"All you can see is dark": dealing with depression as a small firm leader

Nigel Pullen built his small firm from the ground up almost 40 years ago, but the journey wasn’t always easy. For Mental Health Awareness Week 2023, he shares his experience with depression and how he has used it to build a strong firm culture.
An old building sits atop a cliff on the left of the image. To the right, the coastline and a choppy seascape. The sky is dark and moody.
St. Agnes, Cornwall. Where Nigel's firm is based.

Nigel is an older white man, with white hair. He is wearing a suit with a red tie.I qualified in a very small conveyancing and private client firm in North London, then worked between London and Exeter for few years, mainly in commercial conveyancing.

I became tired of commuting back and forth every day, so in 1985, when I was 28, I set up my own little practice. Just me, in Perranporth, Cornwall.

When you're that young, you tend to fear nothing. You're full of optimism.

However, people in Cornwall tend to be very forthright.

I remember an old Cornish chap telling me: “If you come down here expecting to make a killing overnight with your big London attitudes, you'll fail. But, if you do it slowly, bit by bit, you'll succeed.”

And that's what I did. It was sage advice.

I built a healthy residential conveyancing clientele, and through that, I did more and more private client work too.

Being part of a vibrant community in Cornwall and knowing many people in the town is a significant part of the way I enjoy working.

"In a downward spiral"

However, building the practice wasn’t easy. For two periods, in the 90s and 2000s, I struggled with my mental health.

There was no one event that kicked off my depression. There were no real immediate problems, but when you’re in a downward spiral, everything becomes black. You can’t look at things logically: all you can see is dark.

Looking back, it was induced by worrying and stress about my financial future, and how I was going to look after my wife and children and pay the mortgage.

When you lead a small firm, you are probably the one that deals with the bank, at least in the beginning.

We've got a finance director now. I don't even have to think about the money, other than his reports, but back then I was seeing all the bank statements every week, phoning up the manager to talk about increasing the overdraft – I did everything.

There was no one to share the burden with. With that comes the stresses, and the strains, and the what-ifs. It’s no coincidence that the times I particularly struggled were during two recessions.

It was awful. I would sit behind my desk, answer the phone and see clients, but all the time there was this negative conversation going on in my head.

When this first happened, I had two members of staff. They knew I wasn't well, but I didn’t go into detail.

I didn't want them to think they would be out of a job because I couldn’t cope. I didn't want to scare them off and cause them concerns, or worry, or stress.

Luckily, I had a fantastic GP and a community psychiatric nurse who came to visit me at the practice once a week.

She told me, “One day, you will tell me you don't need to see me anymore. You might not understand that or believe that now, but you will.”

And after six months, that’s what happened.

Since then, there’s been a lot of change in the way we talk about mental health. I’ve noticed that it is a far bigger topic of conversation in the media.

I think there’s still a problem with men: they can be more reluctant to talk because they might see it as a weakness.

Checking in on others

The most important things in any law practice are your clients and your staff. Without clients, you've got no business; without staff, you've got no way of processing the business.

It’s important to have an open dialogue with your employees, so you know how they’re feeling at work day-to-day.

As a leader, you must be approachable. If people don’t feel they can talk to you, you’ll never find out if they’re struggling.

If there’s a problem with your employee’s wellbeing, and you do nothing, they could feel worse and go off sick for months.

It’s important to notice problems early – like changes in a colleague’s behaviour – before they create and exacerbate health problems.

Today, my firm has grown to 10 employees, and although it’s a small office, it’s also an open office. We’ve built a culture of checking in with one another, asking each other if they’re OK.

We’ve enabled our colleagues to work from home since before COVID, and everyone has the choice whether they want to work mostly from the office or remotely.

I tend to work from home, but my laptop is always on – because I enjoy speaking with clients and providing them a service, even when I’m on holiday.

I don’t necessarily work long days though. I like to stay connected to clients and colleagues because I love what I do, and it’s never been a chore.

However, I’ve made it quite clear to my employees that you’ve got to define when you’re working and when you’re not. None of them are expected to ever work outside normal business hours.

That may be quite rare, but we are very aware of our staff’s wellbeing, and I find that we’ve had a good history of retaining staff.

Our staff are generally aware of what I’ve gone through and know that it’s partially the reason I lead the way I do.

Looking to the future

A lot has changed since I opened my practice 40 years ago.

But for those entering the profession now, I would say: think about the career path and the firm that you’re joining and choose them very carefully.

If you want to join a large firm – for example – understand the nature of the working in that firm. Do your research and ask the questions.

Just because they have a big name, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to find satisfaction there.

You must work out what type of practice will suit you best.

Maximise your Law Society membership with My LS