Taking mental health seriously
Apathy towards stress in the profession is letting junior lawyers down, says Pippa Allsop
I’m saddened to be revisiting a subject which I have covered numerous times in recent years as the situation does not appear to be improving.
The striking off of Claire Matthews by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) this April was the culmination of yet another case of a terrified junior solicitor desperately trying to cover up a mistake.
Matthews reported significant mental health difficulties at the time the misconduct took place. Yet, in response to concerns raised by the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) about the handling of prosecutions of junior solicitors such as Matthews, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) confirmed that “neither a person’s junior position, nor health, will be an answer where the person has been found guilty of culpable dishonesty”.
I have previously stated my belief that the real issue lies in the repetition of circumstances leading to scenarios such as these. It seems the apathetic attitude towards stress in the profession is not going away. Despite a greater societal shift towards mental health awareness and the understanding that it is ‘ok not to be ok’, legal news is peppered with stories of solicitors who cite stress caused by unrelenting workloads or toxic workplaces as the sole reason for being prosecuted by the SRA.
There is an inherent difficulty in differentiating between ‘good’ stress and ‘bad’ stress. As individuals, we each have our own personal understanding of each. Feeling stressed can be a positive driver, boosting adrenaline in a pressured but rewarding situation. Conversely, that feeling can easily tip over into something more dangerous.
Sometimes it is the workplace – not necessarily the work itself – that causes or compounds the problem. What might be ‘good’ stress is positive only in situations where you feel supported by your colleagues and firm. Remove that support and the working environment quickly becomes negative.
The legal profession is inherently driven by time and targets, which arguably creates pressurised workplace practices. If you’re part of a firm which makes genuine attempts to counter this by dedicating time and resources to prioritising the employees’ emotional health, you’re in a fortunate position.
But your firm may be one that pays lip service to prioritising emotional wellbeing instead of putting it into practice. Like any workplace, law firms are made up of people. Having a truly committed firm wide approach to employee mental health does not mean that cannot be jeopardised by a few unpleasant individuals.
This is where dangerous apathy towards the inherent stressfulness of our profession comes into play. Instead of accepting stress as an inescapable fact, lawyers need to be encouraged to identify the difference between what’s acceptable and what is not.
We can’t expect junior lawyers coming into the profession to be able to make this distinction. Crucially, what is acceptable will vary significantly between individuals. The fact that one person can cope doesn’t mean that everyone else can – and nor should it.
The SRA has made abundantly clear there is no defence to “culpable dishonesty”. There is something disheartening about its response to the JLD’s concerns which effectively says it only gets involved when something has already gone wrong.
There are proactive steps that could be taken before that point arises, for example, investigating complaints against firms which have a truly toxic culture.
While the SRA has taken steps to encourage employees to feel able to report workplace situations which infringe the regulations, it is not clear what (if anything) it is willing to do if those situations don’t infringe any regulations; but are nonetheless damaging and toxic.
The focus must be on the ‘before’ as opposed to the ‘after’. Firms need to ensure that juniors have the support they require from the start to feel empowered to tackle workplace stress. This should continue throughout their career.
It is not acceptable to make the right noises about workplace stress in our profession and assume a positive workplace message will always translate into the desired outcome. Employers need to work hard to ensure what they preach is being practiced by challenging the negative behaviours and identifying and helping those who need it most.
Pippa Allsop is an associate at Michelmores michelmores.com