Every now and then it is important to acknowledge how far we have come. Mental illness is now seen as a genuine grievance worthy of compassion and empathy. All major political parties in Australia have mental health funding as a primary policy objective. Men can open up about their struggle with depression or anxiety without it been seen as an affront to their masculinity. This was only made possible through millions of people choosing to have a more honest discussion of the reality of mental illness.
In the spirit of this gratitude, I want to talk about the danger of people who choose to over-simplify and cheapen the issue of mental health. The particular example I have in mind is the rise of ‘shortcuts to mental health’. The content is usually banal and self-explanatory, with advice such as ‘get enough sleep’, ‘meditate every morning’ and ‘learn to be happy.’ There is nothing inherently wrong with this sort of advice, but …
The problem is that they imply a simplicity to your mental health that just isn’t true. They enforce the illusion that your mental health is some kind of sickness that you fix by treating the symptoms.
I’m sorry folks, but that just ain’t how it works. Whether it is out of ignorance, or a deliberate choice to get clicks by piggy backing off a hot topic, this hurts those of us who still or will struggle with mental illness.
I decided to write about this after I was asked to speak at the 2019 Wellness for Law forum. At the panel, I was asked “What have you found to be the most effective strategy for maintaining your psychological well-being?”
The question bothered me because of how it painted the issue of mental health. It assumed that it was some kind of easy problem that could be fixed with just a few words of advice. Now, I’ll admit that I’m not an expert in mental health. But I can speak from my own experiences, and the hundreds of people who I have talked to about their mental health, to know there is some element of truth to what I’m about to say.
A mental health ‘strategy’ implies that if you execute the following steps correctly, everything will work out. It pushes forward this idea that so long as you’re eating right, and sleeping right, then you will feel better all the time. Even though each of these things are vitally important, we have to think about our well-being holistically. It’s about developing a consideration of our mental well-being as something that is one of, if not the most important aspect of our life.
One of the major themes of the Wellness for Law forum was resilience.
Namely, how can we develop resilience within ourselves so that we can deal with the trials and tribulations of life. Life is just going to get tougher after university, and that is the truth. Anyone that has gone through any kind of hardship knows that you can’t learn resilience. You experience something difficult, you suffer, and resilience manifests itself within you. It’s not a reward that you get after you complete something. It’s a state of mind that develops once you begin to think in a different way.
Bertrand Russel once said that “if something can be said in a nutshell, that’s where it belongs”. Unfortunately, happiness doesn’t lie at the end of reading a well-being article or at the bottom of a to do list (don’t worry, the irony of me proclaiming this on a website about well-being isn’t lost on me). The solution is much deeper and far more complex than that, and depends on your own willingness to question the structure that have governed your life up until now. I am not saying there is no worth to Buzzfeed listing tips & tricks on wellbeing, but we need to keep the search within ourselves to find real meaning from life. This meaning is what will lead to resilience, and this resilience is what is crucial keeping mental illness at bay.
Written by Christian Lane
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In this instalment of our interview series we had the pleasure of interviewing Emma Heuston, Practice Leader (Partner equivalent) at LegalVision and Australian pioneer of the flexible worker movement. Or, as it is fondly nicknamed, the Tracksuit Economy.
‘Flexible work’ can be described as giving employees the choice and freedom to choose how long as well as where and when they can work. As lawyers are nearly four times as likely to be depressed as other professionals, being able to choose the parameters of your working life can be a liberating and life-changing freedom. As well as raising a family and smashing the glass ceiling, Emma is also the published author of “The Tracksuit Economy”, where she discusses her passion for re-framing the way we work and why she believes flexible work is the way of the future.
In this interview Christian asks Emma about her thoughts on the way technology is impacting employment and wellbeing in the legal sector, social justice and gender diversity, and what she thinks law students should strive for if they want a happy, healthy and fulfilling career in the law.
Hi Emma, thanks for agreeing to this interview! Could you share a little bit about your journey through law school? Do you think that law school prepares us adequately for the trials and tribulations of a legal career?
I went to law school from 1996 – 1999 (as part of my combined Bachelor of Arts/ Bachelor of Laws degree at University of New England, Armidale). At the time I went to law school it was very theory based, with very little practical application, aside from the odd moot court and my regular volunteering at the Local Community Legal Service towards the end of my degree.
Given this was 20 years ago, I understand things have changed somewhat, as my marking of subjects like “Legal Drafting” at UNE in recent years have shown. In all honesty I felt law school taught me the skills to look up legal questions I didn’t know. However, it did not teach me how to deal with difficult clients, how to deal with information from family law or crime cases or to manage the priorities of day to day legal practice. While my Professional Legal Practice course at College of Law NSW went some way to bridging these gaps, most of my learning was “on the job” in the first couple of years of practice, which I spent in the small town of Scone in the NSW Upper Hunter Valley.
What general advice could you give university students who are excited by the prospect of ‘NewLaw’ and interested in working in trailblazing firms such as LegalVision?
Context: LegalVision is often cited as an Australian pioneer of the ‘NewLaw’ disruption happening in the legal sector. Considering that quality legal experience is increasingly harder to obtain, it appears that “soft skills” such as emotional intelligence (EQ) and tech skills are now becoming important for employability.
Competition is fierce for spots at LegalVision (and for graduate jobs in general). Candidates need to stand out from the crowd and show they not only have the legal skills but are not afraid to deal with clients or find solutions for problems. For example, many of our employees started as part time content writers or paralegals during their final years of study who have showed promise and been promoted into graduate roles.
All LegalVision graduate candidates enter the firm through our “client care” team and help clients who call in or contact us online. They are the first point of call many of the LegalVision clients have with the firm and must be personable, empathetic and willing and able to solve problems.
Do you think that ‘NewLaw’ changes to the legal sector, such as flexible working and anti-hierarchical organisational structures, could go some way to solving some of the social justice problems we face in our profession?
Context: A national report by the Law Council in 2016 found that almost one in four female lawyers have been subjected to sexual harassment in Australia. The traditional hierarchical structure of law firms has been cited as an enabler of this behaviour. Namely, senior lawyers and partners can take advantage of the power disparity that exists between themselves and junior lawyers to engage in inappropriate sexual behaviour.
New law and advents such as working remotely do help flatten out the hierarchical power structure of traditional law firms. For example, our use of tech at LegalVision means there are no secretaries employed. The firm culture also ensures we treat the CEO as we would firm juniors. That being said, while this certainly assists the disruption of the traditional old school law firm mentality, only deep seated cultural change and education in schools and universities will make a big difference. For example, while ever scandals such as hazing and sexual abuse continue in university colleges, the fact that the students responsible for that discrimination at university enter the workforce will mean the legacy continues into the workforce
Do you think that the mainstream implementation of flexible working procedures and conditions could help talented female lawyers and professionals to stay in their careers?
Context: In your book, you mention how flexible working conditions were incredibly important for you while you juggled the demands of a law career and a young family. You cited that you often struggled with the unfair demands of the legal institutions you worked in. For example, you mention how opposing parties would purposefully schedule important hearings and meeting on days they knew you had put aside for your family. It has often been argued that certain parts of the legal institutions we work in are not designed for women who want to raise a family whilst progressing in their career.
I firmly believe making the entire legal system (and the entire corporate system) more flexible would assist everyone. Not just talented women, but talented men who would like to be more part of their day to day family life. The NSW Land and Environment court is taking steps to achieve this by offering paperless trials. It is my hope other courts will catch on. Additionally, education of the legal profession is important. It is crucial that it is understood just because someone has young children or wants to work part time for any other lifestyle or health reason that it does not make them weak or a “bad lawyer”
In 2017 the Law Society found that only 23% of women in the legal industry become equity partners. Do you think that flexible work could be important to increasing representation of women in senior positions in the legal industry?
I certainly think it will help. However, it is not the ONLY reason. The law industry is largely still a “boys club” and women are over represented in areas considered “soft areas” like family law and under-represented in IP law or corporate law. The other issue to grapple with in this regard is the question of whether being an equity partner is a reflection of a traditional law firm attitude.
Perhaps women want different things and part of that flexibility is to pursue other interests alongside law. For example, in my instance although I am partner equivalent level at a law firm I work 3 days a week and use the other 2 days to pursue my own interests as an author and pushing the flexible work agenda.
How soon do you think university students can begin to ask for flexible working conditions? If it is something that must wait until we have obtained experience in a workplace, what else can we do to ensure that we are balancing our work commitments with a consideration for our wellbeing?
Context: In your book you discuss the importance of letting employers know when we want flexible working conditions. However, as law students we are already desperate for any work experience we can get and will happily settle for unpaid research projects and internships.
My view is that graduates and university students must be realistic. As a graduate it would benefit you to work in the office with a lawyer supervising you in person. However, the good thing is that more firms are offering flexibility, for example Corrs Chambers Westgarth have removed billable hours recently and added an extra week on their annual leave entitlements for employees while McCabe Curwood have removed the restrictions for lawyers to wear business attire – yet neither of these things mean graduates can work part time or from home.
LegalVision offers flexibility in terms of projects that lawyers work on – for example it is possible to work on marketing and law or tech and law or project management for a large corporation utilising document automation via the LegalVision tech team. Further, LegalVision offer yoga classes and training/ fitness classes plus things such as Growth leave to pursue other non-legal or personal interests. In my view ALL of these things constitute flexibility, even though they may not necessarily be part time or remote work. It is about re-framing what graduates want to view as flexibility.
What general words of encouragement can you give our readers who have or are going through their own ‘trigger events’ now?
Context: You have talked about how a ‘trigger event’ is often what gets people to break the unhealthy patterns of their lives and make things better for themselves. Law students are increasingly suffering from debilitating mental illnesses while we prepare a competitive job market. You have clearly demonstrated that personal commitments can be balanced with career aspirations.
Remember that there is an easier way and while you may be able to do everything, you don’t have to do everything. To that end, prioritise what is important and let the rest fall away. Though you may receive a few rejections in the search for a legal role, it may be a blessing in disguise and you will find your way eventually. The important thing is to stay curious and true to your core values. Also, be respectful and work hard, it will earn you a lot of respect in your chosen career.
If you have enjoyed this interview and want to learn more about Emma and other Australian pioneers of flexible working, you can find her book “The Tracksuit Economy” here!
Interview conducted by Christian Lane (Co-founder)