How free are you to be yourself at work?

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By Bernadette Healy

Anxiety and issues around levels of responsibility are two of the most common reasons why lawyers attend counselling:[1]

  • Anxiety is often reported as a non-specific kind of experience and is frequently associated with symptoms such as constant scanning of your personal world for possible signs of future threat, excessive worrying about past situations, and negative thoughts such as concerns about failure and approval-seeking and physical sensations such as agitation.
  • Troubling feelings related to responsibility include: taking on too much responsibility and wondering how the effort to ‘keep all the balls in the air’ can be maintained; stress around too much responsibility combined with too little autonomy particularly with regard to decision-making scope; and issues around inconsistency about responsibility such as seeking high task responsibility but resisting or struggling with taking responsibility for personal reactions.

Early in the counselling process it is very common for lawyers (and others who have highly developed thinking skills) to intellectualise difficult situations and to resist or be unaware of the feelings underlying their thoughts about the difficulty.

Obviously thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all connected but the feeling aspect tends to be neglected, particularly for those working in professions where rationality and intellectual capacity are greatly prized. This neglect can lead to a general feeling of being cut off from oneself and others, and from the full range of your own feelings.

Cutting off and distancing behaviours are more likely to happen when work roles have associated expectations about feelings which are at odds with our own. In some cases it may be that work demands that one ought not to have any feeling responses at all.

Hoschchild[2] suggests that organisations turn emotional responses into commodities through the ‘purchase’ of expectation implicit in the job description.  Emotional labour is a term used by Hoschchild to describe the effort required by individuals to either exhibit a particular emotional response which not actually being felt, or suppress a felt emotion in order to satisfy work role expectations.

This behaviour is expected within many workplaces in which certain emotions cannot be displayed, in order that a particular outward appearance is maintained. Emotional labour is further described as either requiring surface acting or deeper acting. Surface acting is when we fake an emotional reaction in order to fool others in the interest of performing a work role, but we are not deceiving ourselves.  Deep acting happens at an internal psyche level when we attempt to alter how we feel or experience a situation in order to comply with work role expectations.

Feeling compelled to sustain deep acting over a prolonged period – which is done as a means of dispelling dissonance between expected work self and self – eventually leads to issues such as alienation, burnout and inauthenticity. [3]

In addition to being mindful of the extent to which your organisation may be buying a particular emotional response from you, it is important that you manage your own wellbeing by making sure that you do not self-commodify.  In other words you need to make sure that you know who you are and how you feel and how to remain true to that while in your professional role.

As with any self-improvement or even self-care process, you need to start with self-reflection in order to increase your understanding of yourself, including identifying your values and core beliefs.  This will help you to predict and prepare for possible values clashes and triggering situations at work, and to work out to what extent you may be using ‘deep acting’ to reduce the dissonance between yourself and your organisation’s expectation of you.

[1] Based on my own practice experience

[2] The managed heart Commercialization of human feeling,(2003)

[3] Rebecca, Erickson Christian Ritter  2001  Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 2 pp. 146-163

I wish I knew… the value of time

Claudia McGarva

By Claudia McGarva

I had a baby seven months ago and recently returned to work. The first thing I noticed about re-entering practice was that the whole industry – court, networking events, clients, continuing legal education, strategic planning meetings – does not care that you have to pick your child up from day-care, or you will be charged $40 for each minute after 6:00pm. Luckily, my partner and I are sharing the load but each day is an evaluation and negotiation of one’s priorities over the other’s. I am not going to bemoan the legal industry and discuss the tired term ‘work–life balance’. No, this is about not wasting time when time is a luxury.

When I was a junior lawyer, I would go to any work social events, seminar or committee meeting that was on. This was partly motivated by the university mentality that if an event offered free food and booze, you should take advantage. Also, it was a way to meet other professionals, learn something new and not feel so isolated in the industry. Young engineers networking social lawn bowls? Why not. Intensive weekend advocacy workshop? Bring it on. Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee for feminist vegan socialists? Of course. I had time to fully commit myself to my career and was willing to do so.

After a couple of years of practice, I stopped challenging myself and went through the motions.  It was not burn out; it was laziness. I think about the time I wasted watching bad TV, reading books that I didn’t like, thinking about going to the gym, and pretending to like crafts. In pregnancy, I stopped going to networking drinks as I felt like a diabetic in a chocolate factory and my feet hurt. I was still on cruise control.

However, since returning to work, I realised that I can’t always go to that interesting seminar interstate, or attend that committee meeting that runs until 8:30pm. I try to attend some events however at the moment, I do not have the luxury of being able to solely focus on one thing. I’m sure there will be a time when I can commit myself fully to the industry (yet ironically this will be when I am ready for retirement). However, there are some things I wish I did before bubs came along – further study, apply for that higher position, meet more people and be grateful for the level of control you have over your time. I think about how that time could have been used to learn something that would inspire me, meet interesting people and work towards a challenging goal.

I’m grateful for the time I now have with my son, and professionally, feel more productive than ever before. Unfortunately, there are so many things I want to do now to reinvigorate my interest in the law yet cannot do at the moment. There are only twenty-four hours in a day, and my son sleeps for about six of them. I wish I knew the value of time when I had it in spades. However, I have learnt from my regret. I no longer waste time doing things I think I ought to, but really do not want to. If this means that I never finish reading Bleak House after the third attempt or learn how to knit, then perhaps that time was not wasted after all.

Trigger warnings and compassion at Law School

Compassion

Dear peers

You might have missed a discussion of trigger warnings in the introductory lecture to your law unit. This is understandable as the cautionary statement is usually delivered somewhere between your lecturer’s office hours and announcing the upcoming welcome BBQ. In all likeliness it was a blanket statement on the unit’s content, warning against graphic themes and acknowledging that any student is welcome to leave the lectures if they feel they must. While trigger warnings are incorporated into the general administration of law school, they do not guarantee that potentially triggering topics will be treated with caution or respect. Sadly, compassion cannot be mandated by the law faculty.

Arguably more important than the inclusion or improvement of trigger warnings is a change to attitudes among teaching staff and students. Contrary to the exhibited taste of many law students and even staff: violence, sexual offences and hate crimes are actually not funny. If you are privileged enough not to have been affected by these crimes, empathy should dictate that you appreciate the gravity of them. Nothing, and especially not a trigger warning, can validate treating a serious topic with callousness.

The general justification for a lack of compassion at law school is that your studies are a gateway into the ‘real world’ where a lawyer is supposedly exposed to the worst of humanity and expected to grin and bear it. Putting aside the fact that not every student takes a law degree to work in the legal industry, this line of thinking is problematic. Though you might have chosen law as a career to ‘make money’, chances are that wherever you end up working, a little compassion won’t go to waste. Whether it means you understand your client, colleagues or even yourself a little better, consideration and empathy will set you in good stead for a future in the law.

 

 

On the benefits of a wandering mind

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by Bernadette Healy

Where do you go to my lovely when you’re alone with your head?[1]

Have you had one of those lovely, just-post-return-from-holiday moments when you find your mind wandering from thought to thought: such as on the bike, just getting to the top of that climb, at a major gradient over a grueling number of kilometres; or that morning reading that crime novel without interruption for 2.25 hours; perhaps the walk along the coast; or watching the Making a Murderer series (and in record time!); maybe mastering the creation of your favourite Adam Liaw dish; or enjoying your traditional post-Christmas get-together with the people of your choice; watching one of the glorious early 2016 sunsets; dancing to the last song of a great evening; or just allowing yourself to aimlessly move from one thought to the next without intention or deliberate focus on anything in particular.

Allowing this process  of ‘mind wandering’  (whereas day dreaming, by contrast, may involve quite deliberate focused thought[2]) at the least may provide you with a sufficient level of distraction to provide a restorative break from your task. However research suggests that during such moments your brain is involved in complex and sophisticated cognitive processes. During mind wandering, the brain is highly active across many regions including those involved in executive function[3].  Those moments which you probably describe as not thinking, are actually moments when you are using large parts of your brain.  You are thinking when you don’t think you are thinking – an under-rated human skill[4].

Data from ECG, MRI and alpha brain wave measurement indicate that, even when you think you are not thinking, your brain is occupied in carrying out non-conscious cognition or structurally sophisticated, multi-dimensional integrative neural processes.  Non-conscious cognition involves neural processes that integrate knowledge into understanding by processing knowledge, making connections and identifying complex patterns, all of which are involved in creative problem solving – including assisting you in the long-term generation of solutions for issues being faced in your life[5].  Research suggests that purposefully allowing yourself the time and space for your mind to wander can be an effective method of facilitating the type of creative or insightful thinking which leads to the experienced of  ‘aha’ moments. Creative thinking has long been recognised as enhancing the production of both quality and quantity of new ideas, however new technologies have provided evidence to suggest that such creative thinking may also be actively facilitated by allowing specific incubation time for the non-conscious cognition to occur[6].  Some research even suggests that the brain prepares in distinctive ways for problem solving – even before the problem is presented – and that this preparation type modulates the problem solving strategy.[7]

Phenomenological and inferential processes are an essential part of these research areas as the actual processes cannot be observed directly and are interrupted as soon as thoughts are directed.  It is a new and exciting area and not surprisingly full of controversy and discussion including questioning the previously unquestioned centrality of conscious awareness as a precondition for thinking.

I think it would be accurate to say that mostly people try to keep a low profile about times when they allow themselves to mind-wander – particularly at work. In future however it may be that booths for glass-eyed staring are purposefully created along the window side of corporate offices as the benefits of utilizing the brains natural ability to maximize its own flexibility and responsiveness become better understood. In the mean time you might like to be a trail-blazer in this area by regularly and blatantly submitting to this wondrous natural facility.  At the very least, keep a ten-minute non-focused doodling sojourn in mind next time you find yourself at the impasse stage of a complex problem looking for new ways forward.

 

 

 

[1] If this phrase triggers a musical memory, you are either an oldie like myself and/or one of those Rock Wiz types… or offspring of either of the above subjected at an early age to recordings such as  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8XQZYIiNgo

[2] Claire M. Zedelius and Jonathon W. Schooler,  ‘Mind wandering ‘Ahas’ versus mindful reasoning: alternative routes to creating solutions’, Cognition, Frontiers in Psychology, June 2015.

[3] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090511180702.htm

[4] Dr Caitlin Street Joining our own dots  Lecture in Diamond Series: Education conversations in the community, Malthouse Theatre 26th November 2015 (and see Dr Street’s PhD thesis available on line and including description of the unique technology developed and utilized as a way of presenting her thesis findings in visual and interactive form).

[5] Street ibid.

[6] Ut Na Sio and Thomas C Ormerod, Does incubation Enhance Problem Solving? A Meta Analytic Review Psychological Bulletin 2009, Vol. 135, No.1, 94-120

[7] Kounios ibid.

All I want for Xmas Is…

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by Bernadette Healy

Wish list for families at Christmas

Christmas is a time for connection and joy but it can also be a pretty tough time for some of us. Whether you are someone for whom Christmas is a bit of a non-event or someone for whom Christmas triggers strong emotion, it is a time for all of us to reflect about how we want to be in relation to others. Here are some tips that might be helpful:
• Allow each other to be just how they are – and let go of yearning for them to be how you (or others) would prefer them to be
• Let yourself define your own experience and throw out any feeling or sense of having a template which has been given to you by other family members
• Be aware that labels and expectations are handed out to most of us during our childhood but we can each decide as adults what we regard as important values to live by now and learn to resist the pressure to satisfy the outdated expectations others have of us
• Don’t punish others by excluding them for not interacting in the manner you prefer or regard as the way to be
• Try and foster the opportunity to discuss differences of opinion and make it a conversation in which feelings are shared and in which each individual takes responsibility for their own reactions and resists the temptation to blame others
• Reflect on any no-go family dynamic conversation zones and live to tell the tale
• Share a conversation without employing your inner critic to yourself
• Actively try and show tolerance by listening, by showing interest in others such as by asking questions about them, by not interrupting even when you are bored or have a great point to make and by reciprocation through volunteering something about yourself
• Treat in-laws and new partners and ex-partners and step-family members and anyone else equally
• Question and resist any pressure to choose a side
• Allow yourself to enjoy the company of whoever you choose to at your family functions without succumbing to the influence of others as to the status and merit of various individuals
• Avoid being a party to bullying
• Laugh together but not at the expense of another
• Be kind

Making Friends with your Inner HCP

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For those of you who know me well, you will remember that a couple of years ago I achieved certification in “Dealing with High Conflict People in Legal Disputes”. I like to talk about this often because prior to undertaking this study, High Conflict People (HCP’s) scared me very, very, very much. Now they only scare me ‘very much’ which, I think you will agree, is an advance on my previous position.

Recently, in an effort to quell my remaining fears I attended a second course run by the High Conflict Institute – this time focusing on HCP’s in the workplace. It turns out there is a lot of interest in how to manage HCP’s across the board – I was in good company with a County Court Judge, the current President of the Law Institute of Victoria, and a range of other leaders, managers, lawyers, and dispute resolution practitioners – all very keen to increase their capacity to manage really, really difficult people.

So, who are these HCP’s? There are 4 key characteristics of the HCP:
• Preoccupation with blaming others (victim mentality)
• All-or-nothing thinking
• Unmanaged emotions
• Extreme behaviours

HCP’s have very little insight into their behaviours and though they don’t all have Personality Disorders, most of them do. Therefore, HCP’s tend to fall into the main five PD categories; narcissist; borderline; paranoid; antisocial; and histrionic. People with PD’s tend to have life long preoccupations with certain fears such as:
• Being treated as inferior (Narcissist)
• Being abandoned (Borderline)
• Being betrayed (Paranoid)
• Being dominated (Antisocial)
• Being ignored (Histrionic)

And they frequently distort events to match this inner reality by:
• Using all or nothing thinking
• Jumping to conclusions
• Emotional reasoning (relying on feelings rather than facts)
• Personalisation
• Exaggerated fears
• Mind reading
• Tunnel vision
• Wishful thinking

Lastly, HCP’s focus on the past; conflict gives their lives meaning and without it, they end up feeling a little lost in the world and a little bit empty on the inside.

I know. I know! I’ve just described your ex-partner, your current boss and probably several of your family members right?

Wrong! HCP’s seem like they are everywhere but most people are only likely to know (or know of) two or three at any given time.The reason they seem so familiar to us is because they are an exaggerated version of our worst traits. We recognise ourselves and others in them so they feel familiar, but the difference is pretty stark in reality. For example, say a normal person feels let down by their lawyer, they might make a complaint, even potentially sue if they can. Ever seen Cape Fear? Well, Max Cady is the HCP version of a normal person in the same situation. Scary huh?

Unlike most people, lawyers actually are exposed to HCP’s all day, every day. They are the bread and butter of our existence. In that sense, we shouldn’t be at all frightened of them. We should be excessively grateful to them really. And you would think that our exposure to HCP’s would make us exceptionally good at managing difficult people but, in practice, we are actually less equipped than most people. Firstly, we are trained to rely heavily on logic, reasoning, objectivity and strict ethical codes of conduct. This means we often just don’t relate to the HCP. They seem ‘totally bizarre’ to us; overly emotional, irrational, disingenuous and sometimes straight psychopathic. Secondly, seen one HCP, seen them all! After awhile the lawyer becomes desensitised to the HCP and simply can’t be bothered putting in the extra effort. Thirdly, HCP’s are supremely difficult to get along with. They are the people everyone tries to avoid. If you are engaging with someone and you have an irresistible urge to suddenly board a plane to Cuba, you have probably met up with an HCP. No, you’re not weird. It’s actually a healthy response. But it’s a response that you unfortunately need to override if you are a lawyer and you’re going to deal with the HCP’s you come across effectively.

You can’t manage an HCP from Cuba so how do you resist the urge to run when you come across one? How do you override the confusion, anxiety, anger, and often repulsion you feel when they are acting out? Well, oddly, the first step is in trying just that little bit harder to understand the fears that drive them. Every one of us knows what it feels like to feel inferior, abandoned, betrayed, dominated or ignored. It’s just a matter of tapping into your own memories to recall what that feeling is like. Once you have located a memory then you have to essentially multiply that feeling by about 1000 because HCP’s don’t just carry these fears, they carry these fears to the extreme. Secondly, you need to recall times where you have behaved badly. Whilst your poor behaviour might not have occurred at quite the rate of an HCP, or even reached those extremes, it essentially comes from the same place. Since we have all behaved poorly enough at times to know what it is like to hurt another, or to otherwise be generally unhelpful or inconsiderate, we should be able to empathise with other people who act poorly; even if it is often and even if it is extreme.

I like to call this process, “making friends with your inner HCP”.  (After all, one of the sure signs of an HCP is a complete denial of any of the traits that are typically associated with HCP’s – and you don’t want to be that person, right?)

Making friends with their inner HCP is probably the step that lawyers miss most and yet it is the first essential step to managing HCP’s.

In essence, managing an HCP effectively requires four rules of engagement:
• Don’t run. Rather, put your energy into connecting with them. You need to give them attention, respect and empathy if you want to go ahead with the next step;
• Join with them in the task of solving their problem by analyzing options with them;
• Always maintain a healthy skepticism about absolutely everything they say (the last thing you want to do is be drawn into their chaos by believing in their madness) and you need to help them reality test their ideas because reality testing is not their forte;
• Educate them about the realistic consequences of their behavior. HCP’s find it difficult to anticipate what would be reasonably foreseeable consequences to anyone else.

If you cannot achieve the first step (giving the HCP the attention, respect and empathy that they crave) you are going to go nowhere fast which is why it is more important than ever to make friends with your inner HCP.

Managing HCP’s is a complex skill that cannot be learned overnight. Hopefully this post gives you a basic understanding of what it involves, and certainly gives you enough information to get you through your next contact with an HCP client. A word of warning though: there are some HCP’s that you will never be able to get through to. Can you imagine negotiation with Max Cady? I think you know what I’m talking about! So, if that happens to you, don’t be too hard on yourself. I will look forward to receiving your postcard from Cuba, oh, and ¡a la tercera va la vencida!

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Amy Poehler on careers:

Amy Poehler

“Ambivalence can help tame the beast. Remember, your career is a bad boyfriend.  It likes it when you don’t depend on it.  It will reward you every time you don’t act needy.  It will chase you if you act like other things (passion, friendship, family, longevity) are more important to you.  If your career is a bad boyfriend, it is healthy to remember you can always leave and go sleep with somebody else.”

To Die Laughing

by Arna Delle-Vergini

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We have all done this. At some time or other, all of us have committed this error of judgement. And so, whilst I write of this one anecdote, I am reminded that I could choose many more, and, worse, could even have chosen some of my own from my early career. I write about this example only because it is the most recent. This could have happened at any time and to any one of us.

I was at court a few months ago when I overheard two lawyers in conversation. They were sharing examples of recent and dreadful cases that they had been working on. One lawyer would share a case and that would be followed by an exclamation from the other lawyer, something along the lines of “that’s nothing!” – and then that lawyer would share an even more impressively depressing case. I like to call this game: “That’s Nothing…!”.

On the face of it, this is a game that could be seen as just a competitive game between lawyers. But it has some sinister overtones, as you shall soon see. It is a game which, when played to its end, gets more and more disturbing; prompting each lawyer to search for the most extreme example they can recall. On this occasion, I kept silent until the last player dealt her finest hand – describing how the father in a recent case had beaten his child so badly that the boy had almost passed out. As is often the case in this game, the anecdote was then followed with peels of laughter from both lawyers.

I was having one of those days where I like to share some of my thoughts. I said: “you know there is nothing actually funny about that anecdote”. Firstly, I was annoyed that this game was being played out in my hearing. Secondly, there really was nothing funny about the anecdote and I was irritated by their laughter. Mostly it was the latter: they were laughing about a man who had beaten a child and I was in the mood to be quite cross about it.

To their credit, the lawyers did not get defensive. In fact, one of them tried to placate me: “no, no, no….”, she said, “you don’t understand. If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry!”.

I understand. Oh, I understand completely!

At that point I was called in to court so I never did get a chance to continue pontificating. But had I had the chance, I would have liked to at least say this:

I know that it’s hard. I know that you care a lot. You wouldn’t be here if didn’t care about people;  if you didn’t believe in what you were doing. And I know that, at first, it seems like the smartest thing in the world to avoid the tears that ought to come with each fresh story you hear. What better way to do this than to bury them with mirth and laughter? Mostly likely, you make this choice unthinkingly. It’s reactive. Just something you do because to feel hurt, defeated and dejected by the work that you do seems too much to bear.

And yet, I have two words for you: Temporary. Measure. As Hagga from Thurber’sThirteen clocks’ once wisely put it: “…there’s a thing that you must know, concerning the jewels of laughter. They always turn again to tears a fortnight after.”

Meaning – in this context…laughing at the tragic is a quick fix. And it is a time limited quick fix. It’s not sustainable. Because eventually, what happens is that you start to calcify within. Eventually, it’s almost impossible to feel horror at the stories you hear anymore. Eventually even the laughter disappears and there’s just a grey space where the colourful brushstrokes of your life used to be. In short, you wither and die on the inside.

Call me crazy but it seems far too great a price for any lawyer to have to pay. So what can be done about it? We can’t all drag ourselves about the court in tears.

It goes without saying, tears are neither an appropriate nor proportionate response for a lawyer in the face of almost all cases. It would take a very rare, particularly heart-wrenching case to bring most lawyers to tears and, even then, they are most likely to drink that particular cup of sorrow at home and alone.

But neither is laughter an appropriate response. The trick is to respond with emotional intelligence. The appropriate response to our clients and to the legal cases that we play a small part in is not sadness and it’s not mirth. The appropriate response has to be – give the matter the dignity it deserves. Treat it with respect.

Our entire court system is designed to engender a sense of gravitas in the people who operate within it. Whether this be lawyers, clerks, accused people, applicants, respondents, prosecutors, witnesses, jurors, magistrates, judges etc and so forth. Respect is what is asked from us as practitioners. Respect for the stories we handle. Respect for the people we touch and who touch us. Respect for the system that is set up – sometimes ineptly, but with good intentions – to handle these stories and to reach some kind of resolution/outcome/closure. Respect for each other. Respect for the process we engage in on a daily basis for the good of others because that is what we do as lawyers: that is our job.

I have a reputation for trying to keep things simple and, perhaps, this is another example of my desire for simplicity in a complex world but I do recommend you try it: next time you find yourself quick-fixing, replace giddy, dizzy mirth with complete presence and gravity and you will come out of it – perhaps not unscathed – but certainly a lot more grounded.

Mental health and the legal profession

By Dr Michelle Sharpe

stigma

A stigma is a mark or sign of disgrace. To stigmatise someone is to characterise them as disgraceful. People suffering from mental ill health are commonly stigmatised in the general community. This stigmatisation may adversely impact upon a person’s self-esteem and their ability to access support to assist in their recovery.

The stigmatisation of people suffering from mental ill health within a profession, such as the legal profession, holds particular dangers to individual professionals. These dangers can ripple out to the profession at large and the consumers of these professional services.

The most immediate and obvious danger in the stigmatisation of legal practitioners who suffer from mental ill health is that it promotes negative and ignorant views of mental illness. These views seem to suggest a failure or weakness in sufferers. Many dangers flow from this, including the adverse impact that the disclosure of ill health may have on the careers of legal practitioners. For example, employers and colleagues may doubt the ill practitioner’s competency or suitability for legal practice. The practitioner may accordingly experience social isolation in the workplace and a reduction of opportunities for career advancement. As a consequence, some practitioners who are treated in this way may sadly conclude that their employers and colleagues are indeed right: they are not fit for practice.

The loss of a legal career (which may have been hard-fought and long-cherished) has adverse impacts beyond the individual. Not only does the practitioner experience immediate personal losses, such as self-esteem and income; the community at large will have lost the services of the legal practitioner. In regional areas these services may be sorely missed. The cost to the public in training legal practitioners for practice (even in fee paying courses) will have been wasted. And the profession may well have lost a legal practitioner that could have made a contribution to the legal sector, whether in mentoring others, or in improving access to or administration of justice.

Unsurprisingly, the stigmatisation of practitioners who suffer from mental ill health often discourages other practitioners from disclosing their own illness to employers and colleagues. A practitioner’s reluctance to disclose mental ill health may not only increase feelings of isolation that might aggravate the illness; it may also create a barrier to accessing much needed help and support.

Stigmatisation may also have a chilling effect on employers and colleagues providing this help. Help is unlikely to be readily available to mentally ill practitioners if mental ill health is viewed as a personal failing or as a personal trait that is inherently unsuitable for legal practice. A legal practitioner’s inability to receive help may cause harm beyond hindering the individual practitioner’s recovery. If the practitioner’s illness results in an absence from work, or in leaving the profession altogether, the community and profession will have lost the services of that practitioner.

Conversely, if the legal practitioner remains in practice without the required support, the unmanaged mental ill health of the practitioner may undermine the timeliness and standard of his or her work. It may cause a practitioner to withdraw into him or herself and impede communications with colleagues and clients. As a consequence, the end consumer of legal services – the practitioner’s client– may be adversely affected.

But this harm is not confined to individual clients. If a client incurs loss or damage as a result of a legal practitioner’s failure to maintain a high professional standard, the profession’s insurer may be required to pay compensation to that client. The size and volume of insurance claims have an impact on the cost of insurance to the profession at large. Further, there is the intangible cost to the reputation and standing of the profession in the community.

The ripple effect of stigmatising legal practitioners suffering from mental ill health can be seen to extend further still when it is remembered that tribunal members, magistrates and judges are drawn from the legal profession. And they take with them any mental health issues they may have had in practice, together with their attitudes and prejudices toward mental health issues. If the wellbeing of these decision-makers is similarly poorly supported in their workplaces, it is likely that the performance of these decision-makers will be adversely affected; in their timeliness and quality of judgments and in their dealings with the legal practitioners who appear before them and their clients.

Challenging the stigma attached to mental ill health is not just an act of compassion for those who suffer from mental ill health, but is ultimately an act of self-interest.

On an even broader level, the stigmatisation of legal professionals who suffer from mental ill health poses the less obvious and more insidious danger of undermining respect and compassion for others both inside and outside the profession.

Respect and compassion are integral to a legal practitioner’s ability to communicate effectively with their clients, their colleagues and decision-makers. They enable a legal practitioner to more readily identify a client’s needs and to communicate the range of options open to the client. They enable the practitioner to be more persuasive with colleagues and decision-makers.

Consumers of legal services who are treated with respect and compassion by legal practitioners and decision-makers are more likely to consider that they have received a fair hearing, whatever the ultimate result. With respect and compassion for others, a practitioner is less likely to descend into inappropriate workplace behaviour. Such may, in turn, have its own adverse consequences on the mental health of others.

It follows that the dangers of stigmatising legal practitioners are not limited to the practitioners themselves. They ripple out across the profession and the community at large. Challenging the stigma attached to mental ill health is not just an act of compassion for those who suffer from mental ill health, but is ultimately an act of self-interest. We are all connected. How we treat others contributes to a workplace culture and a community culture that influences how we are in turn treated.

Dr Michelle Sharpe is a barrister practicing primarily in the areas of general commercial and regulatory law. She chairs the Health and Wellbeing Committee at the Victorian Bar.

This article was first published on 29 June 2015, on Right Now and is republished on newlawyerlanguage with the consent of Dr. Sharpe.