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Missing links in midlife management

Feature Articles

Cite as: November 2012 86 (11) LIJ, p.54.

To improve the work environment within a law firm and prevent stress, overwork and depression, the firm’s leaders may have to make a midlife transition to a more integrated self.

By Robyn Vickers-Willis

In the mid 1990s I was interviewed for an article in the LIJ.1 As a psychologist, organisational consultant and counsellor of lawyers and barristers I was working with legal and other professionals concerned about the mental health of lawyers. The article noted a new trend of stress and unhappiness among younger lawyers in the bigger firms, and the need to address organisational issues creating this stress and unhappiness. It also noted the need for law firms to recognise that an ultra-competitive culture is not helpful to its people or to productivity.

Since then the Australian legal profession has in various ways publicly acknowledged it is in crisis. Five top-tier legal firms worked with the College of Law to create a Resilience@Law video.2 In an article titled “Life on the edge”, Freehills partner Peter Butler noted that: “The statistics are appalling”.3 The Hickie Report4 revealed lawyers have a greater risk of depression than peers in other fields, and a beyondblue survey5 found legal professionals have a high incidence of symptoms of extreme depression and a high prevalence of alcohol and drug use to cope with feelings of sadness and stress. Alongside concern about mental health issues throughout the profession, there is growing concern about attrition rates, particularly among younger lawyers.

Understandings about midlife development offer a missing link as to how the legal profession can become a healthier place to work. Although there are concerns right across the legal profession, this article – based on extensive research I have conducted on this topic – focuses on law firms.

Making law firms healthier workplaces

In the article cited above, Mr Butler states:

“Law firms can be toxic and unsafe environments . . . They’re worked too hard, there’s not enough time off, competitiveness is pushed to unhealthy levels and there is not enough appreciation shown.”6

Like “canaries in a mine”, many legal professionals are experiencing the mental health issues highlighted in the Resilience@Law video as their psyche responds to working in this environment. However, the video does not define clearly what is meant by resilience, or acknowledge the importance of dealing with organisational issues.

Dr Ian Chung, who appears on the video to offer his professional perspective on the mental health issues discussed, notes on his website that the one responsibility that cannot be delegated by leaders is the setting of the culture.7 The present work cultures of law firms were created predominantly by men who are part of the baby boomer cohort. In Generations: Baby boomers, their parents and their children8 Australian psychologist and social researcher Hugh Mackay notes baby boomer men planned to emulate the extraordinary stability of their parents’ marriages and their father’s careers. In contrast, later generations have learnt to ride rapid rates of change and to create a sense of stability from a wider focus than the institutions of marriage and work. Therefore, if the cultures they are working in do not meet their needs they will leave.

In their formative years baby boomer males were conditioned to be stoic, strong and all knowing. These attitudes supported the development of such qualities as diligence, focus, valuing of the intellect and control, especially of emotions. In the process, other important qualities that nurture a sense of wellbeing can be neglected. For healthy development of their personality these baby boomers would need to integrate opposite aspects into the understanding of the self at midlife – to value being as well as doing, allowing as well as controlling, the heart as well as the intellect. This integration supports the development of a balanced and healthy approach to the self, relationships, work and life in general. This integration also supports creation of a healthy and balanced work culture.

Midlife transition

If we are open to the messages we receive from our unconscious at midlife, we are led to a natural and necessary passage to becoming a more complete, balanced human being as we integrate our shadow or “unlived” selves. Generally occurring between ages 35 and 55 and lasting from 7 to 10 years, midlife transition offers a unique opportunity for psychological and spiritual growth.

In the first half of life it is normal to create a lifestyle and an understanding of self based on what parents, other significant adults, peers, partners, colleagues and society in general expect. Through this conditioning we learn that parts of us are not acceptable and so repress them in our unconscious. For healthy development of the personality we need to create a second half of life based on a fuller understanding of our true nature. To achieve this we need to complete two developmental tasks during a period of midlife transition. First, we need to find ways to look within to reclaim repressed parts of our nature, as well as others never known, and integrate them into an understanding of our self. Second, we need to create a way of being in the world based on this fuller understanding of our true nature. Though the transition into the second half of life can be difficult, my research suggests it is a necessary part of continued growth and satisfaction in later life.

Carl Jung, the renowned Swiss psychiatrist, was the first person to give this midlife experience psychological meaning when he wrote in the 1930s:

“Statistical tables show a rise in the frequency of cases of mental depression in men about forty. In women the neurotic difficulties generally begin somewhat earlier. We see that in this phase of life – between thirty-five and forty – a significant change in the human psyche is in preparation. At first it is not a conscious and striking change; it is rather a matter of indirect signs of a change which seems to take its rise from the unconscious.”9

Midlife transition can be a time of great confusion as much of the suppressed unconscious comes to the surface. If previously we felt in control, now we feel out of control. If we have been strong our vulnerability will now overwhelm us. If our feelings were suppressed and we approached life in a passionless way, now our feelings overwhelm us. If we have been weak we will now express strength. If we have been energetic, we will now be languid. If we have been very close in our relationships, we will now yearn for separateness. If we have been alone, we will now yearn for connection.

Dante’s famous stanza in The Divine Comedy reflects this confusion at midlife:

“Midway this way of life we’re bound upon

I woke to find myself in a dark wood

Where the right road was wholly lost and gone . . .”

As part of my research when writing Men Navigating Midlife I interviewed John, a senior lawyer in a large inner city firm. He said:

“I have a very competitive streak in me and I wanted to be recognised as the best. Consequently, I’ve worked very hard in my career. This has had consequences on the other side of my life . . . that ended badly in divorce in my late forties . . . On reflection, I’ve become a very needy person in midlife, whereas earlier I always saw myself as self-reliant, I don’t think anything changed that much. I just noticed things and the impact of external events on me changed. I felt things differently. In retrospect, if I look back at this period of life, I was probably seriously depressed.”10

The experience of depression can encourage an otherwise busy person to slow down and look within. As Thomas Moore notes:

“If we persist in our modern way of treating depression as an illness to be cured only mechanically and chemically, we may lose the gifts of soul that only depression can provide . . . The soul apparently needs amorous sadness. It is a form of consciousness that brings its own unique wisdom.”11

Engaging with feelings

A person conditioned to be stoic and upbeat can experience fear and anxiety as they become aware of inner vulnerability and sadness. They can be tempted to distract themselves from their feelings by getting even busier or by numbing themselves through alcohol or drugs.

When raised in a culture that celebrates “stoicism”, it takes courage to own and then express feelings and thoughts from one’s inner world. If conditioned to see seeking help as a sign of weakness, it also takes courage to seek out support through talking to a friend or a health practitioner. If talking to another seems too difficult, keeping a personal journal can help. As John found, once a person finds ways to connect with their inner world they can experience relief:

“I visited my GP as I was feeling so bad. He recommended counselling and after some hesitation I decided to go. It was quite frightening at first because I had to bare parts of my soul that were very painful . . . And as I talked the counsellor was very affirming of me and I found it a great source of strength.”

If feelings such as anxiety and depression aren’t engaged with constructively, the resulting “shadow” wreaks havoc on mental and physical health as it is projected – that is, thrown – inwardly, observed through ongoing anxiety and depression, feelings of lack of self-worth and illness. The shadow can also wreak havoc on the lives of loved ones, work associates and clients as it is projected outwardly, observed through bullying, withdrawal, moodiness and put-downs.

Developing resilience

Dr Ian Chung notes on his website:

“Resilience is often confused with strength. The core character trait of the resilient is flexibility – to be like the bamboo and not the oak tree. Together with flexibility, what is needed is both internal and external perceptivity or insight, being the ability to see what is happening around as well as inside.”

Dr Chung emphasises resilience is not about being strong. Rather, it is about being able to call on a range of qualities so one can bend to what is required by changing circumstances.

Through navigating midlife transition leaders learn:

  • how to develop these “resilient” qualities of flexibility and inner and outer perceptiveness;
  • about the importance of creating “pockets of peace” so as to reflect on feelings, thoughts, behaviours and bodily sensations. This may mean stopping regularly for five minutes during the work day to empty the mind by focusing on their breath, or perhaps a gentle walk in their lunch hour or when they get home to reflect on all that is happening both within them and in their personal and professional life;
  • that when they feel disharmony in their relationships, especially if it is ongoing and around the same theme, it can mean there is something within them that needs to be owned and balanced out. For example, at times a colleague modifies a plan you have set together. It might even work better, but even so it is annoying. You think, “Why can’t she just follow through as decided?” Certainly this might be something the other needs to look at. Equally, however, you notice your ongoing irritation in similar situations and recognise that you might need to create more balance within yourself around the fixed/flexible attitude;
  • how to develop greater flexibility as they acknowledge and integrate opposite attitudes and behaviours to those developed in the first half of life. For example, it is widely recognised that the ability to successfully attend to and manage the two sets of opposites – mind and heart – is essential to effective leadership. For healthy development, in the first half of life an individual will tend to develop one of these opposites as they relate to others. At midlife this same person’s psyche will encourage them to develop the opposite attitude. If they are able to integrate these two opposite attitudes at midlife, their leadership style becomes more flexible as they learn to solve problems using both their head and their heart;
  • how to support those around them as they act as models of how to deal with emotions in an intelligent way. My research indicates that people use unhealthy avenues such as workaholism, alcohol and drug abuse as a way of numbing themselves from painful emotions. If they develop skills to deal with emotions intelligently they are supported to break this cycle.
  • how to model self acceptance, flexibility and adaptability to changing circumstances, a graceful and effective way of expressing themselves, an increased appreciation for the unique qualities in others, and an enhanced ability to relate to others. With these qualities they can lead their firm towards a work culture where profit making and wellbeing of people sit comfortably side by side.

Supporting leaders

If the one responsibility that cannot be delegated by leaders is the setting of the work culture, and if we assume there are direct benefits to a firm if its leaders navigate midlife transition, what steps can be taken to support leaders to take on this responsibility?

First, leaders need to set time aside to honestly appraise their own conditioned attitudes, beliefs and values and to reflect on how they impact on the setting of the work culture. Second, they need to come together as a group to share these personal reflections. As individuals can feel vulnerable in such a discussion, it is important that it be facilitated sensitively so leaders are guided through a process to support personal transformation. As each leader takes on responsibility for their personal transformation this supports transformation of the work culture.

When leaders are creating such a discussion it is vital to get a balance between process and outcome. As lawyers are trained to focus on outcomes, the presence of an experienced facilitator trained in process will support this balance. It will also ensure the process is handled sensitively. Transformation of the work culture is a sensitive process that takes time.

ROBYN VICKERS-WILLIS is a psychologist, author, researcher, consultant and public speaker. She is currently completing a PhD at the University of Melbourne titled “Midlife matters in Australia”:

1. R Evans, “Cracks in the marble: Lawyers are showing the strain”, LIJ, March 1994, pp124–5.


3. K Aubusson, “Life on the edge: Workplace depression and anxiety”, Human Capital Magazine, 2012, issue 10.1, pp16-19.

4. I Hickie, N Kelk, G Luscombe and S Medlow, Courting the Blues: Attitudes towards depression in Australian law students and legal practitioners, Brain and Mind Research Institute, University of Sydney, 2009, p18.

5. beyondblue, “beyondblue–Beaton Consulting Survey”, beyondblue Newsletter Winter Update 2007.

6. Aubusson, note 3 above.


8. H Mackay, Generations: Baby boomers, their parents & their children, Macmillan, Sydney, 1997).

9. CG Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1985, p120.

10. R Vickers-Willis, Men Navigating Midlife, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004, pp228–36.

11. T Moore, Care of the Soul, Harper Collins, New York, 1992, p146.


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