As we prepare for the upcoming Lawyers Weekly Women in Law Awards 2021 to be held on 25 November at The Star in Sydney, our very own Associate, Rachel Last, who has been shortlisted in the Rising Star category, has been reflecting on her legal career so far.
The Lawyers Weekly Women in Law Awards recognises the outstanding women influencing the legal profession in Australia displaying key leadership qualities and providing a role model for future female leaders in law to aspire to.
Rachel sat down with journalist Lauren Croft from Lawyers Weekly recently to chat about her passion for mental health awareness and wellbeing in the workplace. We thought the interview was worth sharing because Rachel's humble desire to help others may just give another young lawyer a leg up when they are most in need.
What have you learnt being a part of the University of the Sunshine Coast Alumni Mentoring program?
A peer from university reached out to me because they were wrestling with a decision to move their legal career into a different field. I recall being slightly surprised they sought my advice in relation to their career move. Yet, I too made the big move from one firm to another, changing fields of law at the same time. Suddenly I found myself with some wisdom of my own to share with another young lawyer... Without even knowing it was happening, I had made the move from mentee to mentor. Every person has their own strengths and can provide something different to a mentee, and I had my own! It was after this occurred that I got involved with the University of the Sunshine Coast Alumni Mentoring program.
When I initially signed on to the program to give 'career advice' to current USC law students, but I quickly found that the students who were reaching out to me had burning questions and concerns about mental health habits and achieving a work/life balance in practice. I began incorporating my knowledge and advice on mental health warning signs, seeking help early, striving for work/life balance, and my personal story, into my mentoring sessions. The students were so receptive to this advice and, more than that, it felt great!
Through being involved in the Alumni Mentoring Program, I've discovered that being a mentor is rewarding; it simply feels good. Other learnings include: you don't have to have the perfect advice – you just have to be a real person, listen to their concerns, and share your experiences; and being a mentor means being a "sounding board", helping to take a fresh look at a problem, offering perspective, easing fears, and ultimately offering support.
We are all on a lifelong learning journey and I feel fortunate that, as I walk through my career, I have mentors that walk with me. My hope is that, in time, I will be a valued mentor and make someone else's start in law just that little bit brighter. I learn from each mentoring experience, whether as a mentor or a mentee, in the hopes of being able to make a difference to other people in the future.
What have been the positives of becoming a mentor? How valuable is it to have a mentor as a law student?
As a law student, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I went to a talk once where a practising lawyer said their most important piece of advice was to: "find a mentor". They stressed the importance of having someone that you respect and that you can trust and go to for advice, whether it be in relation to a legal matter or whether it be on the bigger scale of your career as a whole. I heeded these words as I took the shaky steps into the world of legal practice and made certain that I was on the lookout for a mentor to call my own.
I was fortunate that I found a mentor throughout my formative years as a lawyer, someone to guide me through the trials and tribulations that come with being in practice. My mentor took the time to teach and nurture a young lawyer, supporting me to be a fully-fledged lawyer with my own file load and skills to boot. My mentor provided a real sense of calm and problem-solving techniques, career advice and positivity. They listened, they supported, they reassured. Sadly, some of my peers were not so fortunate. The ones that did not have a mentor found themselves in the "sink or swim" category. Granted, they have turned out to be some seriously skilled and experienced young lawyers, but I can't help but wonder at what cost? Will this see some of the skills of the older generation of lawyers being lost instead of passed on? What effect did it have on their mental health as they faced their early days in this demanding industry? Will these young lawyers one day perpetuate the same attitude towards mentoring as they experienced themselves?
Just as I was once told, the piece of advice that I give to law students when I speak with them these days is to find a mentor. Find someone as early in your career as possible who provides support, guidance, and an understanding ear.
How important is it to develop healthy mental health habits and a work/life balance early on in your career?
I can never emphasise enough how important it is to develop healthy mental health habits and a work/life balance early on in your career in law.
Pretend you have a bucket which, at the start of each new day, is filled with water. As we go through our daily lives, we slowly pour out more and more in the dealings we have. Now imagine that there is a hole in the bottom of that bucket. That hole is stress. Now imagine another hole. That one is anxiety. Add another. That one is depression. The more holes you have the less likely you are going to be able to keep your bucket full and the more likely you are going to run out of water before the day is through. If you don't take care of your mental health and achieve work/life synergy, those holes will just keep on appearing and you'll find yourself running out of water each day. Not only will you be headed for a burnout, but your clients and your employer will not be getting the best version of you.
Learning and practising mindfulness techniques in the workplace and at home has been a useful tool for me to seek clarity and stay focused, remain calm amidst chaos and be present to my family, clients and team.
What kind of work have you been doing to advocate for mental health on the sunshine coast? Why is it important to do?
I continue to speak openly, honestly and without fear to my peers in the legal community about my own mental health struggles, in the hopes of opening the lines of communication to reduce the stigma around mental illness. I write posts on my LinkedIn about the importance of discussing mental health so that we can all start to change the negative perceptions around mental illness.
I have taken on the role as a mentor to some of my younger peers, encouraging them to look after their health and wellbeing. I am now a member of the University of the Sunshine Coast Alumni Mentoring Program, providing valuable mentoring to law students at the University around mental health warning signs, seeking help early, striving for work/life balance, and so forth.
Whilst completing my Bachelor of Laws at the University of the Sunshine Coast, I advocated for the introduction of a Director of Wellbeing on the Law Students' Association. Whilst in that role, I arranged mental health and wellbeing events such as a Mental Health and Wellbeing Panel Discussion, an R U OK Day Afternoon Tea and a Mental Health address by Clarissa Rayward. I got copies of Jerome Doraisamy's "The Wellness Doctrines for Law Students and Young Lawyers" donated to the USC Law Library to ensure that future law students at the university had free access to this resource. The position of Director of Wellbeing still exists and events such as those are still being run to this day.
I was invited back to the University of the Sunshine Coast to speak on a panel of past graduates at the Law Students' Association Careers Event. I used this as an opportunity to raise awareness of the mental health pandemic that the legal industry faces, again spoke openly about my own experiences, and provided my advice to future law graduates. I was thanked after this event for my refreshing candour about mental health issues and speaking about a topic that many avoid.
I was a finalist in the Lawyers Weekly 30 Under 30 Awards 2021 in the Wellness Advocate category, which is a national recognition of young rising stars within the legal industry aged 30 and under who excel in their chosen field, displaying key leadership qualities. There were only three finalists nationally in this category.
I was recently one of the only three-panel speakers invited to the College of Law's Careers Academy "Wellness in Law" Panel. This was an online panel discussion that was broadcast nationally to law students, law graduates and practising lawyers. It was an open and honest discussion on mental illness and mental wellness within the legal profession.
I recently ran our firm's R U OK? Day celebrations, leading by example and encouraging all our staff to start important conversations that may just change a life. I have been working with our firm's Chief Operating Officer and Principal Lawyer to implement a Mental Health and Wellbeing initiative for the coming year.
I have been nominated for the University of the Sunshine Coast Outstanding Alumni Awards and Sunshine Coast Business Women's Network Young Business Woman of the Year award for the work I have done, not only in my career but as a mental health advocate.
I have been appointed as one of only four Ambassadors for the Sunshine Coast Young Chamber of Commerce, which I intend to use as a platform to raise awareness of mental health concerns amongst younger professionals.
Unfortunately, there are still not enough practising lawyers willing to speak up about their own personal battles, in order to reduce the stigma around mental illness. This is something that I continue to work on, encouraging my peers and colleagues to speak out about their own personal challenges in an open and honest manner so we can get these important conversations happening.
I am not a mental health advocate for praise or recognition, but that does seem to flow from it, which I find challenging to accept. I do this advocacy work because I truly believe this is a topic that must be talked about for us to break down the walls around it. Mental health is, unfortunately, still the "elephant in the room". We still have so far yet to go before mental health comes a comfortable, everyday topic of conversation. Some people still squirm when the topic of mental health is raised, particularly amongst the older generation in the profession. However, it is only through discussing these issues openly, honestly and without judgment, that we will start to see a welcome change in the negative perceptions that exist. With this in mind, I have continued to have hard and uncomfortable conversations and I will continue to do so, determinedly and unapologetically. When praise does come my way for doing this advocacy work, I respond that I am doing no more than I feel is necessary to make a difference.
Any other comments/thoughts on leadership/mentoring/mental health?
In 2007, a study conducted by Beaton Consulting and Beyond Blue found that lawyers and law students were more likely to experience depressive symptoms than any other profession. In 2008, Professor Ian Hickie of the Sydney University's Brain and Mind Institute said that depression affects around one-third of lawyers and that, astoundingly, 11% of lawyers contemplate suicide each month. Professor Hickie also found that around 40% of law students experience stress or depression to the extent of requiring treatment. In 2009, studies published by the Brain and Mind Institute found that out of those surveyed, 1 in 3 lawyers suffered from clinical depression. As recently as 2019, a study reported by the ABC found that 85% of lawyers surveyed had experienced anxiety in their workplace and 60% had experienced depression or knew someone who had.
I don't know about you, but those are some of the most harrowing statistics I have read in a while. When that is the warts-and-all state of the industry in which we work, I fail to understand why this is not a daily topic of conversation. Why is it exactly that the legal profession is so averse to discussing mental health and prioritising it? Our own peers and colleagues are struggling daily with stress, anxiety and depression – this warrants attention.
I have never been afraid to admit to my own personal struggles. As a law student, I struggled with stress and anxiety. I battled through and came out the other side with a law degree and bright eyes for the career ahead of me. Those with some notches in their 'practice' belt will likely chuckle at that – the naivety of baby lawyers with their rose-coloured glasses thinking that the hardest is behind them. How wrong I was. Stepping into practice felt about as comfortable as an ice bath. I was out of my depth and felt completely unprepared. I tread water as best as I could for as long as I could until my mental health began to suffer yet again. I again had to place my focus first and foremost on my mental health and seek help.
For me, my mental health is something that I must be constantly in tune with. I have to always maintain a work/life balance, otherwise, my mental health suffers and I begin to struggle once again. This does not make me lesser of a person or a lawyer – my struggles give me strength, resilience, understanding, empathy, and many more skills which I bring to my work and my life.