Professor Paula Baron, Chair of Common Law at La Trobe Law School, recently published ‘The Elephant in the Room? Lawyer Wellbeing and the Impact of Unethical Behaviours’ in the Australian Feminist Law Journal. In this article, Professor Baron looks into any unethical behaviour that influences wellbeing among legal professionals and what impact this has on the individual and the legal workplace.
Over the past few years, there has been an increasing concern about the high incidence of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide amongst members of the legal profession. Although the factors implicated in lawyer distress are said to be both structural and individual, the overall tendency in addressing lawyer distress has been to focus on the individual. In other work, I have sought to show that this focus may be unfortunate, tending to rendering structural issues invisible and to pathologies certain responses and behaviours. My specific interest in this paper is the impact of unethical behaviours – such as bullying, discrimination and harassment – on wellbeing. The paper is written in response to three recent Australian reports which found widespread incidence of such behaviours in legal workplaces. These are not the only reports to evidence the dysfunctional nature of legal practice in Australia: indeed, the problem has been described as ‘pandemic’. Although structural factors in legal practice, such as billable hours, heavy workloads, and stress have long been implicated in the ill-psychological effects of unethical behaviours. Drawing from a considerable body of literature that examines the impact of such behaviours on the health and wellbeing not only of victims but of perpetrators and third parties, I pose the question: is unethical behaviour in the legal services industry the elephant in the room in the wellbeing debate?
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