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Thriving, not just surviving | Feature

Greater awareness of mental health and an ingrained respect and consideration for colleagues make us healthier, happier and able to do our best work. But to do more than virtue signalling, the profession has to map the relationship between its structures, expectations and wellbeing failures. This is at the heart of charity LawCare’s approach to supporting lawyers and the legal profession.

Law firms are, traditionally, hierarchical structures, with ‘rainmakers’ at the top and trainees at the bottom. Long days, billable hours culture and pressure to respond immediately to client demands can take an unbearable toll on mental health, driving some to leave the profession altogether. 

But today’s up-and-coming practitioners are not the ‘grin and bear it’ generation. They exist in an era of flexible working and the mindfulness movement, and are more inclined to call out bullying and sexual harassment than their predecessors.

‘Although it is challenging in a culture focused around billable hours, law firms have to embed into their ethos a strategy focused on the need to respect others,’ says Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare. All the evidence indicates that stress is endemic throughout the profession. A 2019 LexisNexis report found that 66% of solicitors were suffering ‘high levels’ of stress, while around one in four described their stress as ‘extreme’ or ‘very high’.

LawCare provides a helpline, webchat, email and peer support service. The charity is busier than ever, launching several initiatives in the past six months: ‘LawCare Champions’, which appoints advocates for mental health and wellbeing in the profession (including Simon Davis, president of the Law Society); a ‘Mental Health at Work’ toolkit, created in collaboration with charity Mind; and ‘Fit for Law’, a free online resource in partnership with the Open University and the University of Sheffield, which helps participants to understand their emotional competence and professional resilience.

‘To practise law you need clarity and focus,’ Rimmer says. ‘These tools, such as Fit For Law, allow practitioners to upskill, equipping them more effectively for practice.’ LawCare’s 20 years of dealing with people who have reached crisis point before seeking help has underscored the importance of early intervention. ‘It is so important for people to have someone to talk to before things spiral, without fear of stigma or damage to their career,’ she says.

‘Early interventions and access to emotional support can make the difference between staying or leaving the profession’

The number of legal professionals contacting LawCare shows that the charity’s emotional support is much needed. The figure rises each year, with 677 people seeking help in 2019, an 8% rise on 2018. The most frequent reason for calling was stress, followed by depression. A notable rise in calls about bullying or harassment ‘probably [reflected] heightened awareness due to a raised profile in the media, such as the #MeToo movement’, says Rimmer. 

Recent high-profile cases may also be a factor in encouraging people to come forward. Reports of sexual misconduct to the Solicitors Regulation Authority have more than doubled over the last five years, from 25 in 2014/15 to 63 in 2018/19.

A sticking point for the profession is that it is client-driven: how can a firm change its working culture if clients do not? ‘Law firms are often reluctant to push back to clients, to say that deadlines are unreasonable or ask “do you really need this in such a tight time frame?” says Richard Martin from Byrne Dean, which helped to create the Mindful Business Charter (an initiative that attempts to address this dilemma as a cross-profession collaboration).

Initially arising out of discussions on mental health and wellbeing between Addleshaw Goddard, Pinsent Masons and Barclays, the charter (founded in 2018) has four key pillars: openness and respect in working together; a commitment to discussing the most healthy and effective way to achieve that; smarter use of email and meetings; and respecting rest periods and delegating mindfully.

To date the charter has 38 signatories, with ambitions to extend across a wide range of professional and financial services. ‘Now that technology allows us to be contactable all the time, there is the expectation that people are accessible on demand,’ says Martin. ‘The Mindful Business Charter creates awareness that this is wrong and aims to slow the momentum of a damaging working culture.’

Wellbeing is not just the absence of negative factors such as unwarranted stress. It also includes efforts to create a healthy and happy workplace. Fostering an unjudgemental, supportive approach to mental health issues is crucial, and encouraging beneficial disciplines such as yoga or mindfulness is now commonplace.

Tessa Jones, secretary of the Law Society’s Mindfulness in Law Group, says: ‘Research has also shown that mindfulness can enhance a host of competencies related to lawyer effectiveness, including increased focus and concentration, working memory, cognitive skills, and decision-making.’

In January US firm Dechert held a Well-being Week, with events including an eight-week steps challenge, including a ‘What Brings You Joy’ photo contest and the launch of its five-part Life Strategies programme. ‘Wellbeing is extremely important at Dechert,’ says Alison Bernard, chief talent and HR officer. ‘We are making significant investments in empowering the Dechert community around the world to enjoy their work and perform at their very best.’

A healthier and happier workforce has benefits for firms in terms of the retention of staff, reduced sick pay and attractiveness to future hires. For individuals, early interventions and access to emotional support can make the difference between staying or leaving the profession. ‘We want people to thrive in the law, not just survive,’ says Rimmer.

 

Katharine Freeland is a freelance journalist


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