New Zealand Law Society - Proactive rather than reactive: Reading the signs and acting on them

Proactive rather than reactive: Reading the signs and acting on them

Proactive rather than reactive: Reading the signs and acting on them

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An accomplished journalist, lawyer, law lecturer and author, Jerome Doraisamy also has first-hand experience with something many lawyers and law students are familiar with: mental illness.

A high pressure, highly competitive and sometimes high-profile profession, the pressures of being a lawyer, and studying law, can sometimes lead to mental collapse.

Burnout is brought on by work pressures and toxic studying or workplace environments. It commonly manifests in two particular forms of mental illness, depression and anxiety.

“I studied law because I got the marks for it. Over time, I determined a career in law to be a great way to serve the community around me,” Jerome says of his choice to go into the profession.

While studying a double degree in law and communications at Sydney’s University of Technology, his mental illness came to a head during a music festival. What should have been a fun weekend with friends celebrating the end of exams, instead started an 18-month cycle of crippling anxiety and depression; a breakdown so severe it led to a period of self-admitted hospitalisation.

“The signs of burnout, fatigue, elevated stress and anxiety would certainly have been there, but they went unnoticed both by myself and those around me,” says Mr Doraisamy.

“Had they been identified, it’s possible I could have avoided the breakdown I suffered, or at least I could have mitigated the severity of my ill-health.”

A toxic culture normalised

Testing the emotional, mental and physical limits is common in both law school and in practice. The Pemberton Report revealed that 70% of young lawyers in Aotearoa who participated in the survey cited moderate or high stress as a problem in their workplace.

“There are numerous factors that have a cumulative and negative impact upon the health and wellbeing of law students,” says Jerome.

“These factors include increased levels of competitiveness, perfectionism and pessimism among the law student population, voluminous workload, self-medication with alcohol and disordered eating patterns.”

Standing alone, these factors may not necessarily give rise to health issues. But when students and junior lawyers are exposed to multiple or all of these factors, it can be hugely detrimental to their mental and physical wellbeing.

“These problems exist in every law school in every country,” he says. “They are not unique to any national culture.

“It makes me incredibly angry, really, because I would never want any law student to experience what I did. Anxiety and depression can be so debilitating and crippling, and no one should ever have to experience such trauma.”

Recovering and restarting

After nearly two years of working toward his recovery, Jerome began working again. He became a lecturer and journalist – contributing to the Australian legal media website Lawyers Weekly.

Teaching at the same university he attended, the University of Technology in Sydney, Jerome observed the toxic cycles he fell victim to occurring in many of his students.

“I decided to write The Wellness Doctrines because I saw the same issues, signs and symptoms I suffered manifesting in other law students and young lawyers coming through the ranks. I decided to do something positive and productive to help others avoid going through what I did.”

The Wellness Doctrines for Law Students and Young Lawyers provides guidance on managing stress and the pressures of law school, and those challenging first few years as a junior lawyer in the legal profession.*

Major impact factors

Throughout his research for the book, Jerome noticed that the competitive atmosphere surrounding grades in both high school and university greatly encourage completeness and this can carry over into their professional performance.

The cover of The Wellness Doctrines

One ‘low grade’, for any subject, can be considered a blemish and grade-based rejections can have deleterious effects upon a student’s wellbeing and sense of self-worth. What’s worse is that there is no consistent established standard and firms and universities can apply a subjective view as to what is considered a ‘low grade’.

“If their grades are not ‘up to scratch’, so to speak, they will feel like their vocational prospects are diminished. This, of course, ignores the fact that there is so much that one can do with a law degree, as it adds such a broader perspective on other professional industries, from communications to business.

“Another part of the problem exacerbating the turmoil students may experience here is that there are so many job opportunities with the law firms that students apply to, creating a bottleneck, and if one does not get an offer, they will feel unworthy,” says Jerome.

Firms may also fail to consider the more holistic offerings young people can bring to the table. Extracurricular activities, general knowledge, multi-lingual abilities, social skills and even just a sense of humour and great communication skills are great attributes. An A+ average won’t mean much if the knowledge cannot be communicated.

Reduce the chances of becoming mentally unwell

A simple phrase, but identifying the signs of depression in both yourself, and others, and knowing how to ask for help are incredibly important to keep a sense of wellbeing.

A chapter within Jerome’s book addresses legal idiosyncrasies and one particular issue is entitled “Learn to be okay with not being number one”, a concept many A-type personalities in the legal profession struggle with. Jerome suggests how to accept the fact that not everyone can be top dog.

“Being kind to one’s self, or being self-compassionate, is, of course, easier said than done. But there are a number of things one can do or practise in order to ensure that you are not giving yourself too hard a time.”

Jerome has some recommendations:

  • Allow yourself days in the week where you can do something completely indulgent, such as a Netflix binge or eating glutinous food. It also means switching off from study at certain hours of the day rather than flogging one’s self.
  • Seeing the bigger picture. If you get a bad mark in your criminal law exam, it doesn’t mean that you’re a failure of a law student, it simply means you got a bad mark in one assessment, in one subject. Don’t conflate issues unnecessarily.
  • Focus on what you can control, not what you can’t. One cannot influence the weather, and so it serves no purpose to get wound up by the rain, as it’s not going to ease the downpour. Focus your attention only on those things over which you have direct influence.

What can firms do?

Mr Doraisamy has taken his personal experiences to law firms and universities in Australia. The core theme of his advocacy at these talks is proactive, individual responsibility.

“When I go into law firms and universities, I argue that lawyers and law students must be proactive, rather than reactive, about looking after their health and wellbeing by way of figuring out what solutions and strategies will work best for them and implement those things as non-negotiable aspects of the daily or weekly schedule.

“Every person is unique and responds differently to external stimuli, and thus what works for me may not necessarily work for you. As such, it’s incumbent upon all of us to figure out what will be best for us.

“If you want to be the best lawyer you can possibly be, you first need to ensure that you are looking after yourself, because unless one is taking a holistic approach to their personal and professional lives, they’ll run the risk of burnout. Law firms need to say that they are looking for lawyers who tick those boxes.”

Jerome’s books (he has also written The Wellness Doctrines for High School Students) are available from the Book Depository and on his own website.

* As well as the guidance, 10% of the proceeds or each book sold goes to the Minds Count Foundation (formerly the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation) which works to decrease the incidence of depression and anxiety among youth through reducing the stigma around mental health.

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