In an earlier post, I shared my thank you letter to my previous employer Bell Gully, who took me on despite disclosing that I suffer from schizophrenia and depression. I was obligated to make a full disclosure of my health conditions because I owed an ethical duty to the Law Society, who are the iCloud of the legal profession. Contrary to what many people may believe lawyers, not even ones in big firms which can be very powerful, are free to do whatever they want. Like Medicine, Law is a regulated profession. The legal profession is governed by the law. It’s all very circular and just shows how you can never get away from law. It’s no wonder so many lawyers leave the profession so they can finally be free.
Why do health conditions need to be disclosed to the Law Society? Mental illness goes to one’s fitness to practice and can affect your ability to obtain a practicing certificate. I also had a duty of honesty to disclose my health conditions with any employer, whether a law firm or not. But before I could be hired by Bell Gully, I had to of course give the names of some of the partners I worked for while I was at Freshfields, who could act as referees. They didn’t know about the onset of these mental conditions as they occurred after I left the firm. I did tell the partner I was going to work for at Bell Gully that he was welcome to mention it when he contacted them for a reference if it would help him make a decision about whether to employ me, but he said that wasn’t necessary. I did also point out that whatever they said about me may no longer reflect my current capabilities due to the development of these conditions. I wasn’t exactly selling myself like you usually try to do in a job interview, but this was a unique situation.
Two Christmases ago, I wrote a thank you note to the two partners from Freshfields that acted as my referees, which I would like to share. I have left out their names as their identity isn’t important. Make no mistake - they are important people but you don’t really need to know who the letters were written to. Be happy with what I am prepared to share in this forum. Don’t be like our nosy neighbours, who have to know everything.
I just wanted to say thank you for giving me a reference so I could work at Bell Gully. The position meant a lot to me, much more than you would ever know. A few months after I returned to New Zealand in 2010, I experienced a psychotic episode. Eventually, I was diagnosed with schizophrenia. It has been a very difficult journey but I am in a good place now. Bell Gully was wonderful. It wasn’t exactly the easiest of conversations but I had a duty to disclose my condition not only to my employer but also to the law society as mental illness is considered to impair one’s fitness to practice. I worked in the Corporate department under a wonderful partner called Garry Downs who in my opinion is New Zealand’s best lawyer. He is the very person that referred me on to Freshfields as he worked there himself many years ago. Over the years, Garry has become my mentor, friend and father figure in the corporate world. I am grateful to you and Y for helping me re-join a truly dynamic law firm and reconnecting us after many years. The role helped me get back on my feet again after a long period of sickness and unemployment.
I have since moved on and launched a start up called Anita’s Garden. While I was too unwell to work, I started gardening, which I discovered to be great therapy. Inspired by the many beautiful gardens I had visited while living in Europe, I was determined to create my own personal sanctuary. I became very absorbed in my project and was surprised to receive a call from the editor of the New Zealand Gardener Magazine one day. She had somehow heard about the garden and asked to feature it in the magazine. Anita’s Garden has grown organically without a business plan. I maintain an active blog and write a weekly gardening newsletter. I run a boutique plant nursery, hold workshops to educate people about how to grow their own food and consult on garden design and development. It’s an exciting journey which is at times terrifying, as I prefer advising businesses on risks rather than taking them myself. What I love is that it has united so many different threads from my life, as you need to draw on a very broad knowledge base and skill set in order to run a business. I work from home. Instead of spending two hours a day on the train commuting to the city, I use that time to train, which is important due to the nature of my work.
Having a mental illness really affected my self-esteem but I was blown away by how accepting other people were, including the partners of Bell Gully. This helped me learn how to accept myself despite my condition. I’m fortunate to function normally 90% of the time. I’m also lucky that my condition hasn’t impaired my cognitive functioning and memory. The role at Bell Gully was a stepping stone to this, which suits me better as I can work around my condition. I work more when I’m well so I can take time off to recover when relapses occur. Medication prevented the recurrence of psychosis but took too high a toll on my physical health, causing excessive weight gain and the onset of Type 2 diabetes. In the end, I decided that I was better off without it. I feel particularly grateful to you and Y for having me in the International Arbitration Group and my training at Freshfields more generally because it helped me get my head around some difficult medical topics, think laterally and come up with a solution to a challenging problem.
Have a wonderful Christmas. All the best for the New Year.
In a future post, I’d like to expound on what I said in the last paragraph, which I have emphasised in bold.