Australia’s top judge to address lawyers with striking message

One of the country’s top judges is preparing to deliver a ground-breaking lecture for an organisation set up to decrease work related psychological ill-health in the legal community

The Honourable Justice Virginia Bell AC, Justice of the High Court of Australia, will deliver the 9th annual Tristan Jepson Memorial Lecture and put out a call to arms in the legal community about a set of best practice guidelines and their significance in driving change in the profession.

The guidelines were developed earlier this year by the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation (TJMF), an organisation set up in memory of Tristan Jepson, a young lawyer and comedian who suffered from severe clinical depression and tragically took his own life in 2004.

The charity’s objective is to decrease work related psychological ill-health in the legal community and to promote workplace psychological health and safety.

Its latest and perhaps most important programme to date has been the initiation of a set of best practice guidelines that law firms and related workplaces can become signatories of.

They are intended to support lawyers, law firms and others working within the profession to raise awareness of mental health issues, and to understand the initiatives and methods of management that assist in the creation and maintenance of psychologically healthy and supportive workplaces.

Developed through the work of a sub-committee of TJMF, the guidelines build on a range of international and national activities, including the work of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), under the auspices of the Canadian Standards Association and the Bureau de Normalisation du Québec (BNQ), and, in Australia, the Mental Health Alliance.

They also recognise the value of providing specific guidance tailored to the particular workplace issues that arise in the legal profession and aim to provide that guidance in a way which reflects the varied nature of the profession, particularly in terms of size and resources. 

In her lecture, Justice Bell plans outline the significance of the guidelines in driving change to the profession. Having practised as a solicitor, barrister and judge, she will share her experiences of an illustrious career in the law and encourage all practitioners to embrace a change in workplace culture.

Since their launch, the best practice guidelines already have 60 signatories, ranging from top tier firms, through to legal organisations, associations and law schools.

The chair of TJMF, the Honourable Keith Mason AC QC, told Australasian Lawyer he is “chuffed” at the number and spread of the signatories, and he hopes it will be a springboard for others to join.

There is no doubt the esteemed Justice Bell will aid that in delivering the lecture on behalf of the foundation, he says.

“We’re very excited about that. Virginia is a great communicator, and has had a very broad judicial and pre-judicial experience.”

“Where she’ll make a really good contribution is that we’re dealing with changes in the profession in how it sees itself and how it drives itself, and her experience from the legal sector through to the high court positions her well. I’m hoping she’ll attract more than the usual group of people.”

Mason says setting up workplace guidelines has been the next logical step in a journey that started with the acknowledgement that mental health, especially among the legal profession, is a real and growing problem.

“People have been pleading with us to give them some tools. We know we have legal obligations and recognise that we have moral obligations; we are also feeling the push from new recruits… The guidelines are very much a response to what we felt we were in – a second phase – we’d already acknowledged there was a problem.”

TJMF decided to aim its focus on the leaders of firms and managing partners, because representatives feel that if change is to occur in the hierarchical profession, it will “only come from the top”.
Mason says the goal of the guidelines is to offer something simple, do-able and that with results that can be “marked” by the firm itself.

He hopes that in future firms will be willing to share their success stories or the problems they’ve had in reaching the guidelines in an effort to help others interested in becoming signatories.

“I think this is going to be something where firms will want the world to know they’ve signed up to the guidelines and they’ll want the people they’re recruiting and hoping to retain to see that they’re openly grappling with the challenges and opportunities the guidelines offer.”

Psychological ill-health in the workplace is highly damaging and sometimes even life-threating: Mason says human nature dictates that in the same environment some people will survive and thrive and some people will go under.

However, and particularly in the legal profession, most aim their focus solely on those rising to the top.

“Nobody is really very conscious of those who are struggling financially or emotionally, and they tend to drop away quietly. Firms invest a lot of money in training people…this probably also affects partners as well as the troops, so if the firm is not serious about thinking through these issues it can be a problem.”

The third issue, Mason says, is the question of risk: People can make costly mistakes for clients or slide into ethical problems when they’re taking on too much work. Experience shows when people get too stressed, shortcuts or worse can occur.

“This is not just legal duty or moral duty, but it makes good business sense.”

Mason expects the 9th annual Tristan Jepson Memorial Lecture on October 23 at the Ceremonial Court to be a crowd-pleaser and with a larger turnout than other years.

As well as its high-powered lecturer, the event is being streamed live to Federal Courts in capital cities across the country.

It will be just another stepping stone in the journey to transforming the culture of Australian legal work spaces, Mason says.

 “The essence of the foundation is that we’re not captured by any institution. It’s been very important for TJMF that we see ourselves as occupying a specific space that’s not in any way captured by any of the other players.”

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