Difficult stories shared at pilot

Panel members at the recent inaugural QLS peer-to-peer, support network program event. Photos: Geoff McLeod

Senior legal professionals were thanked for their “candour, vulnerability and reflection” when discussing difficult cases and mistakes at the Queensland Law Society’s inaugural peer-to-peer, support network presentation on Thursday night. 

The pilot, an Australian first for the profession, was presented online and in person at Law Society House with more than 300 registrations.

The panel consisted of expert criminal defence legal practitioners Saul Holt KC, Laura Reece, Susan Hedge, Nick Dore, Dominic Brunello, Callan Lloyd and Julia Jasper. It was facilitated by Doctor Jamie Nuttall, the Deputy Clinical Director at Inala Primary Care.

The panel gave insights into challenges faced.

The pilot’s objective is to use the learnings to establish a lawyer-led, peer support network.

Panellists shared stories of anxiety and physical responses to situations such as waiting for jury outcomes, in particular the difficulties of identifying with clients and victims of similar ages to family members.

They also spoke about the loss of confidence that comes with shock losses in the courtroom and how hard it can be to switch off when at home with family.


Other panellists spoke about what they had learnt from their mistakes in cases and their requests for flexibility from the court.

The value of mentors was also raised along with sitting reasonable expectations of colleagues in terms of work/life balance and when work must be completed.

Queensland Law Society President Rebecca Fogerty said interest in the session “highlighted the importance of a concerted focus within the profession about wellbeing” and the event was about recognising the “psychological toll that legal work can take on us, the practitioners”.

“Much of the wellbeing discourse in recent decades has focused on things that an individual can do to reduce suffering, and to enhance their capacity for self-actualisation and resilience,” Rebecca said.

“This makes perfect sense on one level, your life is what you make of it, and much of the advice we get is very sensible.

“For me though, focusing on what the individual can do is not the whole story, particularly when some of the challenges associated with our work are systemic. They are borne from the fact that we participate in an adversarial system and that system can cause harm even when it is working as it should and producing the just outcome according to law.


“We need to have a suite of solutions that also focus on systems.”

Rebecca said a meaningful solution needed to recognise the “extraordinary diversity” that existed among practitioners.

“So it needs to be flexible, it needs to be able to overcome the tyranny of distance so as to be equally accessible for those in the regions. It needs to be inclusive and needs to be cheap,” she said.

“That is why we are trying very hard to try to implement peer-to-peer support network program based on the Balint which is regularly used by doctors to address psychosocial hazards in their profession.

“Essentially what we want to try to do is empower lawyers to come together via structured group processes which are underscored by collegiality, confidentially and self-reflection.

“Like anything new there is always risks. We don’t necessarily have all the details right now about how our pilot might look. The first step is the panel tonight … it’s no small thing to talk publicly about something that maybe embarrassing or upsetting.


“I very much hope that by being able to hear from various senior members of the profession that this will encourage and enable buy-in from the profession, particularly young men, young lawyers who face, the research shows, some of the biggest mental health issues in the profession and are least likely to seek treatment.”

Dr Nuttall said it was important to increase awareness of wellbeing, the emotional impacts of the job and creating a safe environment where people could talk about their mistakes.

“This movement is not a wishy-washy kind of movement, it is really tied up in the essence of what makes a profession,” Jamie said, saying the medical profession had already made a shift towards this way of thinking.

He said the medical profession’s change in approach was influenced by the aviation industry, which found that openness to criticism and admitting mistakes, and flattening of hierarchies improved safety and reduced burnout.

“So rather than just being some platitude about wellbeing, it is also a crucial part of promoting excellence within a profession, treating people with respect, showing vulnerability and helping people thrive and do their best work.

“I’ve seen some of the parallels between our work and professions, and the pressures on us.


“In law just like in medicine, the profession seems to demand the impossible from its practitioners. Your patients or your clients expect you should be the smartest person in the room all the time… You are essentially expected to have an infinite amount of knowledge… You make big decisions frequently. And if you get something wrong, of course, there can be huge consequences.”

He said doctors and lawyers were prone to burnout, which was not a medical condition.

“Burnout … is an occupational phenomenon. Burnout is characterised by three features – exhaustion, feelings of cynicism or mental distance from what you are doing and reduced professional efficacy.

“Burnout is really tied up in our personality traits and our attitude towards the work environment and the way we treat one another in that work environment.”

Jamie said the peer-to-peer or Balint method was about sharing experiences in a safe place and the approach was not “group therapy”. He thanked the panellists for sharing and hoped the inaugural event would encourage practitioners to take part in the future peer-to-peer support program.

If you need help, please call LawCare on 1800 177 743 or go to LawCare – Queensland Law Society or access Lifeline 13 11 14.

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