“We need a certain amount of sleep, exercise and socialising and if people don’t get that it takes a negative toll on their health,” says Fieldfisher Technology, Outsourcing and Privacy Partner Sam Jardine.
Many lawyers might raise a wry smile at this seemingly obvious statement – the reality for thousands of legal professionals is constant stress, high stakes, crushing hours and never being able to switch off. A report in 2021 by the lawyers’ mental wellbeing charity LawCare found a ‘high risk’ of burnout (emotional exhaustion and disengagement with work) among lawyers.
Speaking up about stress or in fact any problem at work can be particularly difficult for those in junior positions, who may fear being perceived as weak or unable to cope. In fact, an International Bar Association report published in October 2021, Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession: A Global Study, found that mental wellbeing has a disproportionate impact on young people as well as women, those who identify as ethnic minority and those with disabilities, and that stigma is a major problem, with 41% of respondents stating they would not discuss issues with their employer for fear of damaging their career.
It’s a mindset that’s deeply ingrained in the profession and therefore hard to shake, but the good news is that change is happening. One person who’s trying to drive that change is Sam, who looks after mental health and wellbeing at his firm, as well as acting as a champion for LawCare.
“I feel positive about it, and there’s definitely less stigma around mental health now,” he says. “For lawyers who began their careers in the 1990s, it was all about making money and that meant working evenings and weekends, whatever it took. But firms are increasingly finding that young lawyers coming into the profession now don’t want that. It’s not something they find attractive. They want a satisfying career path, and they want to work hard but they are not interested solely in making money.”
However, what a firm says it does to support wellbeing and what it actually does may be two different things. Law firms may flaunt their mental health and wellbeing credentials on their website, or in recruitment materials, but that means nothing if the reality on the office floor is an exhausted, overworked and diminished workforce. So, how do you know if the firm you’re applying to is genuine or simply paying lip service?
“Lip service does happen,” says Sam. “It’s all very well to say you’ve got a mental health strategy but if something comes in at 5pm on a Friday and you shout at the associate to do it then that’s quite hypocritical.” He points out that stress is often the result of individual managers or partners within a team, and that there’s never any excuse for treating people badly. His advice is to try to have a chat with someone in the firm before you join to ask what it’s really like.
He also emphasises that lawyers starting out in the profession have a choice and should think ahead about what they want. Working until 3am at a US firm may suit some people – Sam qualified at a US firm, and remembers the work as being great, but he eventually made the decision to leave because of the impact it was having on his time with his family. He now lives in Yorkshire and combines a busy schedule at Fieldfisher’s Manchester office with weekends cycling, climbing and walking in the hills.
As Sam points out, creating a healthy environment at work starts with self-awareness on the part of the individual. “Juniors will be more aware than seniors about mental health, for example, mindfulness is taught to my children at school, which is a great thing, but partners at law firms may not be particularly self-aware and that is something that is becoming more recognised. For example, Simmons & Simmons is rolling out therapy sessions for their partners. This is important because we, in my generation of lawyers, have been taught a kind of stiff upper lip attitude, to just get on with things. But it’s up to the partner to create an environment where people feel they can ask or support.”
Jardine also highlights how the Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact across all levels, junior and senior, creating pressures in all sorts of ways. It’s been a traumatic event for many people, and people who live alone may have found the isolation particularly hard. “Leadership needs to be sensitive to this, and to the fact some people want to go back to office normality but others really don’t,” says Sam. “What’s good is that there will be more remote working and flexibility within the profession, and we’ll become more open to making accommodations for people. On the other hand, it’s important that we all manage our boundaries carefully. People are often working harder remotely than they were in the office because they don’t log off or go for coffee, and the separation between work and home is gone. The boundaries between work and free time have been blurred.”
Fieldfisher has mental health first aiders, buddying systems and mentoring in place to support its employees. During lockdown, Sam instigated a ‘no person left behind’ policy, where partners and supervisors had regular check-ins with everyone in their team.
The firm has a therapist who comes into the office regularly, who people can chat to if they’re having a difficult time or simply want to talk something through. It uses the Thrive mental wellbeing app, and provides training on mental health, mindfulness and physical wellbeing.
“Generally, we have found people have engaged really well with these initiatives,” says Sam. “My advice for managers at law firms is, if you’re feeling stressed, take a step back for a moment. Often the best ideas come when your mind is at rest. If you can get your own house in order, become aware of your own issues then you will be a much better manager.”
Again, he emphasises that changing office culture starts at the individual level. “Self-awareness is absolutely crucial,” he says. “It’s not enough to just roll out training sessions, you have to grapple with yourself – and that is also profitable for yourself in the long run.
If you’re feeling stressed or anxious about work, are experiencing problems with alcohol, drugs or any other sort of addiction, or are suffering from mental ill-health then the charity LawCare, may be able to help. It runs a confidential helpline, email, online chat and one-to-one peer support network for all branches of the legal profession, including support staff and students, and their families, and its wellbeing hub offers case studies, tips and advice. It also has a host of useful factsheets on subjects such as bullying, vicarious trauma, sleep, panic attacks and what to do if you’re worried about someone else.
This article was first published in our Verdict magazine – Read our Equality, Diversion & Inclusion Special now.