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According to merit?: Be happy

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Cite as: (2006) 80(9) LIJ, p. 83


Being true to your ideals while practising law is essential for mental wellbeing.

It is no secret that many lawyers are unhappy and stressed, nor is it a secret that the inability to handle stress can lead to depression and mental illness.[1]

While investigations into why those in the legal profession are so unhappy continue, there is evidence that it is often because the reality of work does not resemble the ideals of law school.

A solicitor who has left the profession said she studied law to help people and deliver justice to them, and ended up stuck in an office never seeing clients.

Susan Daicoff, in her book Lawyer Know Thyself, published by the American Psychological Association, refers to a “tripartite” crisis facing the legal profession. This includes the lack of professionalism resulting from unethical behaviour and what she calls Rambo-style litigation; low public opinion of lawyers; and low levels of job satisfaction and mental wellbeing among lawyers.

Further, she says law attracts perfectionist types who become pessimistic perfectionists to succeed in law, and that can lead to depressive thoughts and self-blame.

Her solution “appears to reside in lawyers identifying their strengths, values and preferences and then pursuing the most appropriate way of practising law based on those traits. ‘Lawyer know thyself’ is the first step.”

To know thyself, Daicoff suggests, introspection before studying law, and practising law in a style and in a way that is true to how you were then.

To my mind, if you can’t look back at how you were when you started law school, then it is important to be true to yourself and your interests now.

Squeeze more into your life, take up art, pursue hobbies or interests you keep putting off, start a family or spend more time with them, do the things you love – and try combining all that with the practice of law.

Lawyers balancing family life with legal work need that legal work to be rewarding on many levels to justify being away from the family, and may have a unique perspective on this debate.

In coordinating and teaching the subject Civil Procedure in January 2006, barrister and Melbourne University lecturer Dr Michelle Sharpe said students have psychological tools with which to deal with the stress of litigation and encouraged them to read a chapter of Daicoff’s book.

According to Dr Sharpe: “There has been a lot of research, particularly in the US, that has revealed that the practise of law promotes the development of a certain personality type that may be destructive to lawyers both personally and professionally”.

Daicoff suggests that inordinate depression levels found in lawyers are not present in law students entering law school.

Depression and mental illness are recurring issues raised by lawyers in disciplinary and practising certificate proceedings. According to Melbourne University senior law lecturer and teacher of legal ethics, Linda Haller: “The experts seem to believe the hardest thing is for lawyers to recognise the signs early and seek help. Health assessments under the Legal Profession Act provide an incentive to seek help before problems arise, as they cannot be used in disciplinary (only practising certificate) proceedings”.

Catherine Lally and Dr Qusai Hussain, M-PACT Psychology – Australian Centre for Behavioural Science and Law,[2] say: “We have been puzzled for some time by the fact that mental health statistics for lawyers seem to be so much worse than for other professional groups – is their stress really so much worse than it is for doctors? And why, in spite of its popular application, have traditional stress-management practices so little effect?”

Lally and Hussain say their clients are often perfectionists, having unrelenting personal standards yet lacking in self-discipline.

It would seem therefore that employers need to be flexible within reason, and give employees space to have a life and accommodate the needs of family life or the employees’ interests. Otherwise the mental health of employees suffers, which is not in anyone’s interests in the longer term.


SIMONE JACOBSON is a barrister and convenor of the Women Barristers’ Association.


[1] For more on this see, “Putting the stress on dealing with depression” March 2006 LIJ, p26-29 and “Why lawyers are unhappy”, [2005] DeakinLawRev 4.

[2] See http://www.m-pact.com.au.

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