National Wellness for Law Forum, 5-6 February, Keynote

by Paul Maharg on 05/02/2015

Liveblogging the fourth Forum, in the China in the World Centre at ANU, having arrived here a couple of days ago from -4 conditions in Glasgow, and with a lurgy, so doubly fuzzy.  All three readers of this blog, you need to bear with me.  Twitter handle: #wellnessforlaw.

Eloquent Acknowledgement of Country and introduction by Stephen Tang of ANU, formal introduction by Gary Tamsitt, of Legal Workshop, who mentioned that about 100 were attending — judiciary, practitioners, academics, some 40 or so presenters.  He described the growing ‘Darwinian’ conditions of legal practice, and for students the increased competition for jobs in the market.  The result, Gary observed was depression, and many other conditions, in a profession that invented the concept of duty of care.  Neat point.

Now to the keynote speaker, Assoc Professor Rachael Field from QUT, ALT Fellow.  Wendy Larcombe of Melbourne U chairing.  Her subject was the highlights of the Network, future directions and interrogating the imperative for action.  The Wellness Network she noted, existed to address the high levels of psychological distress, and to prevent it happening; to understand it deepr, and to foster and promote well-being in law schools and the prfession.  She summarised the history and context — the early US work (Krieger & Sheldon), early AUS writing, Paula Barron et al, the early AUS initiatives, and then the Brain and Mind Research Institute’s Report in 2009, which was seminal.  Further empirical studies by Leahy et al 2010, Hall, Townes, O’Brien and Tang, (2010 & 2011).  Over a third of students experiencing psychological distress at the end of first year.  And there were concerns about HE students broadly — Helen Stallman, eg, who pointed out in her research that AUS university students are an at-risk population who require universal early interventions (2010, 2011, 2012).  Wendy Larcombe’s work (2014) affirmed the incidence of elevated levels of psychological distress amongst U students across disciplines.  Hall pointed out that ‘cognitive dissonance and rationalisation can affect our reactions to the research on student well-being’.

Rachael mentioned some of the causes, and the initiatives to mitigate them.  Eg Council of Australian Law Deans (CALD) Guidelines for Law School, eg ‘Law Schools should acknowledge the competitive element of legal education’.  Eg Threshold Learning Outcome 6: Self-management.  The TLOs for the JD.  The Law Admissions Consultative Committee (LACC), PLT Competencies, Trstan Jepson Memorial Foundation — Psychological Wellbeing Guidelines, including those on organisational culture, psychological support, social support, clear leadership and expectations, in the work environment.  Her own fellowship aimed to stimulate advancement in the legal curriculum, raise awareness in the academy, persuade the academy to adopt strategic change, model good curriculum and assessment practices.  Report available (missed the url).  The highlights — the collegiality and commitment of the Network; the developing conversation between academy & profession; ongoing empirical research; dissemination of collective efforts, and leadership.

What more?  Challenge the cognitive dissonance and rationalisation tendencies; gather more empirical evidence, especially on efficacy of interventions; continue to support the conversation between profession & academy; get funding; develop a collective clarity about foundations and imperatives for our commitment and actions.

Why do we do this stuff?  Concern, care for our professional community. Because we’re compassionate, emotionally intelligent; an ethical commitment to ‘do no harm’?  But what does an ethical responsibility to work to promote well-being at law school and in the profession actually mean.  We could frame the imperative to act as related to our duty of care to students — Schuwerk’s idea that we are in a fiduciary relationship with our students.  So it’s not enough to say that ethically ‘we should do no harm’.  So interrogating the ethical imperative to act — our ethics are our principles and values that regulate behaviour as lawyers and as legal educators.  Our ethical principles act as a guide to ensure right conduct in our daily practice.  Our ethics should be our bedrock – fundamental to our professional identity.  As Rachael pointed out, there are multiple ethical lenses out there to interrogate the subject — virtue ethics, moral compass (eg Queensland Law Society’s Ethics Centre), Parker & Evans’ Inside Lawyer’s Ethics – a four cornered framework of values and ethical orientation.  P & E advocate moral activism – the lawyer as agent for justice, with adversarial advocacy, and responsible lawyering and an ethic of care.  Rachael outlined a deliberative ethical model of action, in nine steps.

So what to do?  Start at law school.  Use the curriculum.  Intentionally design the curriculum.  Be informed by our ethical foundations. Be guided by the CALD Guidelines and the TLOs.  Harness what we know about good learning and teaching practice and self-determination theory.

Key themes for law curriculum renewal — promote psychological well-being through the curriculum, ie capacity build, empower, skill up; work with students on success; harness student motivation; promote a positive professional identity; teach threshold concepts and capabilities for law in the first year, thinking like a lawyer, uncertainty, legal research.  I’m not sure about the threshold concept idea – needs a bit more sophistication?  Not sure either about thinking like a lawyer.  Cf Rhode on the subject, and I analyse it in the final chapter of Transforming Legal Education.  Other themes – promote student engagement: ative learning, modelling professional discourse; support student collaboration: intentionally teach comms and team work; teach independent learning skills (don’t some of us already do that?); teach reflective practice and resilience skills; teach ethics and dispute resolution in the first year curriculum.  Self-determination theory is key: it supports self-regulation because it supports the three basic psychological conditions that students require.

Fine keynote: careful in every sense, courageous, historically and psychologically perceptive and providing a framework for thought and action for the parallel sessions to follow.  Not sure I agree with all her key themes for renewal, but very thought-provoking.

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