CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of suicide, mental illness and discrimination against disabilities.
Last week, the Melbourne legal fraternity lost one of the good guys, Magistrate Stephen Myall. I didn’t know him personally, but many people that I know professionally did and have spoke about him with a great deal of warmth, respect and professional affection.
This job is hard. No matter what area of law that you practice, you will encounter a huge amount of stress and things that can trigger mental health issues. Many of us will enter the legal profession already dealing with mental health issues, whether we know it or not at the time. There is a certain type of high achieving, driven, stubborn type who study law and go on to be lawyers, the “Type A” personality… a stereotype which all to often masks deeper issues that may or may not be conducive to long term career sustainability.
I freely admit that I manage a mental health disability, two actually. As much as I enjoy being a lawyer, there are many reasons why I am looking for a job outside of legal practice now, and most of those reasons are to do with endemic discrimination across the legal sector for lawyers with mental health disabilities. Even though it’s common, and even though law societies and other professional bodies recommend better ways of supporting staff with mental health issues… the taint of having a mental health issue within our profession leads many of us to cover up the problem and plough on unassisted, rather than risk derision or potential career harm.
That’s a massive problem.
THREE years ago, a contemporary of Myall’s, a successful senior practitioner with his own legal firm, took a different exit for perhaps similar reasons. “Rick” was a high-flying lawyer right up to the morning an evil man named Arthur Freeman flung his daughter Darcey from the West Gate Bridge on January 29, 2009.
Rick had represented Darcey’s mother in the family court. He was acting for her when her estranged husband took their children for a weekend access visit and committed that unspeakable act.
Rick’s peace of mind was shattered and so was his career and his firm’s future. His solution was to leave the courtroom forever, making plans to ride a bike around Australia.
But not everyone walks away in time. Just over two weeks ago, a magistrate postponed court hearings for the teenager who, controversially, had earlier kicked a policeman in the head. His reason was to let the student complete his secondary school exams before facing court on fresh charges. He also refused to release the details of the new charges after media outlets applied for the charge sheets.
His decision might have been fair but it was highly unpopular in some quarters. Next day the magistrate was criticised by the police union, politicians and others. That magistrate was Stephen Myall. Exactly a week later he ended his life. Vale Muggsy.
As Andrew Rule notes in his Herald Sun obituary/news article, many lawyers and judicial figures experience relentless and overwhelming pressure and stress. (And I note with some considerable cynicism that nowhere in that otherwise excellent article does the author or his newspaper attempt to draw a link between the “criticism”/lambasting in the Hun to Mr Myall’s decision to take his own life.)
I have struggled with it in my own cases, and I’ve watched colleagues working on stressful, high profile cases struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy in the face of really horrible stuff. For me, the hardest thing was when you became invested in your clients, and wanted them to fix their lives more than they did. The nature of criminal and community law is such that it is really difficult not to take work home with you, in the sense of continuing to think about your cases, or more specifically your clients, when you leave the office. You might leave the physical file and outstanding tasks in your filing cabinet, but the natural empathy and humanity that drives people who work in these fields means that it’s really hard to switch off the part of your brain that goes “gee I hope Mr X manages to find a warm place to sleep tonight…”
It’s rare, especially in criminal, family law and other areas practised in the community/legal aid sector, that people come to you with issues when they’re at the peak of their life. More often that not, they’re coming to you with their life in some sort of shattering disarray, and we’re expected to somehow or other piece it back together.
I’m not a mental health expert. I’m not a principal solicitor. I’m just a measly little 9-10 years PAE lawyer who isn’t sure she wants to be a lawyer anymore who has really struggled over the course of my career with this problem of how to leave work at work.
These are the tips I have accumulated from peers and mentors and experience:
- You do not actually have a magic wand, and cannot fix every single problem that your client faces.
I have a wand from the Harry Potter exhibition that was at the Powerhouse Museum years back, it’s a plastic replica of the Elder Wand/Dumbledore’s wand. I used to keep it in my office, because a) it’s a fantastic back scratcher, and b) it’s a physical reminder of this tip. The only magic wand I have in my life (or at least, the only one that’s suitable for discussion in polite company…) is this plastic fake wand that does absolutely nothing. When I worked in a CLC where we interviewed clients in our personal offices rather than in a shared interview space, I would use this as a prop for clients whose expectations of what I could do to help them were a little unrealistic. “This is the only magic wand I own, and it doesn’t work. I can’t fix everything. I can fix this particular thing, and I can give you referrals to social workers to help you with some other things.”
Don’t beat yourself up for things that you are not qualified to help with, or resourced to help with, or physically or mentally able to help with. That’s not actually your job – your job is to provide legal advice and representation, only.
And… look, let’s be real. Sometimes our clients have issues that no amount of good intentions and sympathy are going to fix. They will promise you and the magistrate that they’re going to get off the drugs and sort out their life… and then they’ll be back in your office within months with more charges and a bigger drug problem. I have empathy for my clients, addiction is tough and the reasons that people seek out drugs to obliviate their pain are enormous and overbearing. One of the reasons that working in child protection or criminal law with youths is tough is that while you might see some kids come good, you see a hell of a lot more slide further and further into the darkness. It’s not your fault if you can’t save everyone, because that’s not actually your job.
- Stay in your lane (professionally.)
Yes, your client may well have co-morbid or overlapping dysfunctional issues, but what are you actually qualified and experienced and licensed to do?
We are not social workers or psychiatrists or financial counsellors or housing agents or doctors or drug counsellors or….
Yes, you should develop a good professional network so that you know people who do those things that you can make warm referrals for your clients to go and get appropriate help.
Yes, you should also be empathetic and understanding enough of the problems of people living in poverty and disadvantage to not be able to see the woods for the trees (e.g. a client who cannot see that losing their licence for driving at a dangerous speed, and thus risking losing their job, is probably not as important as the fact that their driving at that dangerous speed was a latent attempt at suicide, and their mental health should be prioritised right now.)
But you don’t have to try and be all things to all people. It will help you survive community law (especially!) in the long run if you learn to make it clear that I can only help you with this particular set of issues. That’s what I’m trained to do, that’s what I’m paid to do, and (while you wouldn’t say this to the client) that’s all that you can do – and that’s OK! Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to save everyone from everything (see above comment about the magic wand.)
- Remember that your job is very REACTIVE, not proactive. You are a bandaid over a cut that’s already occurred, you’re not risk management to avoid future injuries.
Particularly when you work in jurisdictions or specialist lists that have a very rehabilitative focus, it is easy to slide into this mode of thinking where your job is to figure out a sentencing solution that will address the offending behaviour and stop your client from reoffending by addressing all their co-morbid issues. YOU ARE GOING TO FIX THIS PERSON and it will all go smoothly.
Which is nice. That’s the best case scenario.
The reality? Most of the time you’re like the little boy with his finger in the dam that’s about to burst. You are putting a small, Disney themed bandaid over a gaping wound that requires major surgery and stitches. Or, to continue the medical analogy, you are dealing with a client who has so many issues going on (mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness, debt, infringements, family violence, criminal charges…) that it’s like a trauma surgeon looking at someone who has just bounced their way down a ski slope and come into A&E with so many bad injuries that the surgeon thinks “Shit… where the hell do I start?!” (According to a cousin who worked in trauma surgery and A&Es near ski fields)
So don’t pressure yourself to fix ALL THE THINGS. You don’t have a magic wand, and your job is limited to providing legal advice and representation. (Do you see the way these tips flow into each other?)
- Recognise that there is a considerable amount of vicarious trauma in this job, and take appropriate care of yourself – including professional help
Admittedly, I am thinking of criminal and family law here, but I’m sure there are also stressful and overwhelming factual scenarios in other areas of law.
But in those two practice areas in particular, you will be exposed to a LOT of very distressing material. Whether it’s having to view child pornography material in order to confirm that the AFP have correctly classified it in the charges sheets as various scales of seriousness, or reading autopsy reports in a murder case, or simply just reading or listening to countless records of interview where abusive men justify their violence towards their partner and child/ren…. there is a huge amount of vicarious trauma in this job. Vicarious trauma is when the practitioner, whether they’re a lawyer, a psychologist, a social worker, a case manager etc, is exposed to distressing information or material in the course of their work, and must themselves process their own feelings and processing of the victim’s trauma. So a rape counsellor might not have been raped themselves, but they will hear details from rape victims constantly, and that is a significant burden.
People talk about vicarious trauma in terms such as “emotional impact,” or “burn out.” All law societies offer counselling services and most law firms also have Employee Assistance Programs, as do most unions. There are plenty of free services there that lawyers and other professionals can access to help work through vicarious trauma in a confidential and appropriate manner. It is best practice for firms, and police and prosecution services, who specialise in distressing things like sexual offences or serious violent crime, to have regular therapy on offer for staff – when I worked at VLA, all lawyers (possibly all staff, in general? But definitely all lawyers) had to attend at least one yearly appointment with a psychologist arranged by VLA, and some teams (e.g. the Sexual Offences Team in Criminal Law Melbourne) were required to attend every 3-4 months. I am aware that the AFP teams who work on child pornography matter also have mandatory counselling after each investigation. This is part of a good risk management strategy by the firm – it is a proactive way for the firm to recognise that vicarious trauma is a major cause of work-related mental health breakdowns, and to do something about it.
- Five year career plans are great and all, but don’t beat yourself up if your plan is just “keep on swimming…”
It’s OK to aim at just surviving and plodding along. It’s totally cool if you don’t have your life figured out and have some fancy 5-10 year plan. Frankly, this is where I’m at right now. My 5 year plan is “get a job, keep it, pay off people you owe money to, save up some money to cover a rainy day.” Absolutely no part of my 5 year plan involves a specific job or career, because honestly? I’m struggling to survive day to day and I have finally learned, after much painful experience, that I do not make good life choices in survival mode. To make better choices about big issues, like “what do I want to do/be?” then I need to be doing more than just surviving… which means I need to get a job, any job, get things stable and then figure all that stuff out.
It’s also great if you do have those things. They are useful. But if there’s other stuff happening for you in your personal life that means your professional aspirations are just limited to “keep paying my bills,” that’s fine. Don’t succumb to this intense competitive one-up-man-ship that so many young lawyers fall into.
It is OK to fail. This is almost the complete antithesis of the competitive environment of the modern law school and legal profession but… it’s OK for it all to go horribly wrong. You can learn from it and move on. Just keep swimming…
- Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run….
This line from Kenny Rogers isn’t just relevant to playing poker, it’s also a great life tip. It’s OK to go through a law degree, and the competitiveness of getting into legal practice, and spend a few years in it only to realise…. I hate this. I need to do something else. Or to realise that while you like aspects of being a lawyer, like helping people, being in court, problem solving, and thinking analytically, there are other aspects that are really unhealthy for you to continue working there. This was where I got to – I like being a lawyer, but I hate working as a lawyer. It’s not good for me, even though I am good at it.
You can walk away temporarily, take a study sabbatical or travel. Or you can run away permanently. Find something else to do. As much as everyone hates to admit it, a law degree is the new Arts degree – and we have an advantage that Arts, Business, Commerce students don’t have…. critical analytical thinking. The way that law teaches you to think in a very logical, problem solving, critically analytical way of identifying an issue, identifying the relevant rule/law/options, evaluating or applying that rule/law/option to the situation and reaching a conclusion is a very useful way of thinking for a range of jobs, from government policy to business leadership to philanthropy to running your own small business. You cannot waste a law degree. (In my opinion…)
Personally, the hardest part of walking away from a career in the law, even though I have realistically or pragmatically kept my toe dipped in the pool in terms of job hunting, is that I had bound up so much of my personal identity and self esteem in being a lawyer, that when I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore I didn’t quite know who I was or how to feel about that. It led to a prolonged depressive episode, that to be honest has not entirely lifted, even though I’m a lot more comfortable with being a mostly ex-lawyer these days.
- Join your union, talk to your doctor, get a mental health care plan, get treatment as and when necessary, reach out for union help if you feel you are being discriminated against because of your disability
You have to protect yourself. No one else is going to do it for you. I have worked in many legal practices with great mental health policies… that are never, ever applied when you are an employee with a mental health disability. It’s very, very easy for employers of all stripes, including law firms who should know better to discriminate against people experiencing invisible disabilities like mental health issues, and to push you out of work under the guise of “performance management” or associated human resource techniques that have a totally valid and sensible role in any organisation, but can be twisted to be used as a form of workplace bullying. Been there, done that, bought that t shirt, so to speak.
You will need help if you’re in this situation, and the best help comes from your union. So join up when you start – way before you anticipate any problems.
Australia’s publicly funded coverage of mental health treatment is OK, but not brilliant for chronic conditions. But don’t let that be a disincentive for reaching out and getting help. Your GP can assess you for a mental health care plan, and refer you to an appropriate local psychologist or psychiatrist. If you need urgent assistance because you are self harming, planning or thinking about suicide, or experiencing hallucinations and delusions, call the Crisis and Assessment Team (CAT) or go to the emergency department and ask to speak to the psych registrar. You can ask to be admitted as a voluntary patient under the Mental Health Act, although to be painfully pragmatic… most psych wards are full and they barely have space for involuntary patients so you are unlikely to be admitted – but you will be given some form of assessment and referrals for community based treatment.
- But… if I have a mental health issue, I’ll be struck off as a lawyer!
No, you won’t, not necessarily.
Read the Legal Services Board & Commission’s mental health policy. The point of the policy from the regulator’s perspective is to support lawyers experiencing mental health issues and, where appropriate, protect the community from lawyers who cannot exercise appropriate forensic judgment.
Look, this is the conversation I’ve had with staff at the LSBC regarding my fairly serious mental health disability, borderline personality disorder and major depressive disorder. “Hi, I have these issues. Does that mean that I have to disclose that to the LSBC?”
“What kind of practising certificate do you have?”
“Employee, unrestricted but I’m not authorised to deal with trust accounts and all that – because who’d want to anyway, y’know what I’m saying?”
“Do you have a regular GP and are you under appropriate treatment?”
“Yes. And I’m stable. I’ve never experienced psychosis and I’m never likely to. To be honest, my disability has largely affected my ability to be a productive employee rather than a fit and proper person to practice law – I have always managed to keep it all together in front of clients or courts, but then I sort of melt down in the office later. But that was before my diagnosis, and before I was on my current treatment regime.”
“Yeah, that’s cool. Look, we’re not really bothered unless you were a principal solicitor, supervising solicitor or sole practitioner, y’know?”
As it turned out, I had to make a show cause submission to the LSBC about my fitness to practice law later on, as I declared bankruptcy for personal and totally unrelated to legal practice reasons (or unrelated except that the lack of actually working at various stages had led to crushing debts…) and in that letter I also addressed my mental health issues. As far as the Legal Services Commissioner is concerned, I remain a fit and proper person to practice law, despite being bankrupt and, more or less, crazy.
It has meant that I have changed career goals – when I was still deadset on remaining in community law, I had thought about a future involving the words “Principal Solicitor” in it – but that’s going to be really hard for me, not just in terms of managing my mental health in that role, but in terms of getting a principal’s practising certificate. That’s OK. I won’t ever be a principal solicitor. That doesn’t meant that I can’t be a non-practising CLC managing director or CEO, does it?
Realistically, you are only likely to be subjected to proceedings to remove you from the list of practitioners if you regularly experience psychosis, or are unable to manage your mental health disability. That’s quite a high threshold. Don’t be put off from seeking help by the fear that you won’t be able to practice law, and for crying out loud, do not listen to colleagues who say stigmatising and ableist things like “oh my god, what are you going to do now? You CANNOT practice law if you have BPD!”
There are very good reasons why people who regularly experience psychosis, who are unable to distinguish between delusion and reality, should not practice law and be in control of people’s legal affairs. That’s not a particularly challenging concept, really. But there are many, many lawyers out there who, whether openly or quietly, continue to practice law while dealing with depression, anxiety, psychological or psychiatric disorders, and working as a lawyer while living with a mental health disability is protected by all relevant discrimination law.
How much you choose to be ‘out’ as a disabled person is up to you. There are very real and very frustrating problems in the world for those of us who have an invisible disability. I have been advised by many well-intentioned friends and former colleagues to hide my conditions and “pretend to be normal.” But for me, that’s not an option – because when I’ve done that, and have experienced some level of mental health distress, I’ve then had that distress compounded by unhelpful, tone deaf colleagues who say things like “But, you were fine before?” I was not fine – I was hiding my disability, and I was hiding it to make you more comfortable at work, not me. And… I wasn’t hiding it very well. If you think that it’s totally normal for your colleagues to often sit crying at their desks when they think no one else is looking… you might want to check out your own demeanour and interpersonal skills in the workplace, because that is NOT normal or healthy, and you could be contributing to the environment that has led to that person’s distress!
I would rather let people know that I have a disability, because I am not ashamed of that fact – it’s just who I am. I experience intense emotions, and have a lot of trauma baggage from an abusive childhood, so I have to work really hard to regulate my behaviour so that even if I’m experiencing an intense emotion, I am still behaving in an appropriately moderated manner. And… honestly, sometimes I’m going to fail spectacularly at that last bit and come across as this really intense weirdo, so I feel like it’s better that people know up front that I am a really intense weirdo trying to behave normally! But… I’m also finding it incredibly difficult to obtain work now, since being diagnosed as having BPD, and deciding I’d rather not be a community lawyer any more, and tweeting actively about BPD and disability discrimination. So… take that all with a grain of salt.
Law Institute of Victoria: Supporting You
Legal Services Board and Commission: Mental Health Considerations
SANE Australia: in my experience, the most helpful website and organisation for people living with mental health disabilities. Their factsheets and pages on complex and highly stigmatised conditions like borderline personality disorder are excellent.
Lifeline 13 11 14 or website
Beyond Blue – this is not a great deal of help for those of us with more serious issues than mild anxiety or depression, and a lot of their time is spent on generic and arguably useless “awareness raising” rather than actually helping overcome stigma and discrimination. Still, a good port of call for information on most mental health issues.