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Lawyers look to lighten the load -

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Lawyers look to lighten the load

Meredith Griffiths reported this story on Friday, September 25, 2009 12:34:00

SHANE MCLEOD: Like many people in a competitive profession, lawyers don't like to show weakness.

But last night about 200 of them crammed into a boardroom in Sydney to hear what the nation's five
biggest firms are doing to try to combat depression among their staff.

Research has found that lawyers are four times more likely to suffer depression than the rest of
us.

That study and last night's panel were commissioned by a foundation set up in memory of a young
lawyer who killed himself five years ago.

Meredith Griffiths reports.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: Tristan Jepson's parents are still coming to terms with their son's suicide
when he was 26. They've set up a foundation in his name and in 2007 asked the nation's biggest law
firms what they would do to help make their staff more mentally resilient.

Now it's time for the firms to report back. The managing partner of Freehills, Peter Butler, says
they've been working together to develop a training course.

PETER BUTLER: Every lawyer in these firms would go through a program very early in the time they
started and deal with three things.

One is give them some information about anxiety and depression; secondly to give practical ways to
manage stress and anxiety; and thirdly to give them techniques for building personal resilience,
including cognitive and physical strategies.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: Stuart Fuller from Mallesons Stephen Jaques says it's set up a health and
wellbeing program

STUART FULLER: It's through health checks, it's through gym memberships, it's through yoga and
Pilates. So at any time in the firm if you get to 5 o'clock at night, there's people walking around
in Pilates gear. I find it quite you know, slightly threatening.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: The partners all said they're committed to creating environments where people
feel they can discuss mental health issues without being stigmatised.

But Michael Rose from Allens Arthur Robinson says that means overcoming entrenched attitudes, like
young lawyers thinking they're immortal.

MICHAEL ROSE: Older practitioners, they understand that depression is a real thing. But they often
don't accept that it's a communal thing as opposed to a private thing.

They don't necessarily accept that it's an issue that belongs in the wider community of our firm,
as opposed to in the private lives of the people who are affected.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: But when it came time for questions it was clear not all the good intentions
are trickling down.

This young lawyer said she was impressed with all the initiatives but she's yet to see them.

YOUNG LAWYER: Recently, my brother is suffering from leukaemia and I had to take two weeks annual
leave in the new financial year to go and look after his law firm. And I got into trouble because I
was under budget.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: Last night's discussion panel only looked at the big firms. It didn't address
the specific pressures faced by barristers or ask what smaller firms can do.

But Tristan Jepson's father, George Jepson, says the firms have made a good start in tackling a
problem that won't be fixed in the short term.

SHANE MCLEOD: Meredith Griffiths reporting.