Mental Health and Lawyers: We need to do better

October 29, 2021

It’s been a big week for mental health in the context of the legal profession.

Mental health is a topic I am hugely passionate about.

Ours is a profession where people work hard – sometimes too hard – and where pressure can be sky-high. I’ve seen firsthand the impact that mental illness has had on colleagues and while I’ve been blessed to have created my own limits and parameters early on, sometimes it’s not so easy and the impacts can be startling.

And these were highlighted very pertinently this week.

Prominent Herbert Smith Freehills partner and India Practice chair Chris Parsons opened up about the circumstances that led to his breakdown and battle with severe mental health issues. In a podcast this week, he shared why it was so important for him to be transparent with the outside world about his battle, and how his workplace responded to his needs.

He was able to conquer the worst and is now giving back in this space. But one of the comments in the comments section of the podcast caught my attention. A person said “My strong view is that stories like these are positively dangerous to the careers of (especially younger) practitioners. This gentleman has (and has had) a highly successful legal career. The reality is that, at this point, disclosing his mental problems won’t do him any career damage. This is simply not the position for younger or less successful practitioners”

Few things can highlight the challenge of mental health and the law than a striking perspective like this. The comment went on to say, “Every practising lawyer knows that, in reality, letting your employer know of your mental health issues is likely to bring your career to a standstill, or even end it completely”.

And then, as if to agree, new findings from the International Bar Association show that mental health issues disproportionately affect certain demographics within the legal profession and that a concerningly high number of such professionals fear speaking out.

Of nearly 3,500 surveyed legal professionals and more than 180 legal organisations, including bar associations, law societies, in-house legal departments and law firms, the report unveiled that distress, anxiety, depression, suicide ideation and related issues amongst legal professionals, more than two in five (41 per cent) of survey respondents said they would not discuss their health concerns with their employer out of fear for detrimental consequences to their careers.

These are striking, discomforting findings.

At a time when the rest of society is getting comfortable with the mental health conversation and even excelling at it, my feeling is that it is still taboo in our profession.

Articles, podcasts and reports like the above are likely to assist with this, as I hope do thoughts and reflections like mine (albeit I know they are a humble, small contribution).

But whatever the case and however challenging the journey, the legal profession needs to take the road to a much better way of approaching mental health and creating workspaces that view people as humans that have a multiplicity of needs and whose time doesn’t belong to the firm. It’s easier said than done, but at Circle Bridge Legal, we are trying to model a mental-health-aware workspace that is attuned to the needs of modern professionals but, more than that, to human beings.

I look forward to sharing more thoughts on this topic in the time to come and hope we can all elevate the conversation about mental health in the legal profession.

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Circle Bridge Legal is a leading Western Sydney law firm at the heart of Australia’s next growth engine. Located in the hub of activity generated by Sydney’s upcoming second international airport [Western Sydney International (Nancy-Bird Walton) Airport], our ambitions are as grand as our region’s.

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