Why de-stigmatising anxiety and doubt at law school will make for less stressed-out lawyers

Nipping it in the bud early is the answer, says LSE LLB-er Josh Dowson

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In 2016, LawCare — a charity whose role is to “support and promote good mental health and well-being in the legal community” — received 912 calls from 555 different people. As a student with aspirations to practice, I can’t help but find those figures disconcerting.

Common explanations for why 38% of callers suffer stress, or why 12% suffer depression, include the intensity and duration of the working day. Many believe they simply can’t open up and discuss the things bothering them.

I was recently completing a vac scheme application for a City law firm. Alongside the standard ‘Why do you want to be a commercial lawyer, and why do you want to practice commercial law at X?’ was this question — surreptitiously slipped-in towards the end — ‘How do you think a career in commercial law will affect your lifestyle?’ I have completed a number of applications now, but I have only seen that question once. This, I believe, highlights a failing.

It’s concerns about work-life balance that influence those sheepish questions about sleeping pods asked by nervous second-years at events, or cause those looks of horror when a firm reveals they provide every service and utility imaginable for their lawyers inside those enormous glass and steel structures. Yet, when answering students’ questions, newly-qualified (NQ) associates and trainees always seem reticent, laughing nervously before quickly moving on. Maybe it’s too soon for them to talk about it. There might also be the concern that discussing the three hours of sleep they had last night might not be their firm’s biggest selling point.

Whatever the explanation, their actions don’t come across well. Even now, as a fresh-faced student, I think that nothing less than a 12-hour day will be expected from me in the City. Indeed, it would appear that I’m weak if I can’t do this.

In this context, the high wages that I’d earn now look like danger money. According to Legal Cheek’s enlightening research, a 24-year-old NQ at Kirkland and Ellis, where lawyers begin work at 9:44am and leave at 9:14pm, can expect a whopping £147,000 remuneration package.

I doubt that this ‘work 24/7’ expectation is solely held by the firms; it’s more down to the people that work there. Browsing my EU law class, I already know which people will end up chained to their desks; you can just tell. The attitude of this stereotypical person was summarised quite neatly by an ex-Sullivan & Cromwell lawyer:

There’s a machismo around staying up all night, night after night — like doing ten shots of tequila. You’re tough. Not a problem.

That is an extreme case, but a similar attitude is quietly exuded. Indeed, I feel that life at law school is comparable to that in the animal kingdom — survival of the fittest. David Attenborough would have a field day narrating some of our networking events.

The current struggle in my bubble is applying for vacation schemes. As if keeping on top of five modules wasn’t enough. “How are the apps going?” The small-talk fills me with dread, “Oh, A had an interview at B the other day”. I can’t escape it by scrolling mindlessly through Facebook; I see ‘apps’ commented jokingly on profile pictures, as a sort of “why are you on social media when you could be working?” However jokingly, ‘many a true word hath been spoken in jest’, and little snippets like these summarise the anxiety that pervades our lectures and classes.

Of course, none of the anxiety is expressed directly. Very rarely am I asked if I’m coping with everything. Such weaknesses appear not to exist. Only within my closest group are concerns exchanged. In a conversation we had during my work experience placement at Legal Cheek, journalist Tom Connelly said it was similar at bar school — “people are so concerned not to show weakness or admit defeat”. This culture is the problem. I imagine that if I do end up working in the City, I’ll recognise a few faces from those land law classes. If the people are the same, how could the culture be different?

Surely if the culture is changed at law school, and anxiety and doubt are de-stigmatised — allowing people to talk about it — we wouldn’t be facing such a disproportionate representation of legal professionals in mental health statistics as we currently do. LawCare’s work is invaluable and I do not, for one second, want to criticise them. But if the charity was to really focus on raising awareness about these issues at university it could foster a culture change that would lead to healthier and happier lawyers down the line.

Josh Dowson is a second year law student at the London School of Economics.

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