Around 18 years ago, I interviewed a partner at one of the City’s elite firms. He was exceptionally nice, patient and helpful. His chargeable rate was likely £500 to £600 an hour at the time, but he spent at least half an hour trying to photocopy a report he thought I should have. I liked him.
When, years later, he took his own life at a point of huge personal stress, it made the national newspapers.
The coroner's verdict was striking: 'There is a conflict here: he had a successful life and a happy marriage, there were so many things going for him and he never discussed taking his life. But it is often the case with busy people he sees more of his PA than his loved ones. Her evidence showed he had changed, he was doing things out of character, he was drinking too much and was brusque… He told her he felt at the end of his tether.'
It's taken a few years, but law firms are finally now talking about the mental health and wellbeing of their staff with much greater confidence.
It's hardly 'job done', but where well well-judged efforts are made, so is progress.
From unaware and despair to fresh air
In 2014 the Law Society's practising certificate holder survey indicated that 95% of solicitors experienced work-related stress.
LawCare, the charity that supports the health and wellbeing of people in the legal profession, notes a sea change in legal sector attitudes to mental health in the past two years, and that action has accelerated.
Helping people avoid and deal with 'destructive stress' is at the heart of all initiatives, from encouraging exercise to providing access to advice and counselling.
The Law Society conference in March 2017, 'Stress in the legal profession: A new approach', identified key questions that lawyers and firms need to address:
- How can we open up a dialogue about stress?
- What is the lasting solution to stress?
- How can you stop treating the symptoms of your stress and start tackling it at its root cause?
On show was the greater willingness of those working in the legal profession to share their stories. Lawyer and executive coach Chetna Bhatt spoke about dealing with a debilitating illness and the associated stress, and shared the steps she had taken to address the situation.
The growing support available from the Law Society includes a project with Mental Health First Aid England. To date, Chancery Lane has run four two-day mental health first aid training sessions in London for 14 attendees each time. Events have also been held in Birmingham and Cardiff.
Positive change in the gritty City
In the City, law firms Linklaters, Slaughter and May, Hogan Lovells, Herbert Smith Freehills, White & Case, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, BLP, Bird & Bird, Gowling WLG, HFW and Allen & Overy have all joined the City Mental Health Alliance.
The experience at Hogan Lovells has shown that interest is high when mental health and wellbeing initiatives are publicised. The wellbeing site on the firm's intranet has been viewed over 4,000 times. The onsite counsellor the firm provides has been fully booked-up by people from all levels, groups and departments across the firm. Related events have been oversubscribed. 'Resilience training' has been provided to many managers.
In July 2017, Alison Unsted, Hogan Lovells head of global diversity, inclusion and wellbeing strategy, said: 'We now want to focus on improving the conversations people have about mental health and, in particular, give supervisors and line managers the skills they need to feel more confident in having the conversations they need to have to support their team and to spot signs of mental ill health.'
Smaller firms need an open door
A firm like Hogan Lovells is able to draw on significant resources once it has taken the decision to support the mental health of its people. But what of the smaller firm without access to these resources?
Tony Roe, principal of Tony Roe Solicitors and a committee member of the Law Society's Small Firms Division, says: 'Health issues can have a greater negative impact on smaller firms. Running a small legal practice means that you have to pay close attention to the health of both you and your team.'
Tony argues that getting certain basics right means smaller firms can still respond to the challenges effectively. 'Having an open door and being patient and flexible can pay dividends in staff loyalty,' he advises.
And dedicating some resources is worth it for smaller firms, Tony points out: 'Private healthcare, critical illness cover and key man insurance might seem to some the preserve of bigger firms, but having them in place may help the sole practitioner or smaller law firm principal sleep at night.'
What's the ideal outcome for the legal profession?
- Sources of destructive stress need to be identified and reduced
- Help needs to exist
- Lawyers and staff need to know help exists and that in accessing it, they will be supported
- We all need to know the best way to respond to a colleague who either asks for help, or who we have concerns about
That these practices are now more widespread is a very good thing.
Read the original Gazette feature article by Eduardo Reyes, Wellbeing: Mind your business
Solicitors & staff please call our free and confidential Pastoral care helpline 020 7320 5795 for any personal, financial, professional or employment problems
Read our Mental Health Awareness Week blog by Rita Oscar: Staying strong: top ten tips for improving your emotional resilience
Read Karen Jackson's blog on Winter Blues: what to do about it
Read our 2016 blog for World Mental Health Day: Five steps to wellbeing by Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of LawCare
Mental Health First Aid England resources