I love being part of an institution that plays such a big role in peoples’ day-to-day lives”

For Mental Health Week, we decided to ask three different lawyers from different backgrounds their views and experiences with mental health.

We wanted to know how they manage the challenges of practice, and still maintain having a life outside of law.

Yesterday, we heard from Melita Medcalf, who heads the Pilbara Office of Legal Aid WA.

Second up is Gemma Nugent, Director of Sound Legal. Gemma operates a lot as a sole practitioner and has embraced the new law world, working remotely and online.

Gemma started Sound Legal in 2019, before this she had spent more than eight years in-house for a global engineering company, had worked as a litigation solicitor and was the associate to the Hon Justice Neville Owen AO when he was handing down the Bell judgment. Prior to law she worked for the Department of Premier and Cabinet (WA).

She has a BSc (Hons), LLB (Hons), an MBA and will soon complete an LLM.

It’s safe to say that Gemma is busy, smart and has a lot going for her.

What inspired you to practice law?

Initially, an interest in public and community service, as I was a public servant and (separately) a drug and alcohol counsellor when I started studying law. I was very interested in the intersection between the legal system and community governance.

Now, I love being part of an institution that plays such a big role in peoples’ day-to-day lives, which is at the core of my commercial law practice.

The most satisfying part of my practice is helping small to medium-sized business owners understand and tackle legal problems in a very practical way.

What does your life outside of law look like?

I have 3 young children and 2 teenaged step-children, so my life both in and outside of law is very family-focused.

I grew up in the country and it is important to me that my kids experience all the parts of WA that I love so much.

We’ve explored many regional towns in our camper trailer this year, which we have all loved.

Are there particular stressors you have in your practice? If so, how do you manage them?

The biggest stressor for me as a sole practitioner is loneliness and isolation.

I very consciously seek out opportunities for connection with legal practitioners and other like-minded professionals, which has led to the development of many wonderful friendships.

I also find huge mental benefit from making time to exercise every day.

How do you support your colleagues and their mental health?

Law is by its nature a very adversarial profession, which can undermine its contribution to the fabric of society.

Wherever possible, I actively advocate for a collaborative approach to the practice of law and encourage my colleagues to join me in approaching the profession with a mindset of optimism and abundance rather than one of scarcity and competition.

What do you wish more lawyers knew about mental health issues?

Years ago, I left private practice to go in-house in pursuit of a more family-friendly work environment.

A well-respected silk asked me if I was “too soft” to practice “real” law. I suspect this was reflective of a general sense in the legal profession that lawyers must publicly hold themselves to an extreme standard of mental toughness, with no room for actual or perceived weakness.

However, mental health issues are part of the tapestry of humanity and lawyers are as (or maybe more!) susceptible to stressors and mental illness as any other human being.

I wish more lawyers understood that being human, including the experience of mental health issues, is not a sign of weakness and need not be swept under the carpet.

Mental Health Week runs from 6–12 October 2019, but we think every week is Mental Health Week.

Collegiality is best on show when we support each other through our challenges. When you can, reach out to your colleagues.

If you wish to speak to someone about your own mental health, you can contact LifeLine on 13 11 14 or LawCare on 1300 687 327. Or you can reach out to The Piddington Society and we can help you where we can.

Lawyers promoting collegiality, seeking access to justice.