Why lawyers are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues

Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare, shares her tips on how to thrive, not just get through the day

The theme for Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW), which runs from 8-14 May, is ‘Surviving or Thriving?’ and this year, rather than asking why so many people are living with mental health problems, the aim is to uncover why too few of us are thriving with good mental health. Good mental health is more than the absence of a mental health problem: some of us are struggling to cope with the demands of life, and are stuck on just getting through the day.

We all have mental health, and it includes our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing, and affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices about our lives. Mental health issues range from the worries we all experience as part of everyday life, to serious long-term conditions. It can be easy to dismiss mental health problems as something that happen to other people, but research shows that one in four of us will experience them each year. And the legal community is no exception.

Our goal during MHAW is to get the legal community talking about mental health. MHAW provides the perfect platform from which to raise awareness of the importance of wellbeing and how it impacts mental health. There are five steps we can take to improve our wellbeing:

• Connect with the people around us: our family, friends and colleagues.
• Be active. Find time for a physical activity you enjoy.
• Keep learning, new skills can boost confidence.
• Give to others — just a simple kind word to someone can improve your wellbeing.
• Be mindful. Be more aware of the present moment, including feelings and thoughts, our bodies and the world around us.

Wellbeing matters because it brings a number of benefits: greater self-esteem, optimism, resilience, vitality, self-determination, positive relationships, better physical and mental health, greater motivation, greater creativity and more productive work.

What is it about the culture and practice of law that can compromise wellbeing? It’s not that lawyers are genetically predisposed to poorer wellbeing: there is something about the culture of law, legal education and professional practice that can make lawyers vulnerable. The culture is one known for poor work/life balance, long hours and a competitive environment. The legal profession also tends to attract perfectionist personalities, and this combination of factors can take its toll on wellbeing.

Students can feel daunted by intensive study, exams and the pressure of securing a position, while newly-qualified lawyers can be apprehensive about the transition into practice and taking on more responsibility. Students and junior lawyers can try to follow good wellbeing strategies to manage stress: planning ahead where possible, rewarding themselves when tasks are completed — and taking a break before starting the next one — and taking a lunch break everyday. Regular exercise and eating well are also important.

In terms of thriving, resilience is recognised as an important factor in the increasingly demanding and changing legal environment. Resilience is the ability to resist or bounce back from adversity, and there are people who thrive on challenges and difficulties, while others find it hard to cope with unexpected change or problems.

Highly resilient people are flexible, adapt to new circumstances quickly, and thrive in times of constant change. Most importantly, they expect to bounce back and feel confident that they will. That expectation is closely linked to a general sense of optimism, and finding the positive aspects in most situations is a skill that can be evolved: the right mental attitude to cope, and even flourish, when the going gets tough, can be developed.

Ten tips:

• Learn to see challenges, mistakes and failures as valuable learning experiences.
• Give ourselves a pat on the back when things go well. Be kind and forgive ourselves when things go wrong.
• Don’t give in to negative thoughts. Challenge them, and ask whether they are true or realistic.
• Use humour to defuse and downplay difficulties. We can laugh at ourselves and situations.
• Be flexible. Recognise that nothing stays the same, especially in the workplace.
• Take care of physical and mental health. Get enough sleep, exercise and eat well. When our physical self is in good shape, we are less fragile.
• Take time off and take breaks during the day.
• Recognise that a bad situation is usually temporary.
• Build a support network. Make time for friends and family who offer encouragement and strength. Consult supportive work colleagues.
• Don’t extrapolate one bad situation into another unrelated situation. We can’t be good at everything, recognise areas of strength.

Attitude and perspective are fundamental to building resilience: paying attention to strengths and how to develop them, learning to accept that things won’t always go well, focusing on what is working rather than what’s not, and we will all be on our way to thriving, rather than just surviving.

Elizabeth Rimmer is the CEO of LawCare, whose free, independent and confidential helpline provides a space for you to talk about anything that may be worrying you. Contact LawCare here.

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24 Comments

Anonymous

Because lawyers went into to law to compensate for their deep-seated pyschological problems, and these inevitably come to fore under high pressure.

(4)(15)
Anonymous

Please point to where on the doll the lawyer touched you……..

(8)(3)
Former Trainee

This is pretty patronising. It implies that mental health issues and other difficulties at work are the product of some deficiency on the part of the lawyer.

I had a thoroughly miserable time during my training contract, due partly to personal circumstances (for which I received no pastoral support, despite my firm being aware). However, a large part of it was the infighting from partners at the top end, the lack of work trickling down, and a seat with a supervisor who bullied me after my fellow trainee left the firm.

Despite having friends to talk to outside of work, none of them really understand the industry and the office politics (eg of time recording – one partner would work on a basic file up to the fee estimate, then tell me to finish it without charging – but also not to record my time on her file, so my productivity in my own stats shot through the floor). I was unable to leave the firm or I wouldn’t get qualified, so all I could do was turn up and “look busy” after my proactive requests for work went unanswered. I raised my concerns with the relevant supervisors/heads of departments but they shrugged it off as my problem. Things got so bad that for the last few months I was on antidepressants (and still am).

Having qualified in September I’ve now got a different job using my law degree, and I’m so much happier. I’ve got an employer who supports me and actually values my skills, and I feel like I’m making a worthwhile contribution. I mention the above not because I’m looking for sympathy, but because at the junior end your time is rarely your own and it’s sometimes borderline impossible to say no – especially when you’re acutely aware it could affect whether you’re kept on.

(35)(3)
Anonymous

Just a question: how did you do deal with the lack of work trickling down?

I’m in a similar position at the moment and I’m set to qualify in November.

(4)(0)
Former Trainee

There’s really not much you can do – like I said, I asked my supervisor/roommate routinely if she had anything I could do, then when I got a no sent a “capacity” email round the department saying I’m low on stuff to do so please let me know if you have anything. I sent that a little while before I needed work (eg a day or so) and then if I had nothing back I’d go and ask the head of department for work as an excuse to draw to his attention specifically that I’d not been given anything. It got to the point where I (gently) said I’m concerned I’m not getting enough to show competencies in my training record, and he was briefly more proactive at getting me some more stuff – but it still wasn’t ideal. In the end I resorted to asking the PSLs for article ideas etc, but again, that wasn’t overly helpful. I shit you not, at one point I was spending hours a day reorganising a client’s files/historical documents because it hadn’t been done in 10 years and there was nothing else to do.

Sorry I can’t be of more help, but hopefully that gives you some ideas.

(5)(0)
Former Trainee

The main thing is to save those emails so you’ve at least got them for the inevitable arse covering exercise when HR ask why your timesheets are so empty.

(3)(0)
Anonymous

Your opening line was a rude response… Elizabeth was clearly writing for those who suffer from mental health conditions and need advice on how to tackle it. Tackle it in an environment that they have little control over but where they have control over themselves.

Its sad what you went through and how it affected you but clearly it’s an industry problem and not something that should have belittled Elizabeth’s advice.

(0)(7)
Anonymous

@Former Trainee
I can identify with this. Do you mind sharing what your alternative job is now that you are qualified? I haven’t managed to secure a training contract and probably never will, but I’d like to make some use of my skills rather than be stuck doing admin the rest of my life.

I was in a constant state of anxiety working as a paralegal in the city. You’re expected to time record and do work that is around that of a trainee, work for a lot longer than your contract hours and yet there is a general lack of support. It is very much sink or swim and I found that the quality of the work (and your progress) really depended on who your supervisor was.

I too would send ‘capacity’ emails out, but that was just asking to be given the most mundane and repetitive of tasks. Luckily, my contract wasn’t renewed although my career in law is a shambles (temporary contracts with large employment gaps). I just remember spending a large part of the day thinking: ‘is this it’? Spending all that money and time studying to become nothing more than a glorified administrator. If I feel that way then perhaps becoming a solicitor is not for me (If you can’t take the heat etc…..)

I found being a paralegal a dead-end, however the really damaging aspect for me came when I was trying to discover alternative careers. I developed this constant sinking hopeless feeling where, after having gone through the usual alternatives open to those with law, I just couldn’t see myself in any of those roles. Working in finance, insurance, government, charities just seemed to all be the same admin and no one else would employ me to work in anything else without specific experience.

(1)(0)
Former Trainee

Yeah, I certainly don’t envy them. My last place didn’t use paralegals but I was horrified when a legal executive confided in me that they’re paid less than trainees, completely ignoring the sheer volume of (unsupervised) work they do and the skills they have. The whole industry model is unsustainable, and in desperate need of “modernisation”, for want of a better word.

I’m now in education, a job that fell into my lap at the right time and for which they wanted a qualified solicitor (though I’m non-practising). I have the benefit of qualification to my name – not really sure what to suggest for a paralegal. Have you considered something a bit more…novel? I looked into joining the CPS, HMRC etc and am now actually considering becoming a Special Constable – if you do enough hours on patrol (200) you can get fast-tracked in an application to become a regular Police Constable. I don’t think that’s something I’d want to do full time right now, but at least my law background will be helpful and it keeps another door open.

(4)(0)
Anonymous

Well, I can’t say I have any interest in education or policing. I think my biggest problem is that I have very strong ideas about what I don’t want to be doing rather than what I do. So many careers seem to boild down to the same general admin.

I was extremely disatisfied with the aspects of my work that involved having to manage, organise or interact (to an almost obsessive level) other people’s expectations. I am definitely an introvert, although people probably wouldn’t say I am anti-social. I am happiest when I am given something interesting to do and am able to get on with it. Having to constantly interact with others – whether that is by phone, email or person – I find extremely draining. So teaching etc. is the one of the last things I would want to be doing.

I have spent years applying for and going to various interviews for things such as proof-reading, trainee management, publishing, library assistant, research support, human rights volunteering to name but a few. Sometimes I manage to get an interview, but I am always rejected in favour of other cadidates with ‘more direct, relevant skills and experience’ when I manage to get feedback. It just seems to be a never-ending downward spiral that I can’t escape. I really don’t want to end up working in a call-centre or for those cruddy sales jobs I get spammed with when I sign up to job sites…

Good to hear you have found something you like doing. I wish you well.

(2)(0)
Anonymous

Great comment, I’ve been through a similar experience myself but instead of giving in to a boring workplace I chose to get busy so I built an online business of my own. My self esteem went through the roof.
My question is why is the doctor keeping you still on anti-deps if you’ve now found a more supporting workplace?

(1)(0)
Former Trainee

Like I said, other personal circumstances are relevant. I’ve got a condition for which there are 2-3 years of surgery on the horizon (in different stages), so it’s mainly for stability’s sake due to the risk of surgical complications etc. I was reviewed a month or so ago and my GP decided it was the best course of action.

(1)(0)
Doc. Ludvig Friedrich Von Lowenstein

Former Trainee. That is the most honest and true commentary, I have heard in observing this site for over a year. Let’s see if LC, put it into their comment of the day round up tomorrow.

(8)(0)
Anonymous

Stress levels are high as lawyers receive shit from:

– Clients
– Opponents
– Partner/Line Manager
– Insurer clients/funders
– Colleagues
– Internal compliance
– Auditors

Build in the challenges with time recording, fee write downs and non billable marketing it all results in a stressful culture. If the money is not worth it or there are key moments that outweigh the bad, it’s time to quit.

(11)(0)
Anonymous

Lack of supervision for trainees and paralegals is a big reason. It causes anxiety and a sense of doom. I remember when I was handed a large case in the high court as a paralegal. I was expected to do everything and it was my first week! Then the partners would storm in to my office in a panic the day before a hearing and tear through the file.

(1)(0)
Anonymous

I know you’re probably being facetious, but a large number of modern day in-house roles genuinely aren’t the easy ride some people perceive them to be.

I moved in-house recently after 9 years in private practice (inclusive of a bit of time in a paralegal role and subsequent training contract), as I found myself bored of addressing the same transactions ad infinitum. You’ve seen and negotiated on one excessively lengthy contract, you’ve seen them all.

As a bit of background, my former firm set up a “business services” scheme to provide all aspects of legal services a business may require; compliance, contract, employment/HR. The view was the attract the ‘modern’ and ‘more savvy’ commercial client. I was able to get involved in different areas of law I hadn’t practised since my training contract. It actually made the job interesting again. Like many people in the profession, I find the law interesting. It was nice to revisit other facets than the usual commercial/commercial litigation.

An opportunity arose to move in-house. My current employer had historically haemorrhaged money on outsourcing across multiple firms for their various legal service requirements. I am now their legal function and deal with all commercial contracts, employment matters, data protection, tax, corporate structuring, and litigation. Their outsourced legal expenditure has subsequently been reduced to a bare minimum; predominantly property transactions, for obvious reasons.

Not having to account for rudimentary hourly billing is a nice change, I guess. I have also learned a lot about the day to day operations of a business on a level you don’t really get to see when in private practice and/or on secondment to a client. However, my workload is significant and the hours are still long due to the volume. You are still required to drop everything in the run up to completion on an acquisition, or when something goes wrong procedurally and needs legal support.

There is also the added element that you are working directly for the paymaster during litigation, the failure in which can vastly impact a business. Private practice lawyers move on to the next one when they lose a trial, but often don’t actually see the repercussions of their losses.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is this; the stresses in-house are very different to those felt in private practice, but the stress is still there. I feel you will experience that wherever you end up in the legal profession.

(2)(0)
Dr. Ravi Samuel

The job of a lawyer can be very demanding and exhausting. It is very important to have Work & Life balance. Being overtly involved in legal practice can even lead to burnout and consequently physical and mental health problems.

1. Be Mindful of what are the cases or factors that causes enormous stress.
2. Be Mindful not to keep processing what has been processed!
3. The mind has a tendency to recollect what is not required and what can cause stress – so distract yourself every time.
4. Share everything in your mind with someone.
5. The Mind may sometimes give false alarm about things that may never happen; so validate your thoughts with a friend or professional colleague!

(0)(0)
World Psychiatric Convention on LC

This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(0)(2)
Doc. Ludvig Friedrich Von Lowenstein

Why is LC so vulnerable to mental health issues? Why does it attract mental health people? Why does it block mental health professionals?

(0)(0)

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