China in the World Centre, ANU, photo: Melissa Castan
I attended the National Wellness for Law Forum last week. The 2-day event brought legal academics, practitioners, consultants and students to leafy ANU in Canberra to exchange their research and ideas about law student and lawyer psychological distress, and their solutions.
Linking the talks was a background debate about whether wellness is an individual brain phenomenon or one driven most significantly by neoliberalism and other social and political factors – I hope we can agree that it’s both, and much more than this, and that ‘treatment’ must be multi-layered and won’t always be called ‘treatment’. The Forum shared many approaches to supporting and improving wellbeing – in the classroom, law schools, in firms – and at the bench! – including mindfulness and creativity, developing ethical, interpersonal and emotional capacity, and legitimate flexible work.
One of the presenters said that treatment was useless or, more carefully, that no matter what coping strategy one chose, it didn’t materially matter. The focus, they argued, needs to be on prevention at the organisational level. After my initial reaction of deep discomfort – reeling at the harm to students and lawyers being permanent! – the argument (and the data) made sense as a warning against the exclusive focus on individual resilience. In fact, most talks identified the cultural and structural features of legal education and practice that have changed, and still need to change, to prevent un-wellness in the first place, limit its worsening, and even to promote wellness.
I gave a paper on the new UNSW Law legal ethics course, whose components integrate wellness measures, of varying degrees. While analysing the different approaches to teaching legal ethics, I discussed the wider implications the wellness movement has for the sometimes-sidelined ‘j-word’. (I actually think wellbeing has a positive and potentially foundational role in reimagining and renewing the relationship between the legal profession and justice, but it involves a social and political definition of wellbeing.)
All in all, I would definitely recommend this conference – it was full, active and far-reaching, and its people are committed. For more information about the wellness-for-law network and the conference, look here and here.