Opening up; stress, pressure and mental ill-health in private practice

Managing your mental health in a demanding work environment can be incredibly challenging. For Mental Health Awareness Week, three solicitors open up about their experiences with stress, pressure and mental ill-health in private practice.
Sam Ennor is a white woman, with red hair and glasses. David Patient is a white man in a suit.

Talking about mental health and sharing that you’re struggling in the workplace can be a daunting prospect.

Although society has progressed past many stigmas, some people still have concerns about being perceived as less able. This may be a particular concern in private practice, where it’s commonplace for solicitors to undertake complex work over long hours each day.

Life in a small firm

Sam Ennor has worked at Earl and Crocker, a small private client firm based in Cornwall, since she was 16.

She started out as an office secretary, working her way up to head of private client and probate. With increased responsibility have come new pressures – as head of department, often the buck stops with Sam. “About a month ago, I was thinking, ‘I’m going to go into work and have a breakdown or a panic attack,” Sam shared.

“Not only is it stressful with an additional workload, I now have additional clients and a team of three secretaries and a paralegal to manage. When I took on the role, I realised that there’s no one else I can turn to – I’m the person they come to for questions, and that’s very strange.”

“And working in a small firm, there may not be many people you can call on for help or advice. That can be a worry – making sure that you are giving clients the best advice and getting the procedures right.”

With fewer people to do a broader range of work, Sam also takes on many other roles to keep business moving: “It’s always a concern to make sure you’re bringing in money to run the firm. Alongside my main responsibilities, I also help the team of directors with compliance matters”. For Sam, working from home during lockdown also took a toll.

“It got really bad,” she shared. “I ended up working in the bedroom because that was the only space I had.”

In line with the findings of our practising certificate (PC) holders survey, Sam is working longer hours since the pandemic too.

“When I get home, I feed the kids, do some work, put them to bed and work until about 8pm or 8.30pm.”

Sam’s red lines are simple though: she doesn’t work past 9pm: “If I hit 9pm and I'm still working, then I struggle to sleep.”

“I know it's not mentally healthy to be working as many hours as I do, but I feel like I've improved because I have a cut-off time.”

While the pandemic had a negative impact on wellbeing, it did encourage some to be more open about mental health challenges.

“Before COVID, it wasn’t openly spoken about,” Sam explains.

“But since the pandemic, each of us has had different stressors and work pressures. I find that all of us now talk about mental health.”

A different kind of pressure: working in the City

Large firms – particularly those in the City – have a reputation for expecting their solicitors to work incredibly long hours.

David Patient is senior adviser and a former managing partner at City firm Travers Smith. He also represents large corporate firms as a Law Society Council member.

Like Sam, David has worked in one firm for his whole career and has noticed a sea-change in the way his firm talks about mental health, since he began his career in 1990.

“We have an openness in my firm which, frankly, would not have existed two or three decades ago.”

David is clear that Travers Smith does a lot across mental health, including training a team of 50 mental first-aiders, becoming a signatory of the Mindful Business Charter and regular awareness sessions.

This offering is more extensive than at Sam’s smaller firm, which prides itself on an open culture around mental health and hosts out-of-office breakfast meetings where work isn’t discussed.

But whatever the firm size, there’s an evident tension between this openness around mental health and what’s actually expected of solicitors in private practice firms.

“This can be a tough profession and, inevitably, there are stresses and strains put upon people which can create and exacerbate mental health problems,” David recognises.

He says that solicitors who join the firm are prepared for what’s coming.

“It’s very important to be transparent about the fact that this is a profession where you have to work hard.”

“You may have to work very long days for a day or two; and depending on your practice group, you might have to work through the night or over a weekend. So, we are acutely aware of the need to ensure that people understand that that’s what you’re taking on when you’re joining a City law firm.”

However, David thinks that the reputation of City firms as “high octane environments” where “only the fittest will survive” is misguided.

“Major corporate law firms in this country are very aware of the mental health issues that people in their firms could be suffering from, and they offer a lot of support that never, ever would have existed 15 or 20 years ago.”

“There is a huge awareness of the importance of knowing how to support your more junior colleagues and not putting them under unnecessary pressure.”

Starting out as a solicitor

With societal changes in mind, Travers Smith is aware of generational differences in its approach to mental health.

“Our robust approach to diversity and inclusion means that our businesses have become increasingly diverse and – thankfully – we really have learnt the benefit of inclusion,” explains David.

“Recognising the different backgrounds of people, I realised, as managing partner, that I needed to look at what my people wanted through the eyes of a 25-year-old, not the eyes of a 55-year-old.”

We know from the PC survey results that junior lawyers feel less happy and fulfilled about their work. Salome Coker began her career in private practice but left to become a freelance in-house lawyer. Although large firms may be louder about mental health, for Salome, they need to change fee-earning models to really prioritise their junior colleagues.

“I don’t know how you can reconcile prioritising happiness and mental health, with the law firm model of billable hours.”

“This business model is based on lawyers – mainly junior lawyers – working as many hours as they can. Because that’s how they charge their clients.”

From Salome’s experience, larger firms do have more resources to deal with mental health in the workplace, however, disclosure might be more difficult.

“I think there is culture of not speaking about your mental wellbeing for fear of not being seen as ‘resilient’.”

“As everyone is working long hours, there’s a sense that you are not allowed to express your concerns within your team because your seniors are also working those hours.”

So, what can we do?

There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to mental health strategies. Clearly, solutions need to be tailor-made to suit each firm: large or small.

Both Sam and David agreed on the importance of a “support network” at work.

During his career, David has built valuable relationships with senior solicitors at other firms, where they were able to discuss how work was impacting them.

Meanwhile, for Sam, being and having a “supportive” and “approachable” line manager is key to keep an open dialogue about mental health in her firm.

However, considering the stats in our recent PC survey, perhaps there’s more work for firms to do.