Wellness in Law Forum, day 2: plenary 2 & panel discussion

by Paul Maharg on 06/02/2015

This plenary by Laura Helm, Law Institute of Victoria (Human Rights & Admin Law) – ‘Changing minds: towards a mindful profession’.  She’s talking on research on the causes of depression and anxiety in lawyers; the framework for response — prevention and cultural change; LIV strategies, and the way forward.  She cited the stats from Courting the Blues study (55.7% of lawyers experience depression during their career, as opposed to a national benchmark of 45%).  So what are the causes?  What is important according to Laura is: self awareness and building resilience; self care; a ‘good fit’, eg between workplace culture, particular positions and lawyers; recognising the warning signs, ie learn when to seek professional help.  External stressors include bullying, vicarious trauma, gender discrimination, sexual harassment, attitudes to family responsibilities, and part-time work.  According to her there’s a need to build consensus on what is unreasonable behaviour.  We need a shift, eg to the WHO Mental Health Action Plan for 2013-20 where we create safe working environments, work in appropriate roles, reach our full potential, etc.  This requires a change in behaviour and values.  Eg reduce stigma and discrimination, encourage individuals to seek help, accept positive responsibility on employers to maintain healthy workplace culture, better management of mental illness with the workplace, relevance of mental health to fitness to practice and consumer protection.

What sort of change? Change in cultural capital – attitudes, values aspirations and sense of self efficacy.  There’s a process of ‘normalising’, where the new culture is embedded.  She presented a model adpated from Knott et al (2008), where cultural capital (1) enable/encourage/engage/exemplify (2) and lead to behaviours (3) that feed back into cultural capital.  She showed ways that this can be done, eg Steve Denning, Leader’s Guide to Radical Management.  Is there a ‘legal profession culture’?  There are diversities of legal practices and work, professional codes and ethical standards, and sub-cultures in workplaces and practice areas (eg corporate / criminal [my eg]), and gender bias.  For this to happen, though, we need acceptance of cultural change agendas.  Two factors.  First, externalities — one person’s actions has costs or benefits that fall onto other people, eg productivity costs, insurance costs, consumer protection, etc.  Second, limits — are these paternalistic interventions?  Depends on who leads/imposes intervention.  She talked about designing activities across the preventative continuum.  Health promotion (addressing systemic and work environment issues), primary prevention, secondary prevention (early detection and intervention) and tertiary prevention (relieving impact of mental illness).  Inspiration, power and information are key tools, eg –


In more detail, the behavioural driver of inspiration includes exemplifying (learning by example, compelling and consistent message) and engaging (Forum for dialogue and debate; participation and consultation); Wellbeing and the Law Foundation WATL (with focus on health promotion and primary prevention, WATL Ambassador programme).  In the Information space, they seek to enable by building capacity addressing barriers and providing alternatives, and providing a Vic Lawyers Health 24 hour member service.  Have revamped the website.  Regarding the behavioural example of power: encourage through incentives, sanctions, awards, including PLT Competency Standards, proposal for compulsory CPD, etc.

She gave a brief case study, in working with the regulators in Victoria, where LIV had managed to change attitudes.  LIV advocacy over 5 years included ‘leadership tools’ exemplifying vision, ‘information tools’, engaging in dialogue, providing input to policy development and ‘power tools’ encouraging change through law.

Challenges & measuring success…  Strengths — awareness of the problem, community of understanding growing, commitment to action.  Weaknesses – regulation.  Opportunities – collaboration, work with broader mental health advocacy sector.  Threats/challenges – oversupply of law grads (really…?  More complex problem than she makes out, surely), funding competntion, how to spread burden, how do we measure success, and treating lawyers as part of a broader community.  Where to from here?  keep on message, pragmatism, be dynamic, and evaluation.  Great work being done by LIV.  Don’t agree re the oversupply issue — it’s pretty complex.  And mention of Pragmatism clearly brings to mind for me the great examples of Dewey and Jane Addams and their circle, who were also engaged in complex culture change problems, and may have a lot to say to us on the issue.

Next up, Panel Discussion with Marie Jepson in the Chair (very moving introduction by her to the discussion), and with Mary Digiglio, Melinda Upton and Rachael Field.  Subject was the Experiences and learning: examples of early steps in implementing the Tristan Jepson Memorial Fund psychological wellbeing guidelines’.  Marie mentioned how the Foundation was going round signatories to the Guidelines, and collecting examples of good practice to disseminate.  Signing up not enough!  As she said, it’s like signing up to a gym: you also got to do stuff…  Commitment and leadership, effective policies and plans, and workplace buy-in are essential.

Rachael began, representing the Queensland Law Soc (did I get that right?) saying how the guidelines were being signed up to, in her experience.  Melinda, DLA Piper, then, on the issue of wellbeing issues in the workplace.  Her firm has signed up to the guidelines, and worked on some issues.  She and a number of colleagues presented to the leadership in the firm (thus exemplifying Marie’s point).  She said leadership was relieved (that people were taking this on) but also needed further information.  She’s rolling out training for levels of staff within the organisation, calling in a range of professionals to help out. Discussions started, and with pressures such as globalisation and market pressures, they were useful in profiling the problems.  She spoke eloquently about the way the organisation dealt with the Sydney hostage crisis.

Finally Mary spoke of becoming managing partner, and getting engagement with her people.  No management training, so she formed a ‘braindump’ committee to find out what people wanted in the firm.  Started an informal lunchtime meeting, asking for real feedback from real people.  Works really well.  She doesn’t report back to partners, just writes her reports on what is said.  Also the firm has an ‘Unlock your Potential’ programme, tailormade for her people.  Has to do with coping with stresses, EI, etc – 34 out of 35 take-up.  She also created the Swaab brand of service.  Two components — client treatment benchmarks, and internal service benchmarks, ie how do we treat each other in the firm?  Summarised by a double page visual, for all staff, in kitchens, offices, etc.  Every Monday she puts out an email giving examples from the previous week of behaviour that promote the brand.  She gave examples in her discussion.

Useful discussion, exemplifying what Laura Helm was talking about in the plenary as regards culture change.

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