Supporting a safe and healthy legal workplace

2017 TJMF Tasmanian Lecture – Hobart

The Inaugural Tasmanian Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation Lecture

The Honourable David Porter QC presents ‘A Career in Conflict’

 

Download the pdf  of lecture here  

 

Podcast: In conversation with the Hon Justice David Porter

David Porter is a part time acting judge of the Supreme Court of Tasmania, and an adjunct professor of law at the University of Tasmania. He is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Law, and is currently working as a co-author with Dr Rebecca Bradfield on the 3rd edition of Warner’s Sentencing in Tasmania.

Outside the law, for many years David was a keen target rifle shooter and represented the State on several occasions. He enjoys walking, and reading.

An Outline of ‘A Career in Conflict’

There is ample research that shows depression and mental health issues among the legal profession in Australia are higher than in the general community. Without seeking to devalue the research, that much might have been expected. But there is also strong evidence that the incidence of depression and mental issues in the legal profession is higher than in a significant number of other professions. A prominent survey giving rise to this conclusion did not include the medical profession, although there is evidence that the problem is greater among law students than medical students. An American study of about 100 occupations showed that lawyers had the highest prevalence of depression. The recognition of the prevalence of mental health issues has led to the publication by the TJMF of detailed guidelines to assist in a change of attitude towards psychological health and safety in the legal profession, and the implementation by professional bodies of strategies to raise awareness, to manage the risk and to minimise the impact. The TJMF has been instrumental in those initiatives.

The over-representation phenomenon extends beyond the practising profession to law students. Structured research relating to the practising profession does not seem to have been extended to judges beyond a survey that included perceived stress levels, but there is every reason to think the situation with the judiciary is no different. It can be taken that all three groups are affected, and may be described for these purposes as the legal profession. In much of the research material, and in discussions about the issue, some reasons are suggested for the disproportionate representation of the legal profession in the statistics. A small number of those reasons, such as time recording and the “billable hour” have been closely examined, with suggestions made for change. The aim of this address is to explore further the question of why the situation might be as it is.

As an important starting point, members of the profession experience the same stressful life events as experienced by those in the general community. The point of interest is what features of learning and practising the law, either by themselves or cumulative to ordinary life stressors, create a particular vulnerability to mental health problems. In terms of the role of involvement in the law, different considerations apply to the different groups in the profession, but a key question is whether there is a common thread. In this address, the speaker will examine that question, and explore the stressors and pressures that are both external to the profession and inherent in its practice. It is sought to demonstrate that the general underlying theme is one of conflict in one guise or another. By this discussion, it is hoped to highlight the importance for the profession of the adoption of, and adherence, to the TJMF guidelines by those who manage the profession’s workplaces.

JPD