11 March 2020

Anxiety ‘not what you think’, says College lecturer Florence Thum

Published on 11 March 2020

Florence Thum is committed to helping lawyers flourish. Two decades of practice in litigation and dispute resolution have imbued in her the importance of attaining - and maintaining - physical, emotional and mental wellness as a lawyer. Charged with the development of the lawyer skills national curriculum within the College’s PLT program, Florence gives daily consideration as to where wellness fits in a lawyer’s skillset. Alongside her College of Law colleagues Desi Vlahos and Michael Appleby, Florence contributed to Wellness for Law: Making Wellness Core Business,  now available through LexisNexis. Insights spoke to Florence about her new book chapter, how lawyers can better manage change and uncertainty, and her work with the Wellness for Law network.

No simple answer to wellness

According to Florence, there are multiple reasons why wellness has become such an issue for lawyers.

“There is no simple answer and it depends on the perspective one takes of why the profession needs to address wellness - from workplace conditions within the profession, the nature of legal work, the personal characteristics of lawyers, the socio-political contexts of law and the legal profession, the technological changes disrupting the profession, to name a few,” said Florence.

Embedding wellness in legal education and practice is the best place to start.

“Wellness needs to be embedded in what and how we teach, and how we practice law,” Florence said. “We need to recognise that lawyers are humans and need the support of appropriate culture and systems in order to function at their best.

“As a profession, legal practitioners are required to meet high ethical standards, expectations and demands,” she said. These expectations come from multiple fronts - the court system, clients, employers, and society in general. In addition, legal practitioners are expected to be commercially-minded, capable of establishing and maintaining professional relationships, to be innovative and creative in their problem-solving within lawful bounds. These expectations can weigh heavy on the minds of lawyers.

“Being well physically, mentally and emotionally is therefore critical to enabling lawyers to function optimally and flourish in the profession,” said Florence.

“This is not to be read as an additional expectation heaped upon lawyers; rather it is to demonstrate the importance of wellness, and to indicate that there are skills and strategies that lawyers can learn to maintain their wellness, such as such as strengthening resilience muscles, developing emotional intelligence, and practicing mindfulness. I call it “tooling up” and it enhances self-agency.”

Staying steady in shifting sands

“Technology and innovation are catch cries of the legal and business worlds. They are not just buzzwords,” said Florence. Rather, they are directly impacting our environment.

“As lawyers, we need to know who we are, what our values and strengths are, and what we want, in order to remain steady in the shifting sands,” observed Florence. Self-awareness is crucial.

According to Florence, wellbeing is a psychosocial state.

“From this perspective, self-awareness is the foundation of wellbeing,” she said. “Self-awareness will lead us to discover the meaning and purpose of the work we do – meaning and purpose are predictors of psychological wellbeing. As an element of emotional intelligence, self-awareness enhances our abilities to build connections, and to establish supportive relationships and community. Therefore, through self-awareness, we develop a sure self-identity, defined purpose and meaning in our work, healthy and supportive connections which are predictors to personal wellbeing.”

“Lawyers need to also be comfortable with change and uncertainty,” said Florence. By developing the ability to self-reflect, lawyers can assert greater control over their lives.

“This is because we can “review and assess” aspects of our work and adjust our sails as we need to with greater clarity,” she said. “Engaging with our curiosity, self-reflection also gives space for creative imagining and problem-solving.”

Exploring the Wellness for Law Network

Florence, along with College colleagues Michael Appleby and Desi Vlahos, is a member of the Wellness for Law Network. Members include lawyers, educators, and policy-makers committed to promoting wellness in the legal profession. Since its inception, the network has expanded to include cross-disciplinary practitioners including management and psychology experts.

Her experiences as a lawyer spurred Florence to become a psychotherapist; she now has her own therapeutic and coaching practice, Transfigure.

“In my years practicing law in Sydney, I saw first-hand the dysfunction and sometimes destructive nature of being unwell, at both a professional and personal level,” said Florence. “As a psychotherapist, my professional curiosity to explore why it is so and how to contribute to improving wellness in the profession led me to the Network.

“It is my raison d'être to make a positive contribution to what I term “the human condition” that is, how to live the best life possible, one person at a time. This informs my work at the College.”

Florence is a regular presenter at the annual Wellness for Law Network Forum. She recently contributed a chapter to the book Wellness For Law: Making Wellness Core Business, an edited collection of papers presented at the forum.

“My chapter, entitled “Anxiety: It’s Not What We Think?” addresses what makes lawyers anxious and how lawyers can navigate and respond functionally in an age of uncertainty. It seeks to provide a holistic perspective of anxiety,” she said.

In addition to teaching in the College PLT program, Florence teaches dispute resolution within the Master of Applied Law program, and is involved in lecturer training, course design and development, and mentoring. She also regularly presents on law and mental health at international conferences.

“I’m proud to encourage and foster relationships so lawyers feels connected to a legal fraternity and establish mentoring and supportive networks,” said Florence.