The production of the law: How theatre is boosting the mental health of lawyers

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A portion of the legal community in Melbourne believe that providing a creative outlet for lawyers to engage in the performing arts is an effective way of promoting good mental health within a profession that suffers from extreme pressures.

Towards the end of 2012 Max Peterson, a lawyer at Lander & Rogers in the family and relationship law team, decided it was important for him to continue his love of making theatre, and alongside a group of like-minded colleagues, he put together a Law Revue.

The show played at Melbourne’s International Comedy Festival at the Capitol Theatre to crowds of almost 1,700 people and received a 4.5 star review in the Herald Sun.

“We realised that there was a real demand not only amongst creative lawyers who wished to be engaged in creative productions, but also for audiences who love to see their colleagues on stage. A group of us decided to found a company which would stand as the production company for the legal profession, and so BottledSnail was born,” Peterson, now BottledSnail’s artistic director told Australasian Lawyer.

Since then, close to 140 lawyers and members of the legal community have been involved in the productions, which almost always sell out and have been viewed by about 4,500 people.

They have included a 2014 Law Revue, 12 Angry Men, which was held at the Victoria Supreme Court and featured a cast made entirely of barristers, and the Melbourne Lawyers’ Orchestra debut concert.
The Secret Life of a Lawyer (a cabaret) is BottledSnail’s latest production and will be showing from 16-17 July.

Director and producer Kathryn Sutherland, a lawyer in Maddocks’ construction & projects team, told Australasian Lawyer that being part of the theatre company is an effective way for the legal sector to promote good mental health and give back to the community.

“It started off with a group of lawyers getting together and recognising that due to the time constraints of the profession, there were not many opportunities for people in Melbourne’s legal industry to be involved in creative ventures,” she says. “I’ve had people in the case say how refreshing it is to be portrayed as something other than lawyers. It gives their colleagues an opportunity to see them in a completely different light.”

And because BottledSnail is run by lawyers and for lawyers, it is organised in a way that acknowledges the little time they often have available outside of work hours. Each production involves limited rehearsal periods and is sympathetic and flexible in terms of responding workplace demands.

But another huge part of the promotion of creativity and good mental health is BottledSnail’s involvement with the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, to which it commits $10,000 a year.

This foundation was set up in memory of Tristan Jepson, a former University of NSW law student, a young lawyer and comedian who suffered from severe clinical depression and tragically took his own life in 2004.

The Foundation’s objective is to decrease work related psychological ill-health in the legal community and to promote workplace psychological health and safety.

“In my view it’s essential for all of us to have time out to recharge. By allowing yourself that time you will work more productively and perform better in your role,” says Sutherland. “It goes against the grain of how law firms are traditionally set up, but I think and hope that through organisations like the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation that it’s something that will start to change.”

She says her own firm, Maddocks, is supportive of promoting good mental health within the profession, and as well as allowing its lawyers to work flexible hours, it has sponsored the upcoming The Secret Life of a Lawyer cabaret show from its Corporate Social Responsibility fund.

Over and above, the firm has provided the group with a practise space.

“Like more and more law firms in Melbourne, Maddocks is keen to support mental health of their employees,” Sutherland says. “They also provided us with a rehearsal space. I’ve got a little keyboard under my desk – it’s amusing because I walk past client meetings [with it] and the partner looks back with a sly smile.”

She thinks a major contributor to stress within the profession is in the way that individual lawyers are expected to record their time. With the market as it is, clients are also expecting more for less and the environment is only becoming more competitive, she says.

“Billable hours cause many lawyers considerable stress. We tend to think that doing more means a better result. But at the end of the day, in our current system, doing more costs more and that is not what the client necessary wants.”

BottledSnail currently has 24 members, and five committee members who include Ashurst lawyer Bruce Hardy, and Victorian Bar barrister Robin Smith.

Its president and K&L Gates lawyer Jacqui Pitt, told Australasian Lawyer that such a company makes sense, because lawyers by their nature are creative people.

 As well as the fact law lends itself to performance and drama through back room negotiations and the high stakes of the court room, lawyers also have “fantastic” opportunities for creative inspiration from the people they’re exposed to,” she says.

“I think that it's crucial that firms adapt to allow and even encourage their employees to engage in creative pursuits… Being involved with BottledSnail has brought me an invaluable feeling of collegiality, and a renewed faith in the profession. I hope that in the not too distant future, firm-sponsored creative pursuits will be as common as firm sporting teams.”

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