At our recent Diversity Matters: Mental Health & Wellbeing event, we spoke to Employment Solicitor Celine Winham who tells us how changing attitudes towards mental health within the legal sector will lead to a stronger, more inclusive profession.
I currently work as an employment solicitor at Bolt Burdon and am the most junior in a team of three. I advise both employees and employers on various aspects of employment law, both contentious and non-contentious. This will include negotiating exits for employees, advising on redundancy procedures, drafting contracts of employment, settlement agreements, policies and procedures, and advising on Employment Tribunal Litigation.
I myself have struggled with mental health issues and I hope to engage in bringing about change in the profession. In 2016 I was diagnosed with various mental health conditions including anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder. I was a paralegal at the time and it was challenging to navigate my legal career with the difficulties I was experiencing as well as the stigma in the profession.
I wish to engage in bringing about change in the profession and so I volunteer with LawCare as a Peer Supporter, I run an online organisation to support those with my condition and I am keen to speak on my experiences in events such as this one. I also bring my desire for change and empathy into my work, particularly with my employee clients, many of whom are struggling with ill mental health. I want to be able to use my own experiences, both bad and good, to encourage more of the good and less of the bad. It’s a large task in law as it requires a huge culture change but I do see this coming as new generations of lawyers who are much more self-aware rise through the ranks.
It’s time to talk and conversations are the best way we can raise awareness. The more people who are engaging in the discussion, the more normal it will become to extend these discussions into our everyday social and workplace lives. It doesn’t have to be taboo to discuss your mental health just like you would about your physical health. The more open and visible people in the sector are, the more this will increase. The way to challenge shame is by refusing to hide.
The fixation on the billable hour within the legal profession has long stifled inclusivity and flexibility and has resulted, I think, in a lack of gender diversity and neurodiversity in senior positions because of women taking time out to have children and then having to work part time to deal with childcare, or neurodiverse people needing to work more flexibly. This means they are not going to be the highest billers in the firm who are the ones often sought out for promotion. A lack of representation of female or neurodiverse leaders at the top I think has led junior female lawyers to have accepted this as just the way it is, and the cycle goes on.
This is starting to change and the biggest issue we need to address in the law is a culture overhaul. This starts from the ground up with junior lawyers bringing in fresh and new perspectives and standing up against the presenteeism culture which is rife. Presenteeism does not equal productivity. It also disadvantages those who do not fit the stereotype nine to five lifestyle as mothers with childcare responsibilities or neurodivergent people who require flexibility to excel.
My firm upholds several initiatives for promoting wellbeing; taking a completely flexible approach to how our lawyers work and has done since pre-pandemic times. We don’t have set working hours and we do not have a maximum entitlement for annual leave. We can work from home or in the office as we want, subject to client needs. We have to take our minimum statutory entitlement to annual leave. We can pop out in the day to collect children from school or attend a medical (or even hair) appointment, no questions asked. We are trusted to work autonomously and to meet our client’s needs while maintaining a healthy work/life balance. We also have a healthy firm social life.
When you foster a supportive, inclusive and flexible culture based on trust you will have a happier workforce, you will not compromise on productivity and billing results and you will see more inclusivity and diversity within the ranks. Whether this is female leaders or neurodiverse lawyers - better representation of the public landscape within the law means better representation of our clients and a better service to clients. Ultimately this will result in and a stronger and more inclusive profession as a whole. My advice to organisations looking to kickstart their approach to improving wellbeing is always to try and foster a culture for mental wellbeing to be a safe topic rather than viewing it as a problem to be solved.
Following my diagnosis, I started an Instagram page to raise awareness about BPD and support and connect with people who were similar to me. This was after I had a lot of questions following my diagnosis and took to social media to seek out information. There’s still a lot of misconceptions and lack of knowledge surrounding BPD and what it is, even within the medical profession in this country.
I started to be much more open in my personal life as well, addressing ill mental health and challenging the stigma and had an overwhelmingly positive response. I wanted to do more and I now volunteer as a Peer Supporter with LawCare. I think the progression to speaker and public advocate has naturally evolved from there really.
Being as open about it as possible early on and bringing it up in general conversation rather than framing it as an issue/problem. When chatting with colleagues socially I will often mention things in passing which show mental wellbeing is a big part of my life, for example mentioning when I was ‘having therapy’ or a time when I ‘wasn’t very well mentally’. This raises the topic without them having to specifically respond as its part of another conversation and they will then know it’s important part of my life. It’s also surprising how many people will respond by sharing their experiences with you once they realise it’s safe to share with you.
I am also open about my passion for mental health causes/fundraising/charities and so when it comes to discussions about improving mental wellbeing at work, it doesn’t come as a surprise to the person I’m discussing with. I will often raise as part of business development discussions that we should be putting content out on our socials recognising dates etc in the mental health calendar. My advice is always to try and foster a culture for mental wellbeing to be a safe topic rather than viewing it as a problem to be solved.
The current generation of student lawyers are incredibly important. As a large-scale culture change tends to grow from the roots up, mental health has become a hot topic during the pandemic. If the new generation of lawyers start their careers better educated on mental wellbeing and aware of what they should and should not be tolerating at work, I think in time we can stamp out the old school culture of presenteeism, become more diverse as a profession and work towards a more compassionate form of commercialism within the law.
Couldn’t make the event? Watch the talks on our ULaw YouTube channel.