Beating the black dog of law

By Alex Boxsell

Lawyers Weekly, Australia
September 15, 2006

DEPRESSION IN the legal profession was the subject of an inaugural lecture in Sydney last week.

The event was jointly hosted by the faculties of law at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), in partnership with the Tristan Jepson Memorial Fund.

Held in Banco Court at the Supreme Court of NSW, the Inaugural Tristan Jepson Memorial Lecture, an initiative of George and Marie Jepson, began with the subject of ‘Towards Managing Mental Wellness in the Legal Profession’.

The keynote speaker was associate professor Dr Mamta Gautam MD, FRCP(C), a leading Canadian psychiatrist who specialises in professional health and well being.

She said according to her research, lawyers rank as the most depressed out of 105 professions surveyed, with the incidence of the disease being three times higher than the general population.

“Twenty-five per cent of lawyers suffer from elevated feelings of psychological distress: inadequacy, anxiety, social isolation [and] depression,” Gautam said.

The problem of depression has the potential to lead to very serious consequences. According to Gautam, a disproportionate number of lawyers commit suicide, with up to 11 per cent of lawyers contemplating suicide monthly. Fifteen per cent of the profession are alcoholics, with substance abuse being a factor in up to 80 per cent of complaints against lawyers.

“The legal profession is doing practically nothing about these problems,” she said.

According to Gautam, the problem begins with university study. There are “no psychological differences between the general population and law students before law school. Psychological distress begins soon after starting law school”.

When students progress into working life as lawyers, depression can affect their professional work in a number of ways. Those suffering from depression are more likely to procrastinate, miss deadlines, neglect the prompt processing of mail and fail to return calls in a timely fashion. There is also a decline in both productivity and days worked, a tendency to overreact to criticism and to shift blame, general irritableness and poor working relationships. Complaints often come from peers and clients about performance, reliability and adequacy of communication.

The commentator for the event was Craig Leggatt SC, with an introduction given by the Honourable Morris Iemma MP, Premier of NSW.