11 February 2020

Happy lawyers are productive lawyers, says College of Law lecturer Desi Vlahos

Published on 11 February 2020
Desi Vlahos knows the mental health challenges of law well. As a mental health first aid trainer for the legal profession, she helps lawyers to gain mental health first aid trainer accreditation for their workplace. Alongside her College of Law colleagues Florence Thum and Michael Appleby, Desi contributed to Wellness for Law: Making Wellness Core Business, now available through LexisNexis. Insights spoke to Desi about her new book chapter, why wellness is such an issue for lawyers, and her top 3 tips to maintaining workplace wellbeing.

Long hours, tight budgets, increasing competition

Studies show that one in three lawyers will suffer from a mental illness at some stage in their careers.

“Whether in the public or private sector, lawyers share the familiar burden of long work hours, stressful billing expectations and significant client need all within an increasingly competitive marketplace of eager substitutes,” said Desi.

“There are a multitude of reasons why the profession receives a bad rap in the wellness space,” she said. Some studies have put this down to the adversarial nature of the profession, or the inherently pessimistic nature of many lawyers.

“I think it goes further than this,” asserted Desi. “There is much to be said about the need to educate law students from day one at university, not only about the law but about the basics of stress management and vicarious trauma. This is the case in other disciplines such as medicine and nursing. If resourcing these issues becomes learnt behaviour from the outset, then lawyers will be able to better implement effective strategies to find the balance between stress and relief as is required.”

As a College of Law lecturer in the PLT program, Desi looks after two cooperative courses mentoring 32 graduates through to admission. Her work as a mental health first aid trainer provides participants with guidance on how to assist a co-worker who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis.

“As a lecturer of emerging lawyers, wellness is at the vanguard of my mentorship given the alarming statistics in relation to burnout, attrition and mental illness in the legal profession,” said Desi. “I am a firm believer that a happy lawyer is a productive lawyer.”

Talk about stress and relief, not work-life balance

“Stop talking about work-life balance,” urged Desi. It’s her biggest takeaway from the students and practising lawyers in her courses. 

“See how I only talk about balance in terms of stress and relief rather than work and life? Our mindsets seem to have followed the zeitgeist of the time. Work is perceived as an evil thief whose mission is to steal the sheer pleasure from our lives. Dramatic, but true.”

Rather, work should be seen as another engaging, exciting aspect of your life, capable of delivering satisfaction, happiness and accomplishment to a degree equal to leisure.  

“If we stop trying to find ‘balance’ and aim for whole-life harmony, we will see positive growth in our mindsets.”

Find comfort in connection

You spend the majority of your life at work. Who you work with, and how well you get along with them can make all the difference to your day.

“A US study in 2017 found that 83% of employees said their colleagues at work made them feel happier,” said Desi. “Meanwhile, 69% said they were more successful at work because of these close connections. I tell my students to think about who they work with or around? How supporting and trusting are those relationships? In most cases, we can’t choose our colleagues or clients however we can always improve the dynamic. It could be as simple as taking the time to ask others how their day is going – and really listening.”

Know yourself and your values 

Values matter. Those of your workplace, and those you hold. If there is a disconnect between the two, discord is inevitable.

“If you value something highly and your firm doesn’t, your motivation to work hard and persevere can be compromised,” explained Desi. “Ideals and motivations tend to be deeply ingrained in people and firm cultures. Think carefully about how important it is for you to match your values with those of the firm. If you have strongly held values and those with influence in your firm differ from yours, you may need to tactfully voice these or look for a more congruent opportunity at another workplace.”

Teaching time management 

According to Desi, effective time management was the biggest challenge for graduate lawyers transitioning to practice. 

“This prompted enquiry into what apprenticeship law students were receiving at university to prime them with the practice-ready time management skills required for the profession,” Desi said. “The research was startling – the skill is simply not being taught. The time management challenge emerges early and is one of the factors directly associated with diminishing wellbeing and attrition in the profession.” 

In response, Desi and a College of Law colleague presented a two-part paper exploring individual time perspective as the basis for time management processes. The paper was presented at the Wellness for Law forum, and has since been published by LexisNexis in an edited collection of selected papers and personal insights.

“I was honoured to have been asked by editors Judith Marychurch and Adiva Sifris to contribute a chapter addressing the high levels of psychological distress experienced in law and in promoting wellness in the legal academy,” Desi said. “It is with much anticipation that the book Wellness For Law: Making Wellness Core Business has now been published. My contribution is Chapter 15 titled Practising what you perceive: Time perspective for life harmony and finding flow.”

The future of wellness for law

“Whilst the profession finds itself in a more dialogue-rich and wellness-aware era compared to 20 years ago, it is still some years away before we will see any profound changes,” observed Desi. 

“The reality is that the nature of the profession is a stressful one. In saying that, there is no reason why issues in the profession such as burnout and vicarious trauma which can lead to mental illness cannot be better managed and/or avoided.”

How can this be achieved? Holistic legal education, starting with stress management implemented in university curriculums. 

“In PLT, these skills should be reinforced rather than newly introduced to students, which is often the case,” Desi said. “This will better prime students for practice and provide them with the solid resources to thrive rather than just survive. In addition to this, it is also imperative that professionals in positions of management possess a level of understanding and knowledge regarding mental health literacy to better support their employees. Whether this is achieved through attending a mental health first aid course or via a resilience and wellbeing professional development course, the increased awareness and dialogue will lead to more positive outcomes for our profession in the long run.”