Elizabeth de Stadler
I often used to ask people ‘Why did you become a lawyer?’ but only recently answered the question myself! I was born in Stellenbosch, South Africa as the daughter of two linguists. My father was one of the first academics in South Africa to specialize in information design and they both write dictionaries! So, I always loved reading and writing and wanted to become a journalist. When I was coming out of the closet in the late 90s the only other lesbians, I knew about was Jeanette Winterson, K.D. Lang, and Judge Kathy Satchwell. Judge Satchwell was in the news a lot at the time, because she was suing the Department of Justice to obtain equal rights for her life-partner. Luckily journalism was a postgraduate degree, so I closed my eyes, conjured Kathy Satchwell, and picked law! I fell in love with contract law and never studied journalism.
After my studies I got into the biggest commercial law firm in South Africa at the time and worked in their insurance litigation team (on the side of the insurers!). I was always fascinated by unfair contract terms and consumer protection. In 2008 the Consumer Protection Act was promulgated in South Africa. It requires that all consumer-facing contracts and legal notices must be in plain language. All of a sudden lawyers with a love for linguistics and visualization were in high demand. I left the firm to obtain an LLM in consumer law and behavioral economics and started my own practice. I founded a legal consultancy called Novation Consulting in 2013. We apply legal design to contracts, policies, terms & conditions, legal advice and any legal or compliance documentation imaginable. We also founded Hey Plain Jane, a plain language agency. We specialize in legal, financial, health and educational information. The more technical the information, the happier we are. We practice something that we call #funlaw and one of my proudest moments was when we got a levity pattern included in the WorldCC Foundation Contract Design Pattern Library along with Novation’s SLA!
Sounds like a blast, doesn’t it? The reality was that by the time I left the firm in 2009 I was, unbeknown to me, suffering from major depression. I was extremely reluctant to admit it to myself, but my body forced me to my knees and by 2011 I had been in chronic pain for a year with no explanation. I was self-medicating with alarming amounts of alcohol and a series of disastrous online dating ‘incidents’. BUT I was about to meet Peter (my psychiatrist) and Shelly (my therapist) who would spend the better part of a decade convincing me that the physical pain is a symptom of major depression. I now know that this is a very typical story for lawyers. According to the Compass Mental Health Survey of the Legal Profession from 2023, 38% of lawyers have to deal with depression and 50% of lawyers said that they ‘felt a sense of failure or self-doubt, lost emotion, felt increasingly cynical and negative, and had decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment’. 36.4% report that they engage in ‘problematic drinking’.
I am now on a mission to help lawyers do better, feel better and live better! My team and I recently started Rehabilitated Lawyer (https://rehabilitated-lawyer.mailchimpsites.com/) to achieve this aim talks, workshops, one-on-one mentoring and lots noise and #funlaw on social media and at conferences. I am also working on a book about my ongoing recovery (provisionally) called Less Wrong Than Before. I firmly believe that living the legal design lifestyle and applying it to legal services is the key to our recovery as an industry. I will tell it to anybody who will listen. From Legal Geek to this recent interview with Hannele Korhonen at the Lawyers Design School on the role of kindness in legal design.