JLU: Junior Lawyers' Union

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

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have also noticed that senior partners can be hopeless managers. They are promoted because they are good lawyers, not because they can manage people. In my former firm, there was a HR manager, but she just did what she was told by the partners & didn't have any say in HR decisions.

25 April, 2007 22:54  
Blogger Peter said...

That story was potentially soul-destroying but for it's magnificent ending. Congratulations for doing something about a problem that it seems is more prevalent than law firms would want to acknowledge. And good luck with Blue Letter Lawyers (sorry, I just have a pedant's opposition to all-lower-case stuff).

In response to anon, this is not just a phenomenon of the law. I work in television, and any number of talented monsters have been placed in charge of junior staff with no regard for their management ability.

26 April, 2007 10:00  

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