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Mental Health Awareness Week: Making legal voices heard

Matthew Rogers talks to lawyers, law firms, and support organisations about improving wellbeing in the profession

16 May 2016

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Mental health issues in the legal profession are unfortunately nothing new. A self-critical profession entrenched in a perfectionist culture where mistakes are magnified and billing targets lead to unconscionable working hours hardly makes for a life free from stress, anxiety, or depression.

Research from the Law Society show that 95 per cent of lawyers experience 'negative stress' in their jobs, while 17 per cent say it is 'extreme'. In 2015 LawCare, the charity that provides support to the legal community, received 907 calls from lawyers with health problems. Some 30 per cent related to workplace stress and 20 per cent for depression. However, mere numbers do not tell the full story.

'Imagine you have an illness that is not likely to be gone in days, let alone weeks, that affects your every waking moment and stops you sleeping. Then try to working in a highly pressurised environment with no assistance.'

'Sarah', a former equity partner at a medium-sized firm, told me how she felt 'anxious, depressed, and frequently too ill to work' after a merger between her firm and another led to a departmental clash: 'It was known to my previous firm that I suffered from depression, and had done since my 20s, but there was no assistance offered to me in the merged firm.'

Sarah eventually plucked up the courage to tackle her depression head on by telling the new partners of the situation. The response she received was devastating: 'The group leader frequently called me to meetings where she told me to stop thinking I could have any special consideration and that I must perform better.'

After being asked to leave the firm, Sarah's exit was no less ill-mannered: 'For the capital to remain intact and repaid was conditional on my signing a waiver form to say that I would not make any claim for personal injury arising out of my treatment by the firm.'

Sarah's story contrasts starkly with that of Magic Circle solicitor 'James'. Having suffered from depression for many years, James found that the firm - not known for having a cuddly culture - was supportive of his health problem. 'The partners referred me to the firm's occupational health (OH) adviser,' he explains. 'I was separately receiving treatment, but what this did was to make things easier for the partners to understand and the OH report put things into the context for the firm.'

Julian Summerhayes, CEO at Torquay-based firm Boyce Hatton Solicitors, believes low-level depression is common among lawyers, with many experiencing some sort of mental health issue during their working lives. 'Lawyers tend to have a nagging doubt that something is not right,' she says. 'The pressure manifests because lawyers don't have the time to speak to others. At a more senior level there is an underlying problem because it is not the done thing so it doesn't get addressed.'

This observation seems to hold weight. Two in three lawyers are concerned about reporting stress to their employer because of the stigma involved, according to a Law Society survey. 'Because of the pressure of the environment, to admit to a mental health issue is in many cases tantamount to admitting an inability to do your job,' explains James.

Plagued by the fear of coming forward, those affected are likely to suffer in silence and may turn to substance abuse, self-harm, or worse. There was a consensus from those I spoke to that the profession should do more to improve employees' mental wellbeing and encourage lawyers to speak openly about their issues.

The City Mental Health Alliance is a collaborative venture founded and led by City businesses, and closely supported by two leading UK mental health organisations Mental Health First Aid and Mind. Eleven law firms support the initiative - including Linklaters, White & Case, and Gowling WLG - that aims to create a culture of good mental health for City workers, share best practice, and increase the understanding of mental health.

Poppy Jaman, programme director for the alliance, said: ‘CMHA recognises there is much employers can and should be doing to reduce workplace risks, and support staff who are living with a mental health issue to remain productive and valued at work.

'We would like to encourage more law firms to join the alliance and create an even stronger network within the legal sector to tackle stigma, create change, and add to the evidence base for effective workplace action around mental health.’

Magic Circle firm Linklaters is also a member of a cross-profession Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce, which was launched this week to promote and support mental health and wellbeing in the legal community. Initiated by the Law Society and driven by LawCare, the taskforce has fifteen partners to date, including regulators and legal education providers.

'It is vital for legal professionals that there is greater awareness of the importance of mental health and greater openness to enable conversations about this issue, said Jonathan Smithers, president of the Law Society. 'The taskforce provides a welcome opportunity to work collaboratively with experts from across the legal sector to enhance mental health and wellbeing provision throughout our diverse community.'

LawCare's chief executive, Elizabeth Rimmer, told me there was a consensus 'to develop tangible actions and solutions' and to raise awareness, not just of the support and services available to lawyers, but also of the stigma attached to mental health issues.

Nigel Jones is the co-founder and vice chair of the City Mental Health Alliance. An intellectual property partner and health and wellbeing champion at Linklaters, Jones said the taskforce will 'help to open up the channels of communication, encouraging our staff to demonstrate greater openness and start conversations about the issues'.

Also looking to raise awareness of mental health this week, Being Lawyers has produced short videos to improve the health of the profession. Founders Chetna Bhatt and Lauren Giblin, an in-house lawyer and former lawyer respectively, both suffered from illnesses that led to significant time off work.

'We are committed to transforming the wellbeing of lawyers through both our videos and our experiential workshops,' Bhatt told me. 'Our work continues to impact lawyers' innate resilience, wellbeing, and potential such that they perform at an optimal level throughout their career.'

While the profession awaits the impact of these promising schemes, those I spoke to kindly offered advice for others currently suffering in silence during Mental Health Awareness Week 2016.

'Ask for help,' says Summerhayes. 'Businesses are much more accommodating than they would have been five or ten years ago. Very often the people who need it most are not seeking help.'

Meanwhile, James advises contacting mental health support organisations. 'It really is the most difficult step, but it's the one that will make the most difference,' he says. 'There are people in your organisation who understand. We just need to get into positions where voices can be heard.'

ARK Group has teamed up with LawCare, Linklaters, and the City Mental Health Alliance to launch for A Lawyer's Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress. Written by psychotherapist and ex-lawyer Angus Lyon, the book contains actionable guidance tailored specifically to lawyers to help them better manage stress.

If you are struggling to cope with stress, depression, or addiction, call LawCare's free and confidential helpline on 0800 279 6888: 9am-7.30pm during the week; 10am-4pm on weekends and bank holidays

Get involved in Mental Health Awareness Week by calling 020 7803 1110 or emailing the press office at press@mhf.org.uk

Matthew Rogers is an editorial assistant at Solicitors Journal @sportslawmatt matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk

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