Stress soars for le­gal ea­gles –

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LAWYERS may be stressing them­selves out of a pro­fes­sion, with many so­lic­i­tors and bar­ris­ters bat­tling sky-high lev­els of de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety and other mental health is­sues.

The psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress starts at uni­ver­sity with 35 per cent of law stu­dents suf­fer­ing high to very high stress lev­els – 17 per cent higher than med­i­cal stu­dents and more than 20 per cent higher than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion.

Se­nior law lec­turer Rachael Field hopes the $100,000 teach­ing fel­low­ship she was re­cently granted will help find ways to re­duce stress lev­els for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of le­gal minds.

‘‘When law stu­dents start at uni their mental health is the same as the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion but by the end of the first year they are go­ing down­hill,’’ says Field, who lec­tures at the Queens­land Uni­ver­sity of Technology. ‘‘They are be­com­ing de­pressed.’’ Re­search from the Syd­ney-based Brain and Mind Re­search In­sti­tute found law stu­dents’ psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress was caused by the ‘‘com­pet­i­tive, iso­lat­ing and ad­ver­sar­ial learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment’’ of law schools.

Sim­i­lar find­ings have been re­vealed in Amer­i­can re­search where stu­dents re­ported law school as com­pet­i­tive, alien­at­ing and a place where they lost their self­con­fi­dence, mo­ti­va­tion and pas­sion

LE­GAL STRESS for learn­ing. But things don’t get any bet­ter once lawyers move into prac­tice, says Queens­land Le­gal Ser­vices Com­mis­sioner John Briton.

‘‘The preva­lence of emo­tional dis­tress among lawyers is one of the great­est eth­i­cal chal­lenges fac­ing the pro­fes­sion,’’ he says.

BMRI re­search, re­leased late last year, found lawyers were four times more likely to suf­fer clin­i­cal de­pres­sion than other pro­fes­sion­als and one in three was likely to man­age symp­toms with drugs and al­co­hol.

Briton says 2400 lawyers were in­volved in the BMRI re­search, with one in three so­lic­i­tors and one in five bar­ris­ters re­port­ing de­pres­sion.

He says more than one third of the 1000 com­plaints he re­ceives each year re­late to lawyers who are strug­gling to cope.

Pro­fes­sional in­dem­nity in­sur­ers re­port sim­i­lar sto­ries for neg­li­gence mat­ters, he says. ‘‘There’s lots of peo­ple who are stressed out. Things are not ter­rific at home, there’s too much work to do and they can’t have a hol­i­day or get a locum, and their clients are com­plain­ing about them.’’

Flin­ders Law School dean Pro­fes­sor David Bam­ford agrees mental health is­sues are sig­nif­i­cant within the law in­dus­try.

‘‘The law schools are now very con­scious of the is­sue of mental

health and of­ten the prob­lem is the stu­dents don’t recog­nise it them­selves,’’ he says. ‘‘The is­sue is that law stu­dents have much more stress than other dis­ci­plines and there are var­i­ous the­o­ries.

‘‘It’s com­pet­i­tive and, of­ten, those peo­ple get­ting into law school tend to be very com­pet­i­tive per­fec­tion­ists and they set high stan­dards. Also, there’s some ques­tion about the na­ture of law in that we’re al­ways deal­ing with peo­ple’s prob­lems.’’

Flin­ders Uni­ver­sity is re­struc­tur­ing its de­gree pro­gram next year and will in­cor­po­rate a fo­cus on pre­par­ing for the tran­si­tion from stu­dent life to pro­fes­sional prac­tice.

‘‘There is def­i­nitely a real is­sue about the way in which law schools need to sup­port their stu­dents and there’s also an is­sue about the way lawyers work in le­gal prac­tice and the pres­sures placed on that mean new grad­u­ates on en­ter­ing the pro­fes­sion do need some sup­port,’’ Prof Bam­ford says.

Field says the ‘‘priestly 11’’ core uni­ver­sity sub­jects that are re­quired for ad­mis­sion to prac­tice as a lawyer should be amended to in­clude al­ter­na­tive dis­pute res­o­lu­tion pro­cesses.

She will de­velop amodel first-year unit based on ADR and non­ad­ver­sar­ial le­gal prac­tice.

‘‘We need to in­tro­duce ADR to stu­dents right up front to give them a sense their ideals of want­ing to make a dif­fer­ence for clients and up­hold­ing the rule of law has a place.’’

Mr Briton says law schools also need to help stu­dents build the emo­tional skills and re­silience they will need to sur­vive as lawyers and pro­vide more vo­ca­tional guid­ance, ad­vis­ing those at risk to ex­plore less ad­ver­sar­ial le­gal ca­reers or even other path­ways al­to­gether.

He says lawyers need to change their work cul­tures too.

The ‘‘tyranny’’ of meet­ing bill­able hours tar­gets cre­ates stress, com­pet­i­tive­ness and dis­hon­esty and al­lows a cul­ture of bul­ly­ing to breed, he says. ‘‘ The ad­ver­sar­ial method­ol­ogy is taught and en­cour­aged as though it’s some su­pe­rior way of think­ing when it’s sim­ply a tool that some lawyers use,’’ Mr Briton says.

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