New Zealand Law Society - Talking about mental health: A utopia of lawyer mental health

Talking about mental health: A utopia of lawyer mental health

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Work should not injure you or make you sick, but sometimes it does.

There are types of work that need to be done that make you subject to higher risks. If you’re a forestry worker, you’re at risk of logging accidents. If you’re an electrician, you’re at risk of electric shock and electrocution. The risks are not a reason not to have people do that job anymore, but they are reason to take care, to have systems of mitigation, and to have an industry-wide responsibility for the risks to individual workers.

Mental Health rainbow

Lawyers have professional hazards too, but ours don’t get treated like professional hazards. Instead our anxiety, depression, addiction and suicide is considered a mostly individual matter, for individuals to manage. It’s deeply sad, of course, but we try and address it mostly via annual “wellness weeks” and perhaps the odd news alert with advice to eat broccoli. (Do eat broccoli though; it’s like Lorazepam in a bowl.)

For the most part I don’t blame people too much for this. The hazard of poor mental health has crept up on us, partly because the science is relatively new and partly because poor mental health is mostly hidden from others’ view. It doesn’t help that lawyers, and industry leaders in particular, are busy. Taking stock of systemic, important-but-not-urgent problems takes mental capacity most people don’t have spare. It is possible that for many years nobody noticed.

But we know better now, and the time has come to do better.

Our work is not dangerous like a person’s whose work requires contact with live wires or chainsaws is dangerous. It is dangerous in a needly, scientific way, in a cumulative way; not because there is a risk of a single deadly accident but rather because there is a certainty of wearying degradation over time. It is dangerous because years spent doing it and not accounting for its danger will leave one sick, or burnt out, or sometimes even dead.

This reality is itself depressing, which is part of my point today.

A utopia

What we need, in the face of such a complex, disheartening problem with interrelated causes, is not a glum recitation of the problem (though, call me if you want a fun lunch), but rather a utopia to face. Stay with me here.

Bill Clinton is famously very excited about climate change, or at least he was in 2008. Speaking to speechwriter Jon Lovett he said climate change did not represent cause for despair, but rather an enormous opportunity. He said that people tend to turn away from big problems that feel unsolveable, whether in their own lives or at the most global systemic level. The way you get them to turn towards it is to get them excited about the opportunity instead. Climate change was an opportunity for extraordinary growth, interdisciplinary innovation and transformation of life on earth.

My goals may be more modest, but my principle is the same. The problem of poor lawyer mental health is an enormous opportunity; we can get creative and even a little cheeky, and we can feel the power of contributing to a complex change with other people who are also doing it. Doing work you’re proud of with your talented friends is, according to my queen Amy Poehler, the way to the good life.

So let’s talk utopia. Not utopia like some fantastical unreachable thing on a cloud glowing with light beyond the known colour spectrum. Neither, too, a utopia as blueprint, all mapped out and specific. Rather, let’s talk utopias like a direction to face: a version of lawyer mental health that is exciting, and good, and sustainable.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I ask that I might present a thousand words to make my picture. Your thousand words might be different. Either way you can hang your picture in a nice frame on a wall at the back of your mind, which you may glance at it occasionally and murmur “that looks nice”. Reminding ourselves of utopias brings them closer into view, so it helps to keep them nearby.

My utopia

I know I started this article with the analogy of forestry workers and electricians, but my utopia for mitigation of poor lawyer mental health looks quite different to those industries’ approaches. The analogy works in that we are discussing a risk that arises in a job-specific context. However, poor lawyer mental health is also not analogous because it is more subtle and complex with a slower onset, that shows up differently in different people and that has numerous interrelated causes that are not easily untangled. Therefore, it requires different mitigation.

Katie Cowan
Katie Cowan

Let’s start at the beginning.

In my utopia, people with law degrees have taken mandatory courses not only in ethics but also in mental health. They learned at law school about their stress response systems, how trauma shows up in a brain and body, how cognition relates to the limbic system (and the experience of both), what emotions are and how to regulate them, the risks of the kind of hypervigilance and intellectualisation that law demands, what chronic stress is and what it does to your HPA axis over time, the science of habit formation, and upward and downward mood spirals in the brain.

In my utopia, law graduates are people with a degree of fluency not only in evidence and mooting, but also a bio-psycho-social model of mental health. And lawyers, as part of their ongoing CPD obligations, get updates and refreshers on the science every year throughout their careers.

And then, in my utopia, poor mental health is a normal thing that happens a lot. It is treated like a professional hazard, seen and understood, and leaders throughout the industry make room for it every day.

Non-judgemental acceptance

In my utopia, non-judgemental acceptance of lawyer mental illness is just part of practice. It is ordinary. Crying and panic attacks are understood, are expected to happen sometimes at work, and multiple people know what to do when they see them. Burnout is detected early and everyone knows what it means. People are free to moderate their own work environment to reduce stress or increase comfort; for example working with your door closed doesn’t mean anything political. People talk openly about their own mental health and the health of their firm, and the discussion covers the individual through to the systemic. As a result there is no need to hide your mental health or feel too much shame about it, since you know that everyone around you basically knows what’s happening. (Of course, the disorders themselves heap shame upon you without the need for anyone else’s input, but everyone gets that too.)

Note here that my utopia is not “no lawyer mental illness”. You could say that’s a utopia of sorts, but it’s a pretty useless one. For one thing, it is the nature of demanding professions like law that the risk of poor mental health rises naturally. But for another, trying to fix this particular problem by eradicating it is usually counter-productive. If the measurement of success is the numbers of mentally ill lawyers going down, you’ll inevitably push the mentally ill underground; instances of poor mental health will be signs of failure, and things that represent failure get treated differently from things that just happen sometimes. Mental illness is the type of complex thing where making room for it, allowing it, does more work to heal the crunchy edges of it than trying to get rid of it. (One reason for that is that recovery from mental illness usually takes months or years and is non-linear. Pressure to recover usually slows or reverses recovery.)

In my utopia, the Law Society does not ask if you have a mental disorder on your application for a practising certificate, since doing so encourages hiding and fear. It is understood throughout the profession that having poor mental health for a period does not, on its own, say anything about your capacity to practise, and that many if not most lawyers practise with excellence while in poor health at some point.

Non-work hours are sacrosanct

At a practical level, in my utopia, people treat non-work hours as sacrosanct. You rarely work at night or on weekends, even if you’re a QC. It is understood that for a lawyer to be sustainably well and able to do their job (let alone be a happy human being) it is necessary that they have time to sleep, play sports, raise children, see friends, think big thoughts, sing in choirs, write novels, and idly do very little of a Saturday afternoon.

In my utopia, when people do have to work beyond their contracted hours, they are paid well for every hour. This happens partly to disincentivise chronic over-work, but also because it is understood both that it’s wrong to make people earn one’s profit for free, and it’s downright evil to make them do it by taking their rest and restore time from them without compensation (that time being the time that protects them from the effects of chronic stress).

In my utopia, lawyers who work three or four day weeks are just as common as those who work five, regardless of whether they are also a parent. It is normal for people to go through periods where they work reduced hours, and stress leave is routine.

In my utopia, lawyers have mandatory quarterly supervision meetings with an independent psychologist, with whom they reflect on their career and health, work on habit change, untangle work challenges, or anything else. Employers also heavily subsidise sessions with independent psychologists on an ongoing basis, and lawyers are free to take those sessions during work time. It’s normal, right? So it’s no big deal. Partners model the culture they want by walking through their offices, chests thrust forward, enunciating, “I’m off to see Dr Pratt! See you at 2!”.

Management training and monitoring

Poor mental health is exacerbated and can even be brought on by mismanagement and bullying. In my utopia, people responsible for managing staff receive management training and monitoring, just like if they were learning a new specialty (because they are). There are 360 degree review processes and other mechanisms to weed out bullies, and a person who bullies or is sexually inappropriate is not tolerated within a partnership, no matter how many fees they bring in.

And hey, since we’re dreaming? Let’s go a bit bigger.

In my utopia, the leadership of organisations that employ lawyers are at least 50% female/non-binary, and are racially diverse. A sense of powerlessness or injustice contributes to all kinds of health issues, not least mental health. Seeing proper representation in the leadership ranks is one of the surest signs that you, as someone other than a straight white man, will be treated fairly and have the same opportunities for advancement as anyone else. In my utopia this has done a lot to curb bullying, sexual harassment and unconscious bias, but the industry remains vigilant about those threats too, not least because they intersect with the underlying hazard of poor mental health in lawyers. Of course, it goes without saying that there is no gender or racial pay gap, since employers are obliged to report salaries and bonuses, and the transparency does a lot of heavy lifting in this regard. All of this makes people feel safe and able to trust their employers, which does wonders for their health and their ability to do great work.


There’s more to my utopia (call me for that lunch), but you get the idea. The specifics all lead to a culture where poor mental health is treated like the professional hazard it is, and employers and leaders take responsibility for mitigating the risks and addressing it within people’s roles when it happens.

Sarah Taylor
Sarah Taylor

Some of these things cost money, but I think that’s ok. No-one likes the owner of an electrician company who refuses to splurge on safety gear while raking in six or seven figure profits. And lawyers earn more than electricians; we can afford this stuff. But if it helps, working somewhere where your mental health is understood, respected and cared for drives loyalty and productivity like little else. Most people like to do work for people who respect them.

I can imagine any number of objections to my utopia. I have anxiety, depression and PTSD; my brain is basically an “I object to what you just said and also what you are wearing today” machine. But if you have objections, I ask you not to focus on them for a second. Focus instead on what your utopia might look like, if it diverges from mine. And then ask what the person next to you what their utopia might look like. And together, ask yourselves what you might be able to do to face in the direction of your utopias now.

Rutger Bregman says it well: “If the blueprint is a high-resolution photo, then this utopia is just a vague outline. It offers not solutions but guideposts. Instead of forcing us into a straitjacket, it inspires us to change. And it understands that, as Voltaire put it, the perfect is the enemy of the good. As one American philosopher [George Kateb] has remarked, ‘any serious utopian thinker will be made uncomfortable by the very idea of the blueprint’.”

It can be hard to take action on a problem, especially a big giant one that is beyond the grasp of the individual. The problem is a Bad Thing, and looking at it makes us feel queasy, and feeling queasy makes us think maybe we’d be better off doing something else. By contrast, Bregman’s version of utopia “throws open the mind”. Having one’s mind thrown open tends to inspire one to hop from foot to foot with excitement, and that kind of thing usually leads to action.

And this is why utopias are important. They are exciting. I am excited by a utopia of care for lawyers’ mental health. It could be an adventure for us as a profession, a real joy-ride of change and missteps and corrections and lessons and lightbulb moments and delicious, messy, imperfect progress by all kinds of actors over time.

Who’s with me?

Katie Cowan is a former litigation lawyer who now works to improve how lawyers and law students experience the law. She works from Christchurch as a writer and speaker, and as a coach for lawyers at crossroads. You can find more of her work via The New Lawyer Podcast or on LexisNexis’ Learn Law Life platform, where she is the resident advice columnist.

Sarah Taylor is the co-ordinator of this series, a senior lawyer, and the director of business development at lexvoco, a law firm focused on the success and wellbeing of lawyers.

If you’d like to contribute to an article in this ongoing series, please contact Sarah

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