A helping hand

July 1st, 2012
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By Kim Hawkey – Editor

When under strain at home or at work, some people find solace in drugs or alcohol, excessive gambling or eating disorders, while others may feel that they have no alternative but to take their own lives.

Attorneys are no different.

There have been incidents of legal practitioners who have given in to the pressure, some of whom have been struck from the roll for unprofessional conduct, others have ruined their careers through drug or alcohol addictions, while others have sadly ended their lives to escape what they view as impossibly desperate circumstances.

In this column in the March 2012 issue of De Rebus I wrote about the struggle for long-term survival in the legal profession that some attorneys experience. I wrote that, while barriers to entry into the profession have opened up to an extent (as evidenced by the increasing number of prospective attorneys graduating from tertiary institutions), simply being accepted into the profession does not secure long-term survival in it. Reasons for this include an increase in in-house legal advisers, a move towards mediation, the loss of motor vehicle accident work, the gradual drop in conveyancing transactions following the end of the property boom, as well as a growing number of debt collection agencies.

The number of students graduating from law faculties indicates that many wish to be part of our profession. This is not surprising – law has always been an attractive career choice. For some, this choice is dictated by a desire to play a role in attaining justice; for others it is the perception that practising law will provide a secure job with good returns.

However, the reality is that, as more attorneys enter the profession, available legal work is spread thinner, which in turn results in increased competition for this work. High levels of competition coupled with a tough economic situation often require attorneys to work long hours and their personal relationships suffer.

Added to this, some may be disheartened that their expectations of legal practice are not being met.

The combination of these factors, in turn, places pressure on individual attorneys and this corrosive cycle may manifest in excessive stress and depression that could lead to self-destructive behaviour.

One of the aims of the recently tabled Legal Practice Bill is to open access to the profession by removing ‘any barriers for entry into the legal profession’.

While strong arguments have been made for easing entry into the profession, this needs to be done in a manner that is fair to both new entrants and those already practising as legal practitioners.

Now is the time – before the Legal Practice Bill is passed – for investigation and consideration of measures to accommodate new entrants in the profession, while at the same time looking after current members, in order to give all a chance to make a success of their livelihoods.

This could include an initiative such as that of the LawCare charity, which operates in the United Kingdom and Ireland, among others. It provides a free, confidential advisory service to lawyers and others in the legal fraternity, as well as their family and staff on a range of issues, from health to ‘emotional difficulties that can result from a stressful career in the law’.

LawCare is funded by sections of the legal profession, yet remains independent. One of its distinguishing features is that its volunteers are lawyers who have training in and knowledge (sometimes personal) of the issues with which they assist.

Perhaps now is the time for those with an interest in the well-being of legal practitioners to create such a mechanism in South Africa. Some of those with a role to play include the Law Society of South Africa, the provincial law societies, the Attorneys Development Fund and the Attorneys Fidelity Fund.

Legal practitioners also have a professional responsibility to mentor, support and adequately supervise new entrants to the profession.

Prevention of destructive behaviour, alternatively early intervention in it, will ultimately benefit the profession as a whole, not only from the perspectives of risk prevention and reputation protection for the profession, but also in terms of maintaining an esprit de corps within the profession.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2012 (July) DR 3.