You’re not alone and you don’t have to suffer

by Sol Dolor03 Mar 2018

Kari Schmidt and Eloise Callister-Baker realise that although many lawyers battle anxiety in various stages of their career, the issue is somewhat taboo in the profession.

Callister-Baker thinks that the issue is common because lawyers often take an adversarial role for clients, which may go against the human tendency to want to please others. To learn to live in this taxing and emotional environment, members of the profession are likely to view lawyers who stay in the profession as vitriolic survivors, while those who leave as defeated, she says.

There is an increasing focus on health and wellness in firms big and small, Schmidt says, but there is still a lack of tools that help individuals fully understand and tackle these kinds of sensations. There’s also the persistent notion that these issues need to be privately handled to maintain professionalism and reputation, she says.

The realisation that anxiety is a major problem ­– and not just in the legal profession – has led the duo to act. They have organised an art exhibition called “I Understand If You’re Busy,” which will be held at the RM Gallery in Auckland this Wednesday, 7 March.

In this interview, Schmidt and Callister-Baker also talk about their experiences with anxiety in the profession, how firms and lawyers are combatting the problem, and what more can be done about the issue.

Tell us more about your backgrounds.

Kari Schmidt: I have an LLB (Hons) and a BA (Hons) in art history. Since graduating at the end of 2015, I’ve worked at Simpson Grierson (SG) in the “Local Government & Environment” team, and at the same time, engaging in art writing and exhibitions in Auckland and Hamilton.

Eloise Callister-Baker: I have a LLB, BA in visual culture and a diploma in language and culture (endorsed in Chinese). I am a lawyer at a boutique law firm that specialises in working with Chinese clients. I also write in a freelance capacity, take photographs and do editing for various publications and organisations.

What motivated you to choose a career in law?

Kari: I think what appealed to me about the law is that you’re dealing with real-world issues that have a direct impact on individuals and communities. Working at SG, I also knew I’d have access to high-level talent and mentorship, as well as big files. Finally, I gravitated towards the intellectual aspect of the law and its emphasis on discipline, attention to detail and living by a code of professional values.

Eloise: My parents convinced me that having a law degree would add to my armour – wherever I ended up. I chose to enter the legal world because I wanted to get behind the scenes and believed that it would combine my interests in writing, understanding people, advocacy and China.

What motivated you to organize an art exhibition with a focus on anxiety?

Kari: At the end of my first year of working, I went through a period of really intense anxiety, which I think is quite common and very natural for junior lawyers entering the workforce for the first time. Fortunately, I have people in my life who could see that I was struggling and encouraged me to get help. Part of processing the anxiety I was feeling was through writing and creating a zine, and making productive something that at times had felt quite debilitating. Organising an art exhibition felt like a natural extension of this experience, and things just fell into place in terms of meeting Loulou and a number of Elam artists who were also interested in participating.

Eloise: Kari approached me about the exhibition. I was excited to work with her and tackle an issue that is such a prominent feature in my life.

What strikes you the most when it comes to anxiety in the legal profession? What are the common problems related to this issue that you see in your work and in dealing with other members of the profession?

Kari: That it is in fact extremely common, even in the most seemingly confident of individuals. Based on my own experience at SG, I think there is an increased emphasis on health and wellness at the big firms – which is amazing. But I think we still don’t have a lot of tools for knowing how to deal with or conceptualise these kinds of sensations, and there’s still a view that these are issues we need to deal with entirely privately so as to remain professional and maintain our reputation. I think this probably leads to a lot of people suffering silently.

Eloise: Working in an adversarial role for clients means that I am constantly being confronted or doing the confronting. As social creatures, I think humans naturally want to please others. To constantly be in positions where you are displeasing the other side can prompt anxiety. In an effort to come to terms with this highly stressful and emotional environment, we tend to frame lawyers who stay in the profession as vitriolic survivors and those who leave as defeated. This is a simplistic and problematic approach to very complicated mental health issues that are prominent in the legal world.

How can the profession start to solve these problems?

Kari: I think the fact that solicitors increasingly have access to health and wellness seminars and employee assistance program services is amazing. But I would advocate for an even more proactive approach, such as a program of individual consultations with lawyers to touch base about their mental health, especially at the junior level when people are just starting out. A big part of solving these problems is also having more open stories and conversations around people’s experiences – so that we as a profession understand there’s no shame around these kinds of issues, and so that we can learn from each other. For example, I know at MinterEllison they had a program, where for a time, lawyers throughout the firm would share their mental health stories in an email that went out periodically.

Eloise: I agree with Kari. Individual consultation seems essential. Sometimes it is hard to recognise the various ways legal work affects me. Generalised messages are not enough for individuals to both understand their mental health and develop coping mechanisms. The profession needs a total update – from addressing the need to adequately compensate all overtime work to providing general and individualised mental health support. Full disclosure about legal culture is necessary to make any first steps. However, full disclosure is a battle in itself in the legal world, which bases itself on principles like legal privilege and confidentiality.

What are your tips to lawyers who are experiencing a lot of anxiety?

Kari: That you don’t have to suffer. Everybody’s different and so I hesitate to give advice – I can only speak of my own experience. When I was going through really bad anxiety, I saw a clinical psychologist who specialised in cognitive behavioural therapy for about seven sessions. And that was enough to really get me on a stable footing again, and I honestly think will benefit me for the rest of my life. So I’m a big proponent of therapy, as I think the mind is just a part of the body and needs tending to like you would with any other part of your anatomy that’s not functioning optimally. But whatever approach you use, whether it’s processing your anxiety through art, exercise, meditation, writing, or something else, I would say don’t ignore it or suppress it. Anxiety is a part of what it is to be alive, and can actually be really useful in terms of motivation and creativity. But when it gets too overwhelming, that’s a signal from your body that something needs to change.

Eloise: Anxiety is common place in the legal profession and there are ways to address it as Kari suggests. Also, leaving the legal profession because of mental health or any other reasons is not giving up in any way.

 

Those who may want to seek help about anxiety and other mental health issues, here is a list of resources and helplines compiled by the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.

 

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