College of Law Seminar: Stress and Ethics
Last Tuesday evening, I chaired a seminar at the Queensland College of Law regarding the prevalence of mental health concerns in the legal profession. It was most interesting to hear from the panellists, John Britton (inaugural Legal Services Commissioner) and Rebecca Michalak (Director, Psych Safe). The talk was incredibly eye opening and I am sure that the group of lawyers and law students that attended gained a lot from participating in the session.
It is well documented that a greater percentage of lawyers suffer from mental illnesses and emotional distress when compared with the general population. For example, lawyers are twice as likely to suffer from depression, twice as likely to become alcoholics, and if they are men, twice as likely to commit suicide. Perhaps less known, however, is the unknown effect that this prevalence of emotional distress is having on the ethical decision making of lawyers.
Evidence of impaired judgement is so hard to gather because lawyers are hesitant to admit distress or fault for risk of their reputation or career being brought into question. However, the general view of those speaking was that there is a relationship between stress and poor ethical decisions. In the context of complaints to the LSC, Mr Britton confirmed that, in his view, a significant number of those complained about were suffering mental health problems.
The panel discussion looked at the multitude of ways in which firms and the profession more widely can reduce the harm associated with mental illness. Firstly, managing partners of firms should continually prioritise their employees’ mental health. A partner or colleague who notices that an employee is returning consistently long billable hours should have a confidential and compassionate discussion as to the health of that employee. There should be encouragement for employees to express their concerns with a partner without fear that such a conversation may prejudice their career progression.
The role that the Queensland Law Society plays in supporting legal professionals is integral to a lawyer’s mental wellbeing. A number of experiences were shared during the evening last week and it was clear that the services available to members of the society are helpful but often underutilised. Practitioners should utilise confidential services including LawCare, the ethics centre and senior counsellors.
I acknowledge that this blog is somewhat depressing in itself. However, it is not all bad news. Lawyers enjoy a rewarding career full of personal reward and good remuneration. However, this is a conversation that needs to continue. A fundamental social change to the industry won’t come overnight, but it certainly won’t come if this issue is not given the attention it deserves.
More details as to the services provided to members are available on the QLS website.