By Jo Murdoch and Andy Smith
Mental Health Awareness Week, held during late September 2019, was an opportunity for law firms and organisations across New Zealand to examine what they are doing to provide a safe workplace for staff dealing with mental health issues. The current legislative position in New Zealand is that employers are obliged to minimise any risk of harm to an employee’s physical and mental health and make reasonable accommodation for employees suffering from mental illness. Other jurisdictions such as Australia and the United Kingdom have relatively well-developed jurisprudence in this field, with a significant body of case law explaining and expanding on governing principles.
Meredith Connell, a large law firm with 250 staff in Auckland and Wellington and the Office of the Crown Solicitor in Auckland, recently took the opportunity to examine its practices and policy in the area of mental health. This included introducing a range of short and long-term initiatives to assist lawyers in handling confrontational material, unique to Crown prosecution work, and erasing the stigma which sadly often accompanies mental health issues. The preliminary message to staff was simple: identify the warning signs as a means of prevention, seek help, ask if you see someone struggling and, most importantly, talk about it.
Normalising conversations about mental health is a primary focus for the firm and while culture change takes time there is already a sense that the tide is turning. Lawyers traditionally face various obstacles to seeking help. The practice of law is inherently driven by a desire to succeed. At Meredith Connell, as in other Crown solicitor firms around the country, prosecutors work day-in, day-out in a highly adversarial environment. Prosecutors now have additional responsibilities beyond simply presenting the Crown case, including the management of victims’ rights. The prosecutor’s role is a public one and subject to public scrutiny, not to mention the close eye of the appellate courts.
The effect of some cases
More critically, prosecutors are often exposed to the worst side of human behaviour. The content of criminal cases can test even the most dispassionate of prosecutors. If we are to get real about mental health, we need to get real about the effect certain types of cases may have on lawyers working in this high-risk area. This may be particularly the case with younger lawyers who are often more conscious of wellness when confronted with such material. If we expect younger lawyers to take up the baton, support in this area must be tangible and proactive.
The challenge with developing in-house policy in this area is that history shows that lawyers, like doctors, may be the last to admit there is a problem. Many, it appears, would rather battle on with the job, rather than admit they are not coping. Recognising this dynamic, for those working on cases with highly challenging material, such as sexual violence, child abuse or objectionable publications, a four-monthly session with a clinical psychologist has been made a mandatory requirement to enable professional supervision and debriefing. The session schedule can be supplemented with additional support as required, all paid for by the firm. The hope is that lawyers will find these sessions helpful and an opportunity to raise and proactively deal with any issues that are becoming (or could become) problematic.
Some other support initiatives
As the firm looks to lead the industry forward in the mental health space, other support initiatives have either been continued or expanded. The firm has increased the counselling services available to all staff from three to five appointments per person per year. Mandatory resilience training continues for all staff. Other new, long-term initiatives aim to support new prosecutors and the firm’s wider objectives in mental health awareness, for example, our popular in-house litigation skills training is being expanded to include a component for new lawyers appearing on behalf of the Crown on how to deal with confrontational material. A Wellness Committee has been established with a core membership including the Chief Executive Officer, Chief People Officer and partners responsible for shaping and driving the wellness agenda within the firm.
Industry wide there is a long way to go in the support of lawyers’ mental health but there are law firms recognising the importance of the agenda and adopting new positive practices.
Jo Murdoch is a partner in the Crown Specialist Group at Meredith Connell, undertaking jury trials in the District and High Courts with a speciality in sexual violence cases.
Andy Smith is the Chief People and Capability Officer at Meredith Connell, responsible for the development and delivery of the firm’s People and Capability strategy.