Law is seen by many as an illustrious profession, comprised of high-earning, successful individuals with all life has to offer.
But behind the glamour and prestige are the mental health risks associated with being a lawyer.
In 2015, the tight-knit Sydney legal community was shocked by news that prominent tax lawyer Matthew Stutsel ended his life after a long battle with depression. Ironically, Stutsel was the ‘poster boy’ for beating mental illness – giving hope to law students and professionals suffering from the debilitating condition.
While it has long been known that lawyers suffer amongst the highest rates of mental illness of any profession, a recent American study has highlighted just how real the issue is; finding that a large proportion of lawyers deal with problem by self-medicating through alcohol and other drugs.
These habits develop as early as law school; with law students reporting high rates of depression and anxiety, together with frequent substance abuse.
The study, published by the American Bar Examiner, surveyed 3,300 law students from 15 law schools. It found that 22% had engaged in binge drinking twice or more in the previous two weeks, and many showed early signs of alcohol addiction.
Around a quarter had been diagnosed with a mental illness including depression, anxiety, psychosis, substance abuse or an eating disorder. 14% reported using cannabis in the past month, and 2.5% reported using cocaine.
But despite mental health resources being at their fingertips, many failed to take steps to address their conditions, fearing that consulting a professional could jeopardise their future prospects.
The study builds upon years of research showing that depression in lawyers is a major problem in Australia – with statistics indicating that up to one-third of Australian lawyers suffer from a mental illness. Research has shown that lawyers who work on traumatic cases – especially criminal defence lawyers – are more likely to experience depression and stress than their peers. And, a recent study published in the Sydney Law Review suggested that almost half of lawyers surveyed had experienced depression – compared to just 11.2% of the general population.
What’s the Problem?
Studies have found that the constant pressures, extreme emotional fluctuations and unrealistic expectations that come with being a lawyer contribute to these high rates of mental illness.
Lawyers often work in a highly-competitive environment where they are pitted against each other in the courtroom and even within firms, expected to deal with dozens of complex and challenging cases at any one time, to compete for clients, exceed monthly budgets, and work extremely long hours – sacrificing time with family and friends. They have the burden of performing under great pressure with their clients’ freedom, financial or familial future on the line, and are expected to meet or exceed expectations without flaw. They often develop a negative mindset where they are constantly concerned about unfavourable outcomes and consequences, remaining unnaturally ‘on the edge’ and finding it difficult to relax.
And the pressure mounts as technology becomes part and parcel of the legal profession – with lawyers expected to reply to emails and social media messages at all hours of the day and night, and to answer calls from clients in need of urgent advice or assistance.
These issues are compounded by the fear of appearing weak. Although help is widely available in the community, mental illness continues to be stigmatised in the profession.
What Can Be Done?
Thankfully, there are measures which individuals and law firms can implement in order to reduce workplace stressors and promote a healthy and balanced lifestyle. These include:
– Promoting cooperation rather than competitiveness within the workplace by doing away with budgets, regularly scheduling lawyer meetings to share ideas and strategies, and promoting an open door policy where colleagues are encouraged to ask each other questions;
– Encouraging colleagues to exercise regularly – for example, by scheduling regular group gym sessions, group fitness classes or weekend walks;
– Encouraging staff and colleagues to step away from their desk; instead of forgoing lunch breaks in order to work;
– Sharing healthy snacks in the workplace;
– Removing the stigma associated with mental illness by encouraging staff to speak up if they are facing any mental health problems, and allowing them to take any necessary time off work in order to attend appointments with health professionals;
– Ensuring that colleagues are not overworked by promoting healthy work hours and encouraging them to spend time with friends and family;
– Taking the time to speak privately with anyone in the workplace who you believe may be going through a rough patch.
27-year-old Jerome Doraisamy left a role at a leading Sydney law firm after battling depression and decided to write a book, entitled The Wellness Doctrines, focussing on how law students and professionals can navigate the murky depths of mental illness. He encourages lawyers embrace work practices that promote autonomy and mental wellbeing over an around the clock work ethic.
His words provide a sense of comfort to lawyers struggling to cope with the pressures of legal practice:
“Be open to suggestions from all trusted sources. Why? Well, because even an outlandish idea may hold the key that unlocks the mystery solution to your struggles! Always try to remember that people, who help you, do it out of the kindness of their hearts. In other words, do not dismiss or ignore people, who are genuinely trying to help you. Try not to expect to be miraculously cured from your struggles overnight…these things can take time! Also, don’t assume that by taking steps towards recovery, your problems will automatically be solved…it is not a matter of checking off boxes!”
A healthy work / life balance, supportive colleagues and a positive working environment can go a long way towards safeguarding against depression – benefiting both the lawyer and firm as a whole.