by Arna Delle-Vergini
Today I sat in a lecture hall at the Leo Cussen Institute and listened to a talk given by Marie Jepson, Director of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation – a charitable organization whose objective it is to decrease work related psychological ill-health within the legal community and to promote workplace psychological health and safety generally.
Throughout the lecture, Marie Jepson, in a rather sedate fashion, took us through what is ailing the legal profession at the moment. She described the high incidence of anxiety and depression (about 1 in 3 lawyers will suffer from depression and/or anxiety; the highest rate of any profession); she introduced us to the typical lawyer personality profile; provided us with a vision of how we could be if only we learned how to look after ourselves a little better, and encouraged us to work together to heal our profession. She said that we could learn a lot from geese (you didn’t expect that one did you?) and she finally told us about the launch this coming Monday of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation Best Practice Guidelines, aimed at improving the mental health of lawyers working within law firms. The guidelines promote work-life balance and promote a working environment based on authentic engagement and respect.
I don’t propose to write about the guidelines, but you will be able to read more about them as of Monday on their website. What I want to write about is something quite different. I want to write about what she did not talk about. I want to write about the fact that she has suffered the worst tragedy imaginable to any mother: the loss of her child to suicide. Out of that tragedy, there is no question that Marie has created this groundbreaking foundation; she has literally changed the face of the legal world: she has become the mother of radical change within the profession and all of us who strive for similar goals literally revere her. But it doesn’t change the fact that she suffered and she continues to suffer. Nothing can change that.
You know, there are few topics closer to my heart than that of creating a better working world for lawyers to practice their profession in. I see lawyers as performing such a critical function in this world – why would we not invest in them? Why would we not strive to ensure that they were able to perform that function without it taking too great a toll on them or their families? It sounds so simple and yet, in order to have this conversation at all we have to acknowledge a couple of things: lawyers, as a profession are suffering and – this is the part that we talk about even less – when lawyers suffer, so do the people who live with them and love them.
I’ve heard Marie Jepson talk before. She rarely talks about herself. She downplays her achievements. She will often tell you “I’m not a lawyer” which always strikes me as ironic given that she has probably done more for lawyers than any lawyer I know. She has one vision – that is to create a safer working world for lawyers – and she devotes herself to it entirely. All she asks is that we (the lawyers) step up and take responsibility for our own health and, even though she would never say this, in reality she is asking us to do in not just on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of those who love us as well.
Thank you Marie. Thank you once again for putting this in context for me once again.