Life on the edge

by Human Capital21 Feb 2012

The world of Australia’s top tier law firms is an intimidating one. It’s a game of high pressure and high stakes where competition drives achievement and the iconic image of the stalwart and domineering partner reigns.

It’s difficult to believe that high profile partners have spoken candidly to camera about their most vulnerable and demoralising experiences. It’s perhaps even more difficult to believe Australia’s top tier law firms have put aside their trademark competitiveness to band together against a common enemy.

This is the reality of resilience@law, a collaborative initiative between Allens Arthur Robinson, Blake Dawson, Clayton Utz, Freehills and Mallesons Stephen Jacques designed to combat what some law practitioners have dubbed the greatest threats to the profession: depression and anxiety.

Depression and anxiety in law

The prevalence of depression and anxiety within the law profession is alarming. The Hickie Report revealed that lawyers and law students are prone to psychological distress and have a greater risk of depression than their peers in other fields. A BeyondBlue survey found that legal professions have a high incidence of extreme depressive symptoms and a higher prevalence of alcohol and drug use to cope with feelings of sadness or stress. 

“The statistics are appalling across our profession. From a purely OH&S standpoint, law firms can be toxic and unsafe environments,” says Freehills partner and former head of litigation Peter Butler.

“They’re worked too hard, there’s not enough time off, competitiveness is pushed to unhealthy levels and there is not enough appreciation shown. It became clear we needed to put some resources into behind finding a solution to try and help each other get out of it.”

Following a conference held by the Tristan Jepson Foundation managing partners from the five law firms made a commitment to raising awareness and understanding of stress, depression and anxiety. The group aimed to make a lasting contribution by developing a learning approach for employees at each stage of their legal careers, from graduates through to partners.

Butler has been involved with resilience@law since its inception. Like many in the law profession Butler witnessed first-hand the crippling effects of depression. “I’ve seen it in my family and I’ve seen it in my workplace. Following this conference it occurred to me that depression and anxiety are not topics we should be frightened to talk about. We wanted to try and demystify anxiety and depression. These aren’t illnesses that need to be whispered about.”

Eliminating stigma

What compounds the debilitating effects of depression and anxiety is the lack of understanding and the social stigma attached to mental illness.

“If you feel that having depression and anxiety is humiliating and embarrassing then you’ll never reach out, but once you are aware it’s a common issue you are more likely to seek help,” says Butler.

“It’s one thing if I have a broken leg or other physical injury – I can tell people and enjoy their sympathy and support. It makes me feel better but it won’t help the physiology of fixing my leg. It just needs some time in plaster,” says Butler.

With this in mind, eradicating stigma is about taking the blame and humiliation out of the equation so that a colleague who sufferers from depression will feel no less supported and no more judged than a colleague with a broken leg.

The initiative’s most powerful and gutsy weapon against the stigma of mental illness is the resilience@law DVD. The DVD features law firm partners laying bare their most vulnerable recollections of individual struggles with depression and anxiety.

“These are people who were close to committing suicide, or were terribly depressed and didn’t know what to do,” recalls Butler.

“We hope those who watch it think, ‘that’s what I’m going through’, or ‘that’s what I might go through’, and the fact that someone has been through it and has come out the other side is inspiring.”

Laura Cropley, Clayton Utz national OH&S advisor adds that the DVD has been a key component of the program. “It has such an impact on employees because they know the people featured. They know that partner at Mallesons, they’ve seen that QC or whoever it might be and they respect them and their work. It goes an extraordinary way to dispelling stigma.”

Providing support

However, eliminating the stigma is only half the battle. It’s equally important to ensure HR is equipped with the appropriate skills to engage with employees that suffer from depression and anxiety. The law firms pool their resources and share their experiences to develop best practice methods to support and reach out to sufferers.

“It’s the only time I‘ve heard of where top tier firms have gotten together and worked collaboratively on a project like this,” says Cropley. “Everyone had put up the white flag and it’s just not a competitive space.”

Along with HR managers and partners from all five firms, Cropley and Butler embarked on a two day mental health training course they both found highly beneficial.

“It was an eye opener, the things that I learnt. It’s important that people look for the signs of depression and anxiety and feel comfortable asking ‘are you ok?’” Butler says.

The course teaches HR managers how to identify the difference between a performance management issue and mental health issue – a distinction that is often overlooked.

Cropley explains, “The key point of mental health training is identifying if someone has a mental health issue. It’s not about fixing the problem. It’s about referring them on or supporting that person as they seek treatment with a health practitioner or psychologist. It’s important HR managers can identify the signs and symptoms of what depression and anxiety looks like at work.”

As part of the firms’ orientation programs, all new starters receive resilience@law training at induction. A psychologist speaks to the group and screens the resilience@law DVD. Throughout the year the firms hold seminars covering a range of issues including mental health, work balancing life and stress relief.

Each firm has its own additional mental health support programs services that are promoted to employees through the resilience@law program whether they are anonymous help lines or counseling. The firms also participate in national initiatives like Mental Health Month or RUOK day.


Though research into the effectiveness of resilience@law at reducing stigma and increasing support is not yet available, anecdotal evidence is very encouraging.

“I know so many people who have said to me that when they felt that the chips were down and they were going through depression, they thought it’s actually ok reach out and tell a friend or a colleague. It’s not a career ending move to say you are suffering from depression,” says Butler.

“More often than not the response will be ‘I know what you mean, I’ve felt the same way or I’ve seen it in others. Resilience@law has made a huge difference but it’s just one step along the journey.”

Cropley agrees the work is ongoing. “It’s a movement. Previously no one was talking about it, but now we’re able to get in front of people, start educating, start those conversations, engage in national initiatives and advertise services,” she says.

“We’ve had really positive feedback from the other firms,” Cropley adds. “The mid-tier firms have shown a lot of interest and we’re in the process of developing a tool kit so we can hand it to the mid-tier firms and say, ‘look, there’s the DVD, there’s the speaker’s notes, there’s the power point slides, go forth!’

“We’re changing the culture and reducing the stigma around mental health.”