As I mentioned here, I recently went back to uni to attend the Wellness for Law Forum for 2014.
I had a bit of a funny way of finding out about the forum. A way, in fact, that makes me feel a bit like a teenage girl who spends too much time chatting to her friends. Because, I heard about the forum through some lawyer mates that I had met on Twitter. Yep. Twitter.
Anyway, I showed up for a Forum, not really knowing too much about it, except that I have felt an ever increasing interest in the health and wellbeing of lawyers, including very honestly, myself and my colleagues.
What I found out that day was both devastating and inspiring.
It was devastating to hear things like:
- 1 in 3 solicitors will experience a mental health issue during their working lives
- 1 in 5 barristers will experience a mental health issue during their working lives
- there are 3 very classic segments of distress, early career, mid career and late career
- that there are more law students than positions available, meaning that for BigLaw there is very little incentive to improve conditions for their grads. Burn. Churn. Replace.
- the very real and raw descriptions from a young practitioner of the toll that her very first year working in the law had on her. A diagnosis combo of anxiety, depression and anorexia should not be the end of year bonuses that you receive at the end of your first year of work.
It was however inspiring to hear about the very committed and hardworking people looking to change things, from law school, to legal academies to the legal profession itself.
And clearly, I am very late to this party, as there were groups and committees who have been working together for years on these issues.
There are others, in fact so many others, who are much better qualified than I to comment on the theoretical frameworks, the definitions and the exceptions.
For me, I can simply say that these conversations make my heart hurt.
It should not be the case that people, those who are drawn to work in a professional capacity to help others, and usually people who can’t help themselves, are very likely to become unwell as a direct result of their work.
Imagine the work being attempted by the Health and Wellbeing Committee of the Victorian Bar Association. They are working on a framework to identify and accept no longer, the culture of bullying that can (and often does) happen at the Bar, and in a Courtroom. This will require engagement from the very top down, combined with changing expectations from the bottom up. Hopefully somewhere and in some meaningful way there can be a meeting in the middle that makes a real and tangible difference.
For me, I think there is also a secondary (and yet primary) difference that will come from this. The clients, the very people because of whom the Court system operates, will have a better, a more compassionate and human legal experience when the people they come into contact with are behaving and communicating in healthy and respectful ways.
Then think of the challenges faced by the Best Practice Guidelines Subcommittee from the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation. It would be easy to just say the name of the Foundation, without stopping to remember that Tristan Jepson is not some groovy word combination. Tristan was the very much loved son of George and Marie Jepson. He was also a lawyer who was not able to make his way through the swampland of depression. His name lives on as a very real reminder that these issues are real. They are the most real. They are, for many, quite literally, a life and death battle.
We were fortunate to hear from Marie Jepson about the Best Practice Guidelines about a set of 13 Factors to be used by organisations of all sizes to Raise the Standard of support in legal workplaces. Imagine how hard and long the road has been to develop those guidelines, and how (potentially) even longer the road to engagement within the profession might be.
And yet, the people I saw and heard from on Friday, continue to do their good work. To have difficult conversations about topics that both challenge our minds and hurt our hearts.
For myself, I was inspired by those taking action. By those standing and demanding that things improve. Not just for themselves, but for the law students and lawyers of the future.
However, the session that completely and utterly stopped me in my tracks was an interactive session. We had a presentation from a practitioner who suggests that we can use our legal practices as an opportunity in our search for Wisdom. That we can use a Mindfulness practice to aid us as people and as lawyers. He led us in a meditation. Yes, while serious and important lawyers in the next room were exploring gender issues for lawyers, we were breathing in and breathing out.
Then we laughed our way to a higher vibration with the help of a former lawyer now laughter yoga teacher. We clapped our hands, we ran around, we laughed and laughed, and again we breathed in and we breathed out. I sure felt silly while we were doing it, but could not deny how wonderful I felt at the end of the session.
And the final presenter in that session was from a psychologist who works with barristers who get emotionally stuck. I recall that she spoke to us about the benefit for us to process trauma (our own, and the trauma of others that we delve into in our work) by engaging both our right brain and our left brain. That there are real benefits in finding a creative activity, writing, cooking, painting, dancing, acting, not to avoid the pain and the trauma. But to use those activities specifically with our traumas.
It was, without question, a red letter day in my practice as a lawyer.
Although my brain wants to conjure up a thousand things that I could do, places I could go and things I could write as a result of that day, for now I will not.
Instead, I am simply sitting quietly in my office, for 10 minutes each morning, and breathing in and out.
For now, that is all that I need to do.
If anything in this post has led you to think that it might be time for you to get help, please don’t wait. Some places to go include the Lifeline 24 hours crisis line on 13 11 14 or click through to Beyond Blue .