Mental Health Care

for  Lawyers

July 2016

Risk, Risking and Sanity
Generally, lawyers are known by reputation and training as being risk adverse.  Some may even argue our aversion to risk is almost genetically in-printed which is one of the reasons we are drawn to law in the first place.

Being careful, prudent and cautious are excellent skills to hone and develop and our clients often pay good money for our judicious advice on how to minimize judicial risks.  However, these skills that make you a good lawyer do not necessarily translate to you being happy or satisfied as a person.

When you are working long hours, dealing with the consequences of the risks people have taken it is easy to become risk avoidant in other areas of our lives.  The scales of “work/life” balance begin to tip more and more towards work as we incorporate the skills we use in our professional lives into our personal lives and relationships.  None of this is intentional.  We begin to speak to our partner as if she or he was a work colleague or junior lawyer and our children become troublesome clients.  We begin to see risks and the potential for risks around us and we become more cautious and careful.

Subtly the color, the zest, the enjoyment of life begins to seep away from us.  Things we had previously enjoyed lose their appeal and boredom begins to set in.  Boredom can lead to an increase in our anxiety or conversely increase the propensity for depression. Another consequence of our focus in life becoming narrower and more restricted is that our interactions with family and friends become characterized by low-grade irritation and/or silence.  Dysfunctional communication patterns that can ultimately mean our relationships become battle zones rather than sources of support.

Within aged care and disability services there is the concept of the “dignity of risk”.  This simply means each person has the right to make decisions and take risks even if the people providing care do not agree with the decisions or risks the individual chooses to take.  

We need to re-learn the dignity of risk taking in our personal lives to counter-act the risk aversion of our professional lives.  For most people adolescence is the period of risk taking.  We look back with a mix of pride, amusement and amazement at the things we risked and got away with.  We had a sense of daring, we learnt what our bodies were capable of and we had a sense of being alive.  Maturity, responsibility and the natural conformity that occurs as we fit to societal and professional expectations means our risk taking diminishes. 

The question is what risks will we now take?  I am not necessarily speaking of extreme sports nor of what may be the usual Friday/Saturday night behavior where copious amounts of alcohol is drunk and drugs taken to try and give us an artificial high from the  sense of boredom of the week.  Nor am I speaking of the proverbial mid-life crisis where we will throw caution to the wind just to re-capture that sense of aliveness and competence and defy what age may be whispering to us.

What are the risks we can re-introduce into our lives that build a sense of competence and resilience for the future.  Risks that give us a sense of enjoyment and engagement with life again. 

There is the risk of friendship.  This can be a particular risk for men where our cultural upbringing and training is to be seen as “in-control” and dominant and where our legal training has equipped us to be combative, argumentative and always right.  Within Australian culture friendship and mateship are often synonymous.   However, they are not necessarily the same thing. 

There are the mates we brag with over a pint as we re-create the stories where we are the heroes and our mates are the audience that assure us we are still important.  But when the banter and bravado has stopped our mates are not necessarily the ones we turn to and admit we don’t know what we are doing.  The opening words of Dante’s Inferno are:
            “Midway upon the journey of our life
            I found myself within a forest dark
            For the straightforward pathway had been lost”
For many lawyers, we cannot admit the straightforward pathway has been lost.

A recent article on the ABC made the point that for many men as they head into middle age they are lonely and socially isolated. (O'Keefe, 2016).  The lower levels of social support results in the person being more vulnerable to psychological distress. (O'Keefe, 2016).

It is not just men who are at risk of social isolation.  Studies have found that social connectedness is an important factor in preventing anxiety and depression amongst law students (Rogers, Vol 40 No 2).  Students who have strong social support are more optimistic and better able to cope with the stress of studying law (Pakenham, 2015).

Friendships take time to cultivate.  Friendships also take honesty.  It is a risk to be honest.  It is often easier to hide behind our professional personas than take the risk of being ourselves.  It is not just being honest with our friends there is also the risk of being honest with ourselves.

Inherent in the concept of the dignity of risk is the right of the person to fail.

The concept of failure is something that rubs up against our legal sensibilities.  We do not like to fail.  Again the need to win seeps into our personal life, we have to win in the sports we play or we have to beat our previous best time.  We end up oscillating between our need to be cautious and careful and our need to win and not fail.

Failure is not something we need to manufacture.  Life brings failure to all of us.  Some of us fail societal expectations, we may fail those we love and who are close to us and we will certainly fail ourselves by not meeting some standard we hold to.  When life presents us with failure we have a choice.  We can continue the delusion we have not failed but are preeminently successful until living the lie becomes a toxic charade we can no longer manage.

Or we can allow ourselves to learn the wisdom that failure teaches.

For our sanity we need to learn the dignity of taking risks in our personal lives and not allow the risk aversive nature of our professional skills to leave us bored, depressed or anxious.  For our sanity, we need to learn the dignity of taking constructive risks that will enhance our lives and relationships and keep us connected and supported by those around us who care for us.
This article is in memory of my son who took a risk and died and taught me the importance of taking risks to live

O'Keefe, D. (2016, April 28). ABC Health and Wellbeing. Retrieved from ABC News.
Pakenham, A. B. (2015). Law Student Stress: Relationships between Academic Demands, Social Isolation, Career Pressure, Study/Life Imbalance & Adjustment. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 402.

Rogers, N. S. (Vol 40 No 2). Stress, Anxiety and Depression in Law Students: How Student Behaviours Affect Student Wellbeing. Monash University Law Review, 564-587.
On request we can provide training for lawyers on mental health issues. Please email Attn. David Kernohan to make an enquiry.
Copyright © 2015 Mental Health Law Centre (WA) Inc, All rights reserved.

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