the high-pressure environment
A survey of 200 legal professionals across Australia and New Zealand revealed a high percentage of employees at small and medium-sized law firms had experienced depression and stress in the workplace.
An overwhelming 85 per cent of respondents said they had experienced anxiety, or knew someone close to them in the workplace who had.
More than 60 per cent of respondents said they had experienced depression, or knew someone close to them in the workplace who had.
The survey of wellness by Meritas Australia and New Zealand provided a first-ever snapshot of the challenges faced by legal practitioners.
Founded in 1990, Meritas is a global alliance of 186 independent law firms spanning 94 countries.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
A report prepared for the Law Society of New South Wales showed, as of October 2016, there were more than 70,000 practising solicitors in Australia.
Legal practice consultant Sue-Ella Prodonovich, with 20 years’ experience, said more quantitative and qualitative research of wellbeing across the legal industry was needed to assist in reducing the alarming rates of mental illness in the profession.
“Critical steps towards promoting greater openness and transparency about wellbeing in the legal profession are needed,” she said.
High-pressure work environment
Canberra lawyer Caitlin Meers found the job so stressful at the start of her career she considered leaving. (Supplied: Caitlin Meers)
President of the Law Institute of Victoria Stuart Webb said the high-pressure environment that legal professionals worked in meant lawyers were more prone to mental illness, including anxiety and depression as well as stress and burnout.
Canberra-based solicitor Caitlin Meers has worked in the field for more than six years and said her first years as a junior solicitor dealing with major criminal matters made her question her career choice.
“The stress can sometimes make you think, ‘Well, surely there’s something easier I could do than this’,” she said.
“There’s no point turning up to work and trying to solve other people’s problems if you’ve got internal conflict to the extent that it’s affecting the quality of work that you’re providing and that people expect you to provide.”
Stigma with reaching out
Managing partner and chairwoman of Meritas Australia and New Zealand regional committee Mary Digiglio said even though law firms had done much to build a more resilient workforce in the past 10 years, there was still a lot more work to be done to boost awareness and overcome barriers to help-seeking behaviour.
“Stigma and a fear of reaching out remains a critical barrier that hinders many people from seeking help,” she said.
Ms Meers agreed that many lawyers were reluctant to come forward with their experience for fear of harming their career.
“If you are perceived as not being able to deal with the stresses and anxieties of the job, you may not be considered for the really gritty work,” she said.
“It can be a disservice to you in the sense you may be held back from truly advancing yourself and your career.”
Positive workplace culture the key
While the survey revealed a high level of stress and anxiety among the legal profession, the majority of employees felt that their mental health and wellbeing was important to their firm.
A positive workplace culture was the most important factor in influencing help-seeking behaviour, according to respondents.
“We each need to take responsibility to look out for each other and continue to nurture a supportive and open culture to reduce the prevalence of mental illness in the legal profession,” Ms Digiglio said.
Mr Webb said the Law Institute of Victoria had a range of services and programs including mentoring and confidential counselling to help support solicitors in need.
Ms Meers said counselling or assistance should be available to all lawyers across the country.
“Something like that would be amazing because it would allow practitioners the ability to get some confidential help with having to disclose an issue to their employer, which may make them feel really uncomfortable and less likely to seek help,” she said.
“Ultimately you’re the one who has to stand up in front of the magistrate or the judge and you have to create a way to walk away from that.”