Stress soars for legal eagles –
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.