What strikes you most about lawyers?
Their fear and learned helplessness.
If you could change one thing about lawyers what would it be?
Their narrow perception of their own worth or value as human beings- that they are defined by their job and unless they ‘succeed’ they are a failure. This ‘success’ is defined by others’ opinion.
Would you advise people to go into the legal profession?
You need to follow your passion- if it is the law, go in with your eyes open and a supportive network.
In the period of time that you have been advocating for the health and wellbeing of lawyers have there been significant changes?
Certainly. Some of the changes are listed below:
- Initially there was denial of the problem within the profession and universities
- Courting the Blues provided the first Australian research which established the fact that 1 in 3 lawyers and 1 in 5 barristers suffered depression to the point of disability and distress, and law students’ mental health plummeted shortly after entering law school.
- Individuals feel they have been given permission to acknowledge and talk about their mental illness
- Curricula within universities have changed to include competence requirements one of which is self management. Resilience and mental health are now part of ethics, and practical legal training.
- Australian research into student wellbeing is being recognised world wide
- Firms have introduced a variety of programs including EAP, Resilience@law, Mental Health First Aid Training for HR, physical wellbeing programs
- Law societies have developed LAP programs, establishment WaTL Foundation, champions from all areas of the law, who have the courage and are willing to talk honestly about their ongoing struggles within the profession.
- There is a recognition within the profession that this is a major issue that needs to be addressed in their firm, law school etc
- However at the moment it is extremely exciting to see that since the release of the TJMF Psychological Wellbeing: Best Practice Guidelines about 5 weeks ago, 40 legal organisations across Australia, representing most sectors of the profession, have become signatories. This is truly fantastic and very encouraging for the Foundation.
Will you always undertake this work or is there a second career for you?
This is already my third career after being a mother and teacher for over 25 years.
Progress has certainly been made since TJMF was established: awareness raised and mental health, resilience and wellness activities implemented across legal organisations, but feedback told us that no real change had occurred in the workplace. The TJMF Psychological Wellbeing: Best Practice Guidelines for the Legal Profession focus on changing culture. They identify the workplace psychosocial or organisational and work relationship factors which in combination contribute to workplace stress. The sustained demonstrated commitment of organisational leaders to the process of cultural change has been shown to reduce workplace stress through an ongoing process of improvement.
This is what makes the Guidelines very different to current initiatives. They are proactive (they put the fence at the top of the cliff) rather than reactive (putting the ambulance at the bottom). They are solution focused- a visible, measurable, long term sustained reduction in workplace stress which will make a practical difference in the the lives of all individuals in the workplace. I believe the Guidelines provide an opportunity to create a profession in which individuals can thrive and not merely survive. They are about engaging staff, not simply talking about change but about demonstrating value based behaviour change and this needs to be modeled by organisational leaders. The Guidelines are good for people and good for business. Engaged staff are more creative, efficient, productive, loyal and self motivated and that is good for the bottom line. They are also have greater psychological health and safety. However, the Guidelines are not an instant fix. Becoming a signatory is the first step in a long journey to change the legal workplace through a sustained ongoing improvement process.
In the words of my father- “I think this will see me out”. There is still much to be done.
What other developments would you like to see in the legal profession?
I would like to get feedback from early career lawyers telling me how supported they feel in the workplace, that they feel safe enough to to ask for help when needed and that they feel valued for the contribution that they make to their organisation. Wouldn’t that be something? It would tell me that the culture is definitely changing. Yes, it is aspirational but you know, when I started on this journey I was told we would never make a difference in the legal profession…. Today, despite the law being the most conservative, traditional, risk averse profession, we have 40 legal organisations around Australia who have chosen to lead the way, to be pioneers, stepping out of their comfort zone and participating in a world first by signing up to a radically new set of Guidelines to promote a psychologically healthy workplace. Incredible!!!
In three words describe yourself and why you- a non-lawyer- have been able to achieve on behalf of lawyers in this country what no single lawyer has managed to achieve yet.
The three words would be: passion, empathy and commitment.
Despite having given my three words, I need to add TEAM. TJMF is honoured and privileged to have an amazing very small group of highly skilled, extremely professional, hardworking, passionate and committed supporters who after demanding fulltime careers generously donate their personal time and energy to support the Foundation’s initiatives. Without their ongoing efforts we would not have had the smooth launch of the Guidelines nor the quality and professional organisational logistics of the annual Tristan Jepson Memorial Lecture, which will be held in the Federal Court Sydney on 23 October and streamed via webinar to Federal Courts in other states. This year we are extremely honoured to have as our keynote speaker, Justice Virginia Bell. Please check our website for lecture details – www.tjmf.org.au
Marie Jepson is Director and co-founder of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, an independent volunteer, charitable organisation which aims to decrease work related psychological ill-health amongst members of the legal profession by promoting psychologically healthy workplaces for lawyers. Whilst not a lawyer herself, newlawyerlanguage has made Marie “an honorary lawyer” for the purposes of the NLL interviews in recognition of the substantial change she has already made to the legal profession and will no doubt continue to make.