Better days a head
A young solicitor tells JANE SOUTHWARD how moving regional boosted her wellbeing at work and home.
Solicitor Michelle Larin credits two “sliding door” moments for her transformation from a stressed-out corporate lawyer to a 34 year old who combines a well-paid and satisfying legal career with hobbies that make her smile.
In 2013, Larin’s grandfather died a day after she had finished working long and hard on a piece of litigation. “I was fortunate to see him before he died, but it made me think there must be more to life than work,” she recalls.
Three years later, after she had risen to the role of Senior Associate at Clayton Utz, Larin’s parents started talking about leaving Sydney to retire on the NSW north coast.
“Because I had suffered anxiety over the years and went through a severe bout of depression a couple of years earlier, I decided it was important to reassess my life. I knew I wouldn’t have that support network once my parents left the city,” she says.
“I started to think that perhaps Sydney wasn’t the right place for me. I wondered how I would see my family with the 4.5-hour drive when I didn’t get out of work most Fridays until 7pm.”
Larin says she started suffering anxiety in high school, particularly during exams. At university, studying media at Western Sydney University then law at Sydney University, she managed the symptoms, but it became more difficult when she started working in private practice and was putting in long hours.
“I used to wake up in the morning with a sick feeling in my stomach,” she says. “All my muscles would tense up and, at times, I found it incredibly difficult to concentrate.”
Larin says she managed her anxiety without medication and sought help from psychologists.
“I ended up being open with Clayton Utz about the issues I was having and this was met with a lot of support,” she says. “I considered my health and sanity to be key, and thought it better for me to be open and honest about how I was feeling than to struggle through with a smile on my face. Clayton Utz were really supportive and did everything they could to help me with my move to Newcastle, because they knew I needed to effect change in my life.”
While Larin went regional to get more balance, she says she encountered “absolutely no stigma” when she told colleagues and management in Sydney about her mental ill health.
“Being honest about my struggles hasn’t affected my career at all,” she says. “Maybe this is because when I first acknowledged it I was a mid-level lawyer. Getting the help you need to be a more effective and productive employee – and a happier one – benefits not only yourself but the organisation as well.”
Larin is embracing work and life in Newcastle and enjoys weekend drives to see her parents two hours’ north. She took a role at Sparke Helmore, then moved in-house as Legal Counsel at the Port Authority of NSW. As for advice for lawyers, she recommends speaking to somebody if you are feeling bad – and doing it early.
“Everybody goes through tough times,” she says. “One night I was in the office crying at my desk when I made the decision to call a helpline. They talked to me and calmed me down.
“You may think your problems pale in comparison to other people’s problems, but they don’t trivialise it –they see everybody’s problems as valid.”