JLU: Junior Lawyers' Union

Asserting the rights of junior lawyers, who have much more power than they realise.

Friday, April 27, 2007

This is WHY law firms need to do something about depression - Part II

Another story from an ex-practitioner which speaks for itself...

Hi, I am so glad I found your blog. I now know I am not the only one who has been chewed up & spat out by a law firm.

I spent two years in legal practice, after being 'head hunted' from my previous job. The first 18 months or so were fine - I exceeded my budget, enjoyed the work, and got along well with everyone.

One of the partners told my husband I was the best graduate they had recruited in years.

Then, it all started to go wrong. I suffered a sporting injury and had to have some time off work. This was right at the start of the financial year, so I started behind the eight-ball.

At first, the partners seemed understanding. After a while, however, it became clear that I was expected to make up the billable hours I had missed. I worked my backside off, and started to catch up. Then my supervising partner began to have some personal problems, and she took out her anger on everyone who worked for her. I became increasingly stressed and felt like I couldn't do anything right. I became very depressed and began to lose interest in my work. My billable hours dropped even further. I confided in another partner. He seemed to be sympathetic, and told me 'everyone knows' Partner X is a bully. He said if he had his way, he would sack her. Behind my back, however, he told a Workcover investigator that he didn't want anyone who was depressed working at his firm, and that everyone likes Partner X, and that I must have misunderstood him.

Eventually, I was 'counselled' a couple of times about my steadily decreasing billable hours. The managing partner told me he didn't think the targets were that hard to meet, and that they had made a lot of allowances for me. I started to envy people with 'simple' jobs like the checkout operators at the supermarket. A few weeks later, I made a mistake while nearly at breaking point, and they had the excuse they needed to sack me.

12 months later, and I am still on 3 different anti-depressants. I see a psychiatrist regularly and I have survived a suicide attempt. I still think about killing myself almost daily. I feel like a complete failure. On the bright side, however, I stood up for myself and put in a Workcover claim, which has recently settled in my favour. I have recently obtained another job which I really enjoy. The pay is crap, but there are no billable units, and I can go home at 4:30 every afternoon.

I just thought I would share this with you in case you needed another reminder of how widespread this problem is. I was only working in a mid-tier firm in a smaller city, so I can't imagine what it would be like to work in
a large Sydney firm.

Keep up the good work! That was a great idea to send the depression information kits to law firms. I can only hope that some of the information sinks in, and that others don't have to go through what I did.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Blue Letter Lawyers

We're yet to hear of any law firm that has taken steps to address depression in the workplace and we would love to draw attention to any firm trying to address this issue. The apparent inaction of firms is startling given the media's current focus on depression and substance abuse within the profession. We rely on our readership to be our eyes and ears so please fill us in if you know anything.

Thank you to Helen from Blue Letter Lawyers for writing this article about her experiences of living with depression and working within the law.


The story told by “Free at Last” struck a strong chord with me.

I am a lawyer who suffers from depression. The first firm I worked for was small and had a family feel, and so I was very open about my condition. Initially I had no qualms about my decision. The partners seemed sympathetic, and gave me paid time off during a couple of particularly bad bouts of depression. This seemed extraordinarily generous in comparison to the stories I had heard about the larger firms.

However, I soon realized that their tolerance only went so far. It became apparent during my final period of leave that, this time, I was expected to recover completely from my condition and ensure that it did not interrupt the workplace again.

Yet at the same time I realized that, more often than not, it was the behaviour of the partners themselves that was setting off or exacerbating my depressive episodes. I raised this with them, suggesting that a joint effort would be required. No such luck. After almost twelve months, with no sign that the partners would change their behaviour, I was forced to walk out, leaving behind a job that I otherwise greatly enjoyed.

I was brave or foolish enough to risk litigation in relation to my dismissal. Unfortunately, I was shocked again by the way in which the Equal Opportunity Commission of Victoria treated me in relation to my complaint. Without going into details, I can only say that my experience suggested that the Complaints Officers needed some serious training in dealing with depressed individuals.

I also sought assistance from the Law Institute, but there was very little they could do except refer me to a counsellor – and as I was already seeing a psychiatrist this was superfluous.

Law firms and lawyers are hopeless at dealing with depression. The perception is that a lawyer suffering from depression just needs to “buck up” and smell the roses. Unfortunately, many partners in law firms do not have a normal attitude to life. I have heard many stories of young lawyers trying in vain to explain to partners that they are depressed and lack motivation. This is met with total incomprehension, because the kind of person who “makes it” to partnership is the kind of person to whom career is everything.

A real commitment to work-life balance could alleviate the lack of morale felt by many young lawyers. But this alone is not enough. There should also be some recognition of the potentially destructive nature of legal work practices and culture. These observations are not targeted at any particular firm, but are based on a wide-ranging consideration of reasons why young lawyers of our acquaintance have left the law:

- Many senior lawyers have a total lack of management skills, because this is not the basis upon which lawyers get promoted to partnership, and therefore they have no idea how to manage junior staff;

- Office politics can have a soul-destroying impact on young lawyers when it is left unchecked. Why would any young lawyer wish to stay somewhere where those in command are fighting amongst each other?;

- When “support staff” are anything but supportive, this can impact very negatively on young lawyers (a good administrative assistant is worth his or her weight in gold);

- Many firms tolerate bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination as “natural”, and if you don’t like it, you’re some kind of “wuss” or “prude”; and

- Depression and lack of motivation is never discussed openly and if a person indicates that he or she is having problems, he or she must be “a lunatic” who is “not coping”.

No wonder depression is rampant amongst the legal community.

My experience made me realize that there was no support group for lawyers who were suffering from depression. What was more, I soon began to see that lawyers were a group who – more than any other – needed assistance and education in this area. This has been seen in many American studies, and is also displayed in a recent study conducted by beyond blue.

And so I created blue letter lawyers. Although at this stage it is little more than a name and a funky website (kudos to my sister and co-founder for the graphics), I am hopeful that it will become much more than this in due course.

The aim of the group is to promulgate information about depression in order to educate lawyers about the signs, impact and appropriate treatment for depression; to provide a space where lawyers can exchange their stories and tips for dealing with depression in the workplace; and to maybe even change the way in which the law itself deals with depression.

blue letter lawyers is therefore looking for people (or organizations) who are interested in helping us get our idea off the ground. Although we have passion in bucket loads, we also need the experience and know-how, or even just a couple of extra brains to get us really storming!

If you are interested in assisting, then please contact either myself (Helen) at helen@blueletterlawyers.org or my sister (Katy) at blueletterlawyers@yahoo.com.au.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

This is WHY law firms need to do something about depression...

We were worried that visitors to this website might not notice this post from an anonymous contributor named Free at Last so we have included it in its own post:

"When I finally walked out the door of the top tier firm that I worked for, I had no job to go. It was a leap into the great unknown - terrifying but ultimately liberating.

And, I don't regret it one bit. When I made the decision to leave the firm, I was taking 100mg of Zoloft a day and spent much of my office time wondering whether my desk chair was heavy enough to smash the window of my 18th floor office.

Prior to my departure, I disclosed my depression to the firm, thinking that since things had spiralled so far, perhaps, somewhere, there might be someone with a glimmer of humanity lurking around the firm who could help me out.

Instead, the firm demanded a medical certificate to confirm my depression. Once that was produced, two of the partners sat me down and advised me that I was being formally 'performance managed'. They told me that they expected me to get in earlier and leave later, be more 'enthusiastic' about the work I was being given and to increase my output. They then demanded that I say the words 'I want to be a commercial lawyer'. I kid you not.

Needless to say, a couple of days I tendered my resignation. The sad thing is that one of them seemed genuinely surprised by my decision.

Keep up your good work. I hope that even if it doesn't change the attitudes attitudes of those leading these firms, it will help more young lawyers out there to realise that they don't have to live their lives according to an ultimately corrupted and destructive moral code."

Friday, April 20, 2007

Faffing about Friday - Part 2

There have been moments during my brief legal career where I have felt inklings of guilt for billing multi-national clients $300.00 an hour for hole punching documents for days on end (suggested time entry - "conducting bi-perforation of key documents to further progress discovery in this matter").

Fortunately I have discovered a cure for these guilty feelings and it's thinking about this man, Willie Gary. When you think that Willie is asking the modest sum of $11,000.00 an hour for his time in court, what's a bit of mildly expensive hole punching between friends.

Oh, and another thing, RollOnFriday has released its survey results for Australian firms. So if you've got itchy feet, you can now make an informed decision about where to go, weighing up the quality of another firms biscuits, toilets and "phwoar" factor. I'm not sure what "phwoar" is meant to mean, but I've often said "phwoar!" on walking into my firm's toilets...

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Breaking the glass ceiling with a packet of Tim Tams?

A wise friend once told me that the real secret to success in a law firm had nothing to do with skill, dedication or number of billable units.

It all hinged on your ability to suck up to the secretaries. Unfortunately, I never quite got the knack for that.

Sometimes, when a secretary decided that she does not like you, she can make your life hell. Another friend of mine, who made the unfortunate mistake of being rude to his secretary in his first week*, was entirely frozen out of his practice group. She forgot to email him invitations to 8am work group meetings, 'misplaced' important phone messages from his supervising partner, and worst of all, told him that he was responsible for his own filing.

My friend now works at another firm and regularly brings in Tim Tams, flowers and chocolates. For other helpful suggestions on how you should treat your secretary like a partner check out this article.

I've always had a problem with delegating work to "the help", as some partners call them. I don't want them to feel like the work that I give them is beneath me. That I think I'm better than them.

It's also hard delegating work to women that are old enough to be my mother. Women that have been working here a lot longer than this young upstart who thinks she now owns the place.

Women seem to have a tough time telling other women what to do. I cringe every time I hear myself apologising at the start of each request. "If it's not too much trouble, do you mind sending this fax?" Or "Partner X asked me to ask you to help me with this, if that is ok."

Sometimes I almost envy the freedom of my male colleagues, who simply shout out "Sally, get me my lunch. Now." "Rachel, where is that address label I asked for five minutes ago?"

In firms, it is taken as read that secretaries (primarily women) serve lawyers (who were once always men). Why do women, who "occupy" the roles of men, still have to be treated as though they pose a threat to the natural order of things?

The Tea Lady is all for equality and respect. And it's definitely not beneath her to do some good old-fashioned sucking up where necessary. But surely the sucking should go both ways?

* My friend's mistake was to invite a handful of other lawyers from his new practice group out for coffee. It never occurred to him to extend the invitation to the secretaries.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Introducing "Faffing about Friday..."

Nothing is quite as perfect as a Friday afternoon with no work on the horizon (ok it's not really Friday but it may as well be). To celebrate this all too rare occurrence, the JLU introduces Faffing about Friday, an intermittent rag bag of time wasters and the esoteric to fill an empty Friday afternoon. Today's theme is different side of the world, same old crap.

Here's a column called Annonymous Assistant, a column published on the Times Online website - the JLU gives it a post nuclear 10 thumbs up (the links to the column are down the bottom of the page).

If you are after something a little more weighty, why not try this article from New York Magazine and this one from the New York Observer. Suggested time entry: "perusing article related to harassment/discrimination claim made by lawyer against senior partner in top Manhattan firm and considering legality of boiling hard-drive prior to commencement of legal proceedings" - 6 units (thanks to the Anonymous Lawyer website for putting us onto this one).

If you come across anything worthy of being included in Faffing about Friday, please email it to us.

Happy long weekend. Hope you don't have to work.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

JLU Mental Health Campaign

Today the JLU emailed managing partners from all major law firms in Australia asking them to do something about mental health in the legal profession.  Here’s copy of the email we sent out:

“Mental illness is a disease which often goes unnoticed or uncared for in workplaces across Australia.  Worryingly, it is lawyers that suffer from the highest rates of depression of any profession in Australia.

The Junior Lawyers’ Unions understands that junior lawyers are particularly prone to depression as they adapt to working within the rigours of the law.

We encourage you to do something about improving the state of mental health in your firm and ask you to consider in-house training for management and staff to help them recognise and assist those suffering from depression.

We have attached a brochure and other information for Beyond Blue, which offers suitable courses.


Junior Lawyers' Union”

If you would like us to send this e-mail to an HR manager or lawyer in your firm that we might have missed, please send us their e-mail address and we will send the e-mail for you and maintain your anonymity.

If your firm actively starts to address depression in your workplace (or is doing something about it already) please let us know and we will heap praise upon them through this blog.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Gadens Part II - How the LIV let us down

The Junior Lawyers Union's post about the allegedly dodgy hiring practices of Gadens was picked up in the Fin Review on Friday. Here's the article from the Legal Hearsay section in case you missed it:

"Last week The Australian Financial Review looked at the "intensifying of the war" to capture the best legal graduates. It now seems that the war may be turning dirty. Already, Allens Arthur Robinson has been caught out breaking the Law Institute of Victoria guidelines by sending out offers early.

And now the website of the Junior Lawyers Union, which describes itself as "asserting the rights of junior lawyers", has run a story alleging that at least one firm has breached the guidelines for making offers to law students.

According to the story, during the recent 2007 round of graduate recruitment, Gadens Lawyers acted outside the LIV guidelines, including putting one candidate under significant pressure to sign a contract and demanding another offer be accepted within a 24-hour period.

The LIV said it had made some inquiries about the allegation and Gadens said that as far as it was aware the protocols had been followed. The LIV said that without a formal complaint it could not take the matter further."

In fact, the JLU believes that up to eight informal complaints were made to the LIV about Gadens' recruitment drive in 2007. What is truly frustrating about this situation is that it is impossible to expect an article clerk candidate to make a formal complaint against a sizable law firm. By making a formal complaint, they risk being labelled an upstart and a whinger before they even start a career in the law. Surely eight informal complaints deserves a formal investigation where the complainants have so much to lose from having their identities revealed.

The LIV must rise to this challenge.

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