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Sole practitioners make up a significant proportion of the legal profession but too often get lost in discussions around mental health.

It’s no secret that lawyers are overrepresented when it comes to mental illness and are more likely than those in other professions to battle conditions like depression and anxiety. 

The gloomy statistics are well known. Almost a third of solicitors in Australia have suffered from depression during their career, a dire state of affairs prompting law firms in recent years to roll out health and wellbeing programs aimed at helping lawyers beat the blues.

What’s less clear, however, is the mental health picture when it comes to sole practitioners, with little research having been done in the area despite solo lawyers accounting for nearly one third of all private practice solicitors in Australia.

Isolation and work-life balance 

Sole practitioners say isolation is one of the biggest mental health hazards. Inoka Ho, a family lawyer and legal consultant in Sydney, says the largest issue for her is the one that most people would pick – spending lots of time alone.

“The big issue for any sole practitioner is the isolation, really,” Ho tells LSJ. “You’re working by yourself all the time, and over weeks and months that can just wear you down.

“There’s also confidentiality aspects of law that makes the isolation worse because, unless you’re in a firm, you can’t just pick up the phone and talk to another peer. I can’t disclose details about client matters that sometimes you would have to do to get another opinion.”

Ho is in a particularly good position to compare solo work with the law firm experience. After 14 years working in large firms and government agencies in Australia and the UK, she struck out on her own as an independent consultant two years ago. She currently is engaged by Melbourne-based firm Family Law Life for whom she manages their Sydney clients.

Two years into her new solo career, Ho says she appreciates more than ever having a hobby outside law that gets her away from the desk. 

For Ho, that is running a cocktail and spirits education business, Cocktail Co, in her spare time.

“I find it very ironic that I have used alcohol to be that crutch,” she says. “It’s a well-known fact in the legal industry that there is a bit of an alcohol problem in terms of how lawyers misuse it. But for me alcohol has been the saviour in so far as it’s blossomed into a business.

Whatever it may be, the key thing is to find something that will make you switch off.”

On the criminal law side, Daniel Wakim, principal of Daniel Wakim Lawyers, also lists isolation as a challenge, noting it can be hard to get work-life balance right as a sole practitioner.

Wakim, who was at criminal firm Longton Legal before setting out on his own, says it’s been important to “set up your own goals and have a step-by-step action plan and then address these in the best way you can”.

“You need also to seek mentors and other colleagues and, occasionally, put yourself out there in order to invite company into your life,” he adds.

“Having a great support network – a community of my family, friends, colleagues and coach – is key to maintaining my overall positive outlook in my life.”

Inoka Ho, family lawyer and legal consultant Inoka Ho, family lawyer and legal consultant

It’s a well-known fact in the legal industry that there is a bit of an alcohol problem in terms of how lawyers misuse it. But for me alcohol has been the saviour in so far as it’s blossomed into a business. Whatever it may be, the key thing is to find something that will make you switch off.

Profession needs to do more

In addition to personal efforts, Wakim believes the industry could do more to combat the phenomenon of isolation among sole practitioners.

“The worst thing is the industry does not promote true collaboration between lawyers. Competition is hyper and it creates isolation,” he tells LSJ.

“I would advise the industry to first promote trust and greater collaboration between colleagues that will then lead to the community also trusting us more.”

His comments come amid ongoing and well-publicised concern about mental health in the legal profession. The stats speak for themselves, with 33 per cent of lawyers suffering disability and distress due to depression over their careers, while 80 per cent of disciplinary matters involving lawyers derive from an underlying mental health issue, according to the Black Dog Institute.

When it comes to seeking professional help, lawyers tend to instead self-medicate with alcohol or other substances. Indeed, excessive boozing among solicitors is so rife that the mental health advocacy group has described alcohol abuse in legal profession as at “extremely concerning” levels.

Going even further, the group’s research highlights the high rate of suicide among lawyers, noting, alarmingly, that law students and young lawyers are among those most at risk.

Penny Musgrave, principal solicitor at Musgrave Legal, is another lawyer who says more needs to be done to support the mental health of sole practitioners.

Musgrave, who has over 25 years’ experience as a criminal lawyer and was previously  director of the NSW government’s Criminal Law Review Division, lists isolation, work-life balance, vicarious trauma and maintaining a steady of flow of income as some of the pressures sole practitioners tend to deal with behind closed doors.

Given such challenges, Musgrave thinks there’s room for more “systemic” support aimed at this part of the profession. She describes herself as lucky in knowing what help is out there, but suspects many other sole practitioners remain in the dark.

“Where are the mentoring systems? Where’s the advertised specialist counselling services? If you’re doing [criminal law], we as a profession should be encouraging, or at least planting the thought in practitioners’ minds, that they should reach out to a counsellor at the start of their [career]. 

“It’s fantastic we’ve started to have a conversation about the issue, but now we have to move the conversation forward to look at how we, as a profession, can support individuals dealing with issues we know arise because of the profession they practise.”

Musgrave suggests a host of possible first steps. She says these could include formal peer support, specialist counsellors for criminal law, formation of support networks, and an assessment of what’s happening overseas in other legal jurisdictions. 

“There’s so much to talk about,” she says.

Sole practitioners must ‘open up’

Alex Kingsmill comes at the issue from a unique perspective. An accredited specialist, Kingsmill went on to complete postgraduate study in psychology and now runs Melbourne-based Upstairs Coaching Consultancy, which specialises in evidence-based coaching and counselling for female professionals, including solicitors.

She says isolation, anxiety, depression, lack of balance and stress are all common problems among sole practitioners, but points out there are lots of easy ways to start feeling better.

When it comes to work-life balance, for instance, Kingsmill says a good first step is to “work out how much you want to earn, then determine how much work you need to do”.

“Lawyers in solo practice can find themselves wildly out of balance because they are fearful of declining work,” she tells LSJ.

“Even if they’re at capacity they take on more and end up chasing dollars instead of attending school plays and celebrating wedding anniversaries. Trust that if you’re good enough the work will come, and that being in balance means you will actually be able to perform better.”

Other handy tips are consciously to take “restorative moments” and to schedule in really important non-work events way ahead of time.

“Say you’ve just pulled an all-nighter or the trial has finished – don’t show up to work at 7am the next morning. Take a bit longer over your coffee or go for a swim,” she advises.

“And treat your friends, family and self as you would your most valued customer: don’t even consider cancelling a vital meeting at the last minute.”

When it comes to battling isolation, she advocates meeting up with other sole practitioners, attending networking events, spending time in co-working spaces, taking up professional development opportunities with other lawyers, boosting social activities outside work, and opening up to friends and family about what’s going on in your head.

She, too, believes the industry should have a bigger role to play in normalising, and making available, mental health support for independent practitioners.

“I would like evidence-based coaching to be available to all lawyers and not just to emerging and senior leaders in large firms as a way for employees to be proactive in shaping and leading balanced and healthy personal and professional lives,” she says.

“Low mental health is incredibly common among lawyers and yet stigma around the experience persists. It would be helpful to refresh the narrative, to acknowledge that it is not a sign of weakness, and that it can be easily addressed.”

Solo life can be liberating

While many sole practitioners report mental health issues linked to their work, others like Richard Prangell say the benefits outweigh the potential hazards.

Principal solicitor at Viridian Lawyers, Prangell has been a sole practitioner for four years since leaving Kreisson Lawyers and has no intention of going back to life in a firm.

“It’s just me and it’s great. I’ve really enjoyed it, to be honest,” says the 32 year old.

“There are some specific challenges from a mental health perspective, but overall I would argue that it’s the best thing that I’ve ever done for my mental health.

“The work-life balance is under my control for the first time in my career, which is fantastic, and the last four years I’ve had the ability to make the decision to earn less and live more, but it’s a decision that you can’t make easily.”

For Prangell, going solo has been a boon for his family life, but he admits he does “start to lose perspective” with too much time spent at the home office.

He tries to counter that feeling by staying active with NSW Young Lawyers and having meet-ups and calls with other sole practitioners in the same age bracket.

“If I’m stressing about something I’ll call up and we all have a relatively good understanding among ourselves that we take that call and answer the silly questions and make each other feel better. It’s worked out quite well,” he tells LSJ.

He says the isolation and occasional money stress from working by himself is nothing compared to the burnout caused by billable hours. It’s worse for young lawyers, according to Prangell, who are expected to “burn and churn” by doing most of the heavy lifting at firms.

“It’s so very difficult to find the time to do other things when you have seven billable hours a day. To find the time on top of that to develop your career, to work on your relationship, to make sure you’re spending time with the people that you care about, it’s very tough,” he notes.

“I guess I was never a great employee in that context. I don’t take instructions well, and so it’s been quite liberating to just take opportunities where they come rather than having to ask for permission first.”  

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