Depression is a common and disabling problem for lawyers, particularly law students, with more than 40 per cent of students reporting psychological distress severe enough to justify clinical/medical assessment, research has found.
The study - the largest ever survey of legal practitioners and students in Australia - also found that almost a third of solicitors and one in five barristers suffer levels of depression associated with disability.
The results support earlier findings that the incidence of depression in the legal profession is four times higher than in the general population. Lawyers consistently rank first in surveys on depression, with one study finding that 11 per cent of lawyers contemplate suicide every month. Fifteen per cent of lawyers meet the criteria of alcoholism, while substance abuse is dominant in up to 80 per cent of complaints against the Australian legal profession.
The findings will be presented tomorrow (Thursday 18th September) at the Tristan Jepson Memorial Lecture, an annual event addressing the issue of depression among lawyers.
Jointly organised by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, the 2008 lecture 'Lawyers are Human too', will be delivered by Professor Ian Hickie from the Brain and Mind Research Institute.
The lecture will be followed by a panel discussion by the Deans of Law from UNSW, the University of Sydney, UTS and University of Wollongong. The discussion will be chaired by President of the NSW Bar Association, Anna Katzmann.
The survey of 2,413 lawyers included 738 students from 13 law schools nationally, 924 solicitors and 751 barristers. It found the level of distress was high in all three groups but was particularly pronounced in students.
"What is clear is that there is an urgent need for the legal profession to develop strategies to support students while still in law school, as well as looking critically at the circumstances of employment, particularly in the early years of employment within the profession," Professor Hickie says.
"The opportunity now exists for developing a more systematic approach to active management of this common health problem.
"Hopefully the law schools will be at the forefront of this movement - and supported by later workplace-based reforms that support an environment that promotes better mental health as well as assisting those who are in actual need of professional care for mental health problems," Professor Hickie says.
Good mental health depends on a strong sense of personal autonomy as well as a high degree of social connectedness, Professor Hickie says.
"However, it has been argued that law schools and the legal profession have been more focused on individualism and personal success. These professional attributes may need to be re-evaluated if lawyers hope to experience better mental health and better quality of life."
Dean of UNSW's Faculty of Law Professor David Dixon says the University has instigated substantial measures to tackle depression.
"We have worked with the Tristan Jepson foundation to commission this research and have taken the lead in responding," he says.
Led by Professor Prue Vines, who is trained in both law and psychology, the UNSW Law School and the Students Law Society collaborated in 2003 to introduce Law MSN, the Law Mentoring Support Network. Designed to support first year law students, Law MSN is a vital support for students encountering the challenging surroundings of Law School.
Professor Vines also leads an e-network of academics in 16 law schools that discusses and shares experiences of countering depression among students.
The Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation was established in memory of Tristan Jepson, a former UNSW law student and lawyer who took his own life in 2004. It aims to provide a framework and support for ongoing discussion and research on the issue of mental health in the legal profession.
This year's event is sponsored by law firm Blake Dawson. Managing Partner, John Atkin, says it is important that depression in the industry is recognised.
"Mental health problems can affect anyone, regardless of their position, intellect, gender or age," he says. "We need to be aware of the problem and ensure we deal with it as a profession on a collegiate basis. Blake Dawson, together with other leading law firms, is committed to supporting the critical work of the Tristan Jepson foundation."
Identified causes of depression among lawyers include:
Â· Culture of competitiveness: very long hours in a tough, combative environment are the norm (plus fear of failure is common);
Â· Pessimism: legal work often involves warding off what will go wrong;
Â· Learned helplessness: lawyers must follow a client's instructions, even if those instructions contradict the lawyer's better judgment;
Â· Disillusionment: many lawyers feel compromised by ethical dilemmas in their work;
Â· Perfectionism: lawyers tend to be perfectionist, which is related to obsession and anxiety, both fertile grounds for depression.
What: Lawyers are Human Too - The Tristan Jepson Memorial Lecture
When: 6pm, Thursday 18 September 2008
Where: Blake Dawson Lawyers, Level 36 Grosvenor Place, 225 George Street Sydney
*Professor Hickie, Marie and George Jepson, and representatives from the UNSW Faculty of Law are available for interview. Media are welcome to attend the lecture.
Media Contact: Steve Offner | 9385 8107 | firstname.lastname@example.org