According to BeyondBlue, lawyers are more prone to depression than any other profession. As someone who practises law, has worked in politics, and takes daily medication to deal with depression, this comes as no surprise to me.
Yesterday, BeyondBlue released the findings of an annual professions survey by Beacon Consulting, a firm of management consultants. Lawyers topped the list when it came to which group of professional sufferers from depressive symptoms — around 16% of those surveyed fit this category. Given this result, it stands to reason that lawyers also headed the survey when it comes to use of alcohol or other drugs to reduce, or manage, feelings of sadness and depression.
The law, as practised in this country, is often a nasty cocktail of ego, aggression, envy, and a lack of empathy. If you want to be a lawyer (or politician) in Australia, be prepared for a rough emotional ride. The fact that our system is so adversarial means that it is inevitably emotionally draining. Fighting for your client day after day against opponents, particularly the well-resourced state and regulatory agencies, takes it out of you physically and mentally.
And then there’s the fact that you are taught at law school never to become emotionally involved with your client. That’s good advice, but if you practise in areas of law like crime or family law, maintaining the stiff upper lip is not particularly conducive to emotional well-being.
Judges and magistrates, too, can make matters worse. While there are fewer egomaniacal power junkies on the benches of our courts these days, there are still plenty of beaks who like nothing better than to tear strips off practitioners, particularly young ones. Being humiliated in front of a full court on a Monday morning is enough to drive anyone to drink or drugs.
And make no mistake, lawyers like to eat their own. Because of consumer pressure, some of it justified, the regulation of the profession throughout Australia has become a good deal more brutal. Legal regulators like state law societies and independent boards sometimes sink their teeth into errant practitioners in a way that could only be described as ghoulish.
I am aware of one case in which a lawyer, suffering mental illness and armed with a doctor’s certificate, was granted only a two-week extension by the powers that be which were investigating some complaints made by clients against him.
Robert Bircher, a Canadian lawyer who is championing greater awareness of mental illness among lawyers in British Columbia , says that depression and other mental illness among lawyers are caused by “long hours, the adversarial nature of law, the focus on billable hours, increased competition for clients, the dehumanisation of the practice, focusing on the business aspects of law rather than people combined with a culture of materialism, perfectionism, and workaholism”.
He is right. It is high time that bodies like the Law Council of Australia, and senior members of the legal profession like judges and partners in large law firms, made improving the legal workplace and culture the priority.