Feature

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

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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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18 Comments

K&E 2PQE

waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

(19)(25)

Delicate Little Flower QC

Ooh me triggers!!!

(5)(7)

Strong Maths

23-year-old NQ

(7)(4)

Not Amused

38% of 555 is 211.

There are roughly what? 120,000 solicitors? 14,000 barristers? How many ILEX? How many paras? Does the service even limit itself to lawyers?

People can make up their own minds on whether a valuable service is being provided. Particularly as other services are available as well as free mental care help on the NHS.

I only ask that no public money is spent on this and that people start actually questioning numbers.

(4)(6)

Rzbg

Good article. V important issue.

See also the Bar Wellbeing Resource:
http://www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk

(12)(2)

Anonymous

If you want to work in the City you may be stressed and may have to work long hours. That’s the facts. If you don’t like that idea you should apply elsewhere.

(10)(11)

Miss Flowerdew

But why?

I want 9-5 plus flexitime, short notice sick-leave and occupational health provision.

Is that too much to ask of the city?

(5)(4)

Anonymous

Yes.

(1)(4)

Anonymous

Thank you for writing this article. Well written, informative and useful.

(14)(1)

Anonymous

Great article by a fellow LSE student. Crucial to combat mental health stigma, especially in such high pressure environments

(15)(3)

Anonymous

Maybe we shouldn’t be using the first world problems meme lady as a depiction of anxiety…

(22)(0)

Anonymous

I agree with the last paragraph. I dont *really* remember a time when university or law school talked about mental health and how it could be in practice, so if LawCare and other charities showed themselves more around university it could remove more of the stigma.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

The point about trainees and NQs’ reactions to questions at events is interesting.
Even as a future SC trainee very close to starting, I cannot work out whether 7pm will be my normal leaving time as most of them say, or the reality will reflect the comments that appear under such articles.

(2)(0)

In it up to there

7pm? On Sundays maybe.

Other days think more like 11pm and the prospect of being woken in the early hours, taxi waiting outside in 20 minutes, “get over here ASAP”.

(4)(0)

The Lord Harley of Counsel

I worked in the city once.

The hours were so long and the work so intense that we weren’t allowed to take time to go for a poo, so I simply retained all mine….for ten years.

It’s still in there.

It’s one of my many disabilities.

(9)(0)

Anonymous

Law firms should start creating safe spaces

(1)(4)

Iami

Hail up di time wen dem start di destigmatization of being black, starting here at LC, by stop removing all mi comments , even tho me say nuttin wran

(0)(2)

Iami Tafari

Di wan protest a black man on di LC. Him report mi 2 di fascist bladclats dat black man on LC

(0)(0)

Comments are closed.