Why lawyers need to loosen the ‘stiff upper lip’

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By Alex Aldridge on

Macho demonstrations of ‘resilience’ are overrated

Prince Harry started something earlier this year when he admitted that he had sought counselling recently to help him deal with the death of his mother.

Soon after, a pledge to bring about “real action on mental health” made it into Theresa May’s General Election manifesto — and ultimately proved to be its most successful part as the wider Tory campaign bombed.

Since then barely a day has gone by without a wellbeing-related headline in the press. The flames of the trend have been fanned by a growing army of Instagrammers dedicated to promoting a more Zen approach to life.

While some of the cod social media psychology associated with this movement can be annoying, it is surely no bad thing that bastions of the British establishment are at last finding the confidence to open up about their feelings.

Sectors of society which are disproportionately exposed to pressure stand to benefit. One of those groups is the legal profession, whose members (and future members) often find themselves operating in Hunger Games-style conditions. Certainly, a legal career can at times feel like a punishing battle just to survive, let alone make it to the next level.

Take law students, who must battle a constant stream of messages that their careers are over if they fail to obtain firsts in all their modules. They are expected to achieve this academic excellence while maintaining the even temperament of the lovely all-rounder who thrives in City law firm assessment centres.

When the lucky few who get that far become trainees, they’re immediately plunged into a two-year long hell of uncertainty. The big-money carrot of newly qualified (NQ) pay — which is often more than double trainee remuneration — ratchets up the pressure. Add into the mix a tightening of the NQ job market brought about by a combination of Brexit uncertainty and advances in technology, and you have a pretty potent cocktail for sleepless nights, at the least.

There’s no respite when it comes to qualification. Then it’s all about climbing the greasy pole to partner while being a brilliant young parent with a massive mortgage. With lawyers often described by their clients as “being paid to worry”, there is huge pressure not to put a foot wrong.

It certainly doesn’t help that lawyers inhabit a world where daring to discuss stress has traditionally been frowned upon. Not that this is illogical. Indeed, in a profession where one of the most commonly advertised qualities for future joiners is “resilience”, it seems prudent to limit reflections about one’s frazzled state of mind.

Unfortunately, this tendency towards the stiff upper lip doesn’t do anyone much good. All too often law students and lawyers struggling with anxiety and stress get caught in their own bubble and lose perspective.

In reality, their predicament is usually not as bad as they think. If you don’t get the magic circle training contract there are plenty of other good firms out there. If you don’t get taken on as a trainee then maybe the opportunities you get elsewhere will work out better in the long run. If you make a mistake it may well prove to be a useful learning experience rather than a fatal career blow. Sometimes, it’s just about finding a person to guide you to sane conclusions.

Given the cut-throat nature of legal career paths, and the aforementioned premium placed on resilience by the industry, it’s perhaps over-ambitious to expect law students and lawyers to open up to people they know at university or work. This is why it’s so important for them to be able to access independent and anonymous counselling and advice from people with an understanding of their sector.

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