Profession Depression


Kate Gibbs

Lawyer Weekly, Australia
September 29, 2006


They are high achievers, among the brightest sparks in the country, and they advise some of the world’s top players on how to do business. But lawyers are also more stressed than ever. Kate Gibbs investigates...

Which came first? The stressed out individual who decided to go into law, or the stressful job that imposed the same on those who worked in it? That, HR professionals in Australia’s law firms agree, is the question.

Lawyers are susceptible to stress because they are high achievers and perfectionists, but there is also something inherent in the job itself, says Marlene Murray, personal development (PD) director at Blake Dawson Waldron. When lawyers have been working long hours on a particular matter, this problem worsens and they will often face burnout and exhaustion.

But it’s not true, says Murray, that you can work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. “The human body needs sleep and sustenance and exercise to be at its peak performance. But for lawyers, the nature of the work makes it very difficult to make sure people don’t sacrifice their exercise and their diet and their rest.”

But recent studies have also shown that the legal profession is the most depressed profession. An explanation, says Alexis Navie, national HR manager at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, can be found in the fact that lawyers are intellectually very gifted people. Part of the problem is in the “nature of the beasts themselves”, she says. “We are talking about the top percentage of the intellectual population. “You will find this amongst the medical profession as well, and academics. I read somewhere that they tend to know more and more about less and less.”

Lander & Rogers Lawyers human resources adviser, Jorja Hicks, agrees that “lawyers tend to be high achievers and demanding of themselves, which can create pressure in the workplace”.

But not all can be blamed on the “beasts” themselves. Law firms are taking lawyers into uncharted areas, areas where they are not properly skilled or trained, says Corrs’ Navie. “All the management skills, change, client service, people management, marketing. A lot of lawyers feel quite anxious about how they can do the right thing,” she says.

“Once upon a time legal advice was enough, but now clients want to know the ramifications on the industry that they are in and other businesses. What motivates a lawyer is their ability to solve a client’s problem. They love that. But it’s all the other things we are asking them to do [that cause additional stress]. Clients are savvy purchasers of legal services. The profession of law is integrated with the skills that we needed to run the business,” argues Navie.

Whichever came first, the lawyer or the work, law firms are now being forced to find ways to deal with the issue. But in order to find a remedy, partners and HR managers are having to first identify stress when it’s in their own firms, often working at the desk or in the office next to their own.

The list is long, HR professionals agree. “You see a lack of engagement; too much time alone with your door shut; not talking to people and engaging and getting out there; [with] people who want to shut themselves away, you might be concerned that they were disengaged if it is different to the way they normally are. Also, a key indicator is time away from the workplace; they call it absenteeism, but regular periodic time off; not being able to pitch for work on time; not perhaps thinking as clearly as they used to think, and if the work standard is dropping off,” says Blakes’ Murray.

Corrs Chambers Westgarth has a long standing relationship with organisational psychologist Davidson Trahaire, which it uses to deal with issues when they pop up, as well as to help prevent them and teach partners how to identify cases of extreme stress before they become serious. Last year, the firms brought the company into the firm to brief the firm’s leadership team and talk to partners about mental illness, stress, and how to identify symptoms. Navie says organisations all experience this problem, whether or not they may realise it.

Navie says stress and potential depression is identifiable in people taking lots of sick leave, people working extraordinarily long hours, and “you need to be aware of people having marriage problems, problems with alcohol, apathy, anger, lack of engagement”. She says the firm’s HR department and partners have seen all of these arise at some point, “I don’t think there would be too many organisations that haven’t”.

“It is a scary thing to know exactly what to do. Even in HR we are not equipped with the skills to address those issues. So often what happens is people have dressed it up as a performance problem. How could such a well performing person turn into someone with attitudinal problems?” says Navie.

Lander & Rogers’ Hicks says the firm recognises that the profession of law can be stressful, “but we work hard to ensure those pressures are carefully managed”. “We also encourage people to speak up if they are feeling pressured so we can work towards finding solutions to help together, whether that’s by sourcing additional resourcing to get through a busy transaction or by offering time to work quietly at home.”

The problem of lawyers with depression was the subject of a recent lecture in Sydney hosted by the faculties of law at the University of New South Wales and the University of Technology, Sydney, in partnership with the Tristan Jepson Memorial Fund. Associate professor Dr Mamta Gautam MD, FRCP(C), a leading Canadian psychiatrist who specialises in professional health and wellbeing said that, 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.

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.

Despite her allegations that law firms were not doing enough to deal with the problem, law firms are beginning to acknowledge that this is an issue that needs addressing. Murray of Blakes says most firms feel that the culture is moving towards ensuring that their lawyers can maintain a sustainable career.