The road to wellbeing in a legal career

By Alicia Patterson

Growing healthy lawyers takes a whole of school – and profession – approach.

When it comes to mental health, the legal profession is not a high achiever. In fact, the evidence shows that mental ill-health, including depression, is at alarming levels in the profession and among law students; much higher than the average population, and higher than for any other profession.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the nature of legal training and practice, once this came to light the profession, including law schools, began searching for a way to deal with the facts and address the issues.

Melbourne Law School recently hosted the 2013 Wellness for Law Forum, a national initiative that demonstrated the commitment across law schools and the profession to address symptoms early on when students begin at law school, and to continue throughout their working lives. Keynote speakers included the Hon. Michael Kirby, former Justice of the High Court of Australia and patron of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, and Marie Jepson, Director and Co-founder of the Foundation.

Victorian barrister Michelle Sharpe (PhD Law 2005), who presented a paper on mental ill-health at the Bar and facilitated a discussion at the forum, has spent more than 10 years at the Bar, in addition to periods spent in private practice and as a lecturer at Melbourne Law School.

"Law schools have a big role to play in this issue. We know that being trained to 'think like a lawyer' is not conducive to good mental health when applied outside legal practice. We teach it at law school and then reinforce it in practice," Dr Sharpe explains.

"But increasingly we understand that it is part of our personal and professional responsibility to look after ourselves. When I was involved in 2007 in organising a health and wellbeing seminar at the Bar, we had a very small crowd, but in 2013 we have had several seminars and presentations and the room is completely full."

Melbourne Law School has recognised the role it has to play in this issue – firstly in ensuring student wellbeing while studying law, and secondly in preparing students for their future careers.

"We can't make students happy. But it is our responsibility to make sure that our course, our environment, is conducive to good mental health in the same way we have a responsibility for things like occupational health and safety," said Associate Professor Wendy Larcombe, one of the organisers of the National Forum.

In 2011, and again in 2012, the Law School conducted a Law Student Wellbeing Survey. It used two widely used wellbeing measures – the DASS-21 (Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scales) and the Ryff's Psychological Wellbeing Scales.

While the majority of students flourish in their law course, the survey results unsettled Associate Professor Larcombe. There was a minority that experienced higher levels of depression, anxiety or stress. This was consistent with other studies of law students in Australia and overseas.

"There is something about the law," muses Associate Professor Larcombe. "Some research indicates that it's related to the training disconnecting people from their original 'intrinsic' motivation for studying law, and some research points to the effect of looking for external indicators of success."

The training for analytical legal reasoning, explains Associate Professor Larcombe, means disengaging from intrinsic and subjective judgements – and looking for validation for a line of reasoning elsewhere. In addition, "legal thinking is often negative. It's looking for problems and often adopting an adversarial approach."

It can be a hard habit to break. "We become so acclimatised to legal thinking – it's so useful for so many things," says Larcombe.

Following the surveys, a series of changes on campus were implemented to address systemic issues that could be contributing to psychological distress. A holistic approach was adopted in recognition that every part of the Law School must be a part of the solution.

This included involving the law student societies, academic staff, careers and support services, course planning and every level of administration.

A number of practical initiatives were put in place. One was the establishment of the Student Wellbeing Working Group with representatives from all parts of the school, chaired by Associate Professor Larcombe. A school-wide mental health policy is now in development.

An important change came from students via the survey. They wanted less emphasis on careers in commercial law firms and more about roles in government, regulators, in-house counsel, the community sector, the Bar, courts and tribunals.

Amy Harrington, Associate Director of External Relations Development, and Angela Edwards, Associate Director of Career Development Services, have been involved in developing career information for students and restructuring the internship program, which now offers opportunities in government, community and not-for-profit sector organisations.

Edwards says that as soon as students begin their studies at Melbourne, they have access to information, seminars and workshops on careers to "explore their motivation and what they want from a career - and their degree".

Harrington explains: "It goes back to knowing yourself and why you want to do this course. Having that, and information about the very wide career options available, will hopefully lessen the possibility of being swept along a fairly traditional path into the law, if that's not what you were suited to in the first place".

Law Students' Society President, Patrick Easton, believes these are important steps: "It's more challenging in the sense that the traditional private law firm pathway is very structured – so it's easier to pinpoint. But the plethora of pathways which do not begin with this formal and standardised structure tend to get lost and this is something that we are making a concerted effort to correct."

Harrington explains that there is greater emphasis on self-awareness to ensure all students anchor their studies in their own interests and values. A new "professional toolkit" bringing together academic skills, wellbeing and careers skills advice was introduced into the JD program by the Associate Dean (Juris Doctor) at the beginning of this year. The aim is that when stress as a result of normal student workload impacts, it is less likely to leave a permanent imprint on the individual.

The JD course has evolved to allow greater flexibility through accelerated and decelerated course plans, and varied scheduling and timetabling. Academic support has been improved and some of the stress associated with assessment has been addressed through better coordination of the timing of assessment tasks, and a greater emphasis on ongoing feedback for students.

Direct services and support for students occur in a variety of ways. Counselling services and a new fee-help bursary to assist students with significant financial need are also available.

The Law Students' Society plays its part in promoting friendships, peer support and an inclusive culture, and offering resources like the annual Good Vibes booklet.

"The aim is to embed resilience strategies into the curriculum," says Associate Professor Larcombe. "We are saying to students, in a variety of ways, that being aware of your mental health and knowing how to manage your stress is a professional skill and we want to include that in your development here."

"Awareness is much higher now, but the real challenge is de-stigmatising the issue – and making sure that whatever we do to address the issue is effective," agrees Easton.

Although Melbourne Law School has been one of the early adopters of wellbeing strategies for law students, action about mental wellbeing is now being addressed nationally. Recently, the Council of Australian Law Deans adopted best practice guidelines for student wellbeing that will cover all law schools.

Reflecting on these initiatives and the recent Wellness for Law Forum, Associate Professor Larcombe concludes: "The mood at the forum this year was joyful; there was great relief that we are beyond debating whether there is an issue or not. There is a palpable willingness of institutions everywhere to address this issue."

Banner image: Students on the south lawn at the University of Melbourne
Photographer: Joe Vittorio

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 9, June 2013.