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From the president: Call to action

From the president: Call to action

By Tania Wolff

Health Opinions Wellbeing 

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Cultural change in our profession would produce better outcomes for clients and community.

The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled us to pause, take stock, challenge old assumptions and practices and innovate. We might now tackle a range of issues within the legal profession with the same approach and confidence. 

In recent years, open and honest conversations about mental health and wellbeing have helped effect change and reduce stigma. There is greater appreciation of the pressures imposed by the billable-hour model of legal practice and by the challenges of a stressful, competitive and adversarial work environment. Nonetheless, there is more to do. 

Numerous recent studies and surveys report that anxiety, depression, addiction and psychological distress is relatively high in the legal profession. Lawyers are three to four times more likely to be depressed than other professionals. Lawyers consistently rate high for mental health problems, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. 

Attrition and retention levels are similarly concerning. Lawyers report high rates of fatigue and burnout after five to 10 years in practice. We score poorly, too, among women returning to practice after childbirth and in the low number of women reaching senior positions. 

Young lawyers aren’t doing much better. Asked if their lives as lawyers matched their expectations as students, more than a third of respondents to a professional publication poll replied no and expressed a desire to change professions. Only 11 per cent of the 444 surveyed said their law career had fulfilled their expectations. 

In a 2019 legal firm of choice survey, 38.9 per cent of lawyers with less than a year in the profession expressed career dissatisfaction and flagged an intention to leave their employer. 

It’s time that we stopped metaphorically eating our young – and not so young. I have a few ideas about where we might start. 

We need to hasten the push for structural, systemic and cultural change that will bring about transformation of our profession and produce better outcomes for clients and community. Drawing from disciplines other than the law, we need positive examples, guidance and inspiration, to propel improvements in work practices, structures and lives. 

Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) attempts to do just that. 

TJ studies law as a social force or agent that gives rise to either beneficial (therapeutic) or harmful (anti-therapeutic) consequences, which flow from rules or procedures, or the behaviour of legal actors (such as lawyers and judges). In understanding this effect – particularly on the wellbeing of people impacted by and working within the system – we can explore and develop ways to reduce anti-therapeutic consequences and enhance therapeutic consequences.

TJ is the philosophical framework underpinning our specialist courts – ie, the Drug Court and the Assessment and Referral Court – which came about in response to the harm caused to vulnerable individuals in the justice system, coupled with the system’s inability to achieve intended outcomes. TJ is behind restorative justice, which tries to provide a response to crime (for offender and victim) that moves beyond punishment to healing. 

A TJ approach can be transformative, facilitating a more compassionate process and outcome. 

Another area of change is education for trauma informed practice, which acknowledges trauma in the community, recognises its effects on individuals and commits to responding sensitively and without causing further harm. Training often starts with honest self-reflection and the way influences in our own lives – absences, loss, traumatic events – impact on us, our development and perspectives and how that in turn affects how we show up in our lives, our narratives and triggers in certain situations. Imagine if all participants in our legal system undertook training in trauma informed practice. So enhanced, imagine how differently we might approach clients and each other. Such an approach would likely reduce perpetuating harm and transform law, justice issues and procedures, but also add immeasurably to the value and satisfaction we derive from work. As might equipping law students and graduates with the tools they need to live better, happier and healthier lives. 

I’m impressed by The Happiness Lab podcast by Yale University psychologist Dr Laurie Santos. It asks, “are you ready to feel better?” If that’s a yes, I encourage you to join the hundreds of thousands of us who listen in for insights and tips on wellbeing.

The LIV has a continuing role to play. As well as the employee assistance program, it provides networks to facilitate professional and social connections through LIV sections. Associations are important too, as are peer and professional support and mentoring programs. It’s exciting and timely that the LIV’s new wellbeing manager, psychologist Megan Fulford, is developing and driving our wellbeing strategy (See News p16).

We need to ensure the sustainability of our profession and provide the right foundations to support each other and our future contributions in the service of our clients and the community.

I look forward to working with you. ■

Tania Wolff
LIV PRESIDENT

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