It has been three years since guidelines were introduced to ensure law firms worked to improve mental health among lawyers and barristers, but advocates say more needs to be done.
- Best practice guidelines now has 172 signatories
- 37 per cent of 1174 NSW barristers surveyed in 2014 said they were suffering depression
- Dr De Moore says more than just signing the guidelines is needed
The best practice guidelines were introduced for Australian law firms by the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation.
The charity was set up after the death of 26-year-old Tristan Jepson in 2004, who was an ambitious young lawyer who took his own life.
Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital, Gregory De Moore, said more needed to be done to give lawyers the confidence to speak up.
“If someone is struggling, it’s often difficult, from my observations, in treating lawyers over the years for them to come forward — to friends or colleagues in particular,” he said.
Dr De Moore, who sits on the foundation’s board, said while there were now 172 signatories on the guidelines, it did not include every Australian law firm.
He said while it was easy for a law firm to say they had signed up, businesses then had to “start putting meat on the bones”.
“I mean, what have you actually put into your workplace that allows your legal staff to develop some sense of resilience?
“What sort of mentorship program do you have?
“What pathways do you have for those individuals to seek help if they need help?”
Sydney-based barrister, Arthur Moses SC, said it remained a serious issue.
Mr Moses is the senior vice president of the New South Wales Bar Association, which conducted a survey of 1174 of the state’s barristers in 2014.
Out of the barristers surveyed, 37 per cent said they were suffering depression.
“There may have been stigma attached to discussing this issue within the profession in years gone past,” he said.
“But I think in respect to the work that is being undertaken by the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, we are turning this issue around to ensure that people can come forward.”
‘The grief is always there’
Marie Jepson, Tristan Jepson’s mother, formed the memorial foundation nine years ago to improve mental health in the legal community.
“There’s an enormous stigma within the profession of mental impairment,” Marie Jepson said.
“[The grief] is always there, and for me, when I hear of another suicide, it’s like a stab in the heart.”
She said a gathering of young lawyers after her son’s death had been revealing.
“As the guys had a beer with my husband out the back, their partners said ‘all our guys suffer depression, have sworn us to secrecy, and refuse to seek help’,” she said.
Since the foundation was established, she said many firms have gone to great lengths to look after their staff, but there was still a long way to go.
“The profession has had about 400 years of not changing, so they’re reluctant to change,” she said.