Don’t forget about mental health in the diversity debate

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By Elizabeth Rimmer on

LawCare speaks to junior lawyers struggling with stress, depression and drink problems on a daily basis. CEO Elizabeth Rimmer says the legal profession is due a culture change — and that this will have a positive impact on diversity

Last week, I had a meeting at 2pm at the Royal Courts of Justice.

There was quite a crowd of people lining up to get in for afternoon court sessions. There are four or five steps up to the doors, and when I got to top of these, I saw a sign. It said: if you need wheelchair access, please speak to a security guard. I had a look around — there were no security guards outside the doors, they were all inside, doing their best to move the queue along.

So how would you get in if you couldn’t manage the steps? That’s if you could actually read the sign, as you have to get to the top of the steps to see it.

You could ask someone to squeeze past the people in front of you to get a security guard, or a helpful person may tell you that there is street-level access around the corner and you could head for that. But, either way, it would be hassle, stressful and, no doubt, you would be late if you were heading in for court at 2pm.

The Royal Courts of Justice is one of the most iconic symbols of the law in this country — a familiar scene on our TV screens. But as I saw last week, just getting through the door into a building that represents the system that is technically open to us all can be a challenge. And, it’s getting through the law’s door in a more metaphorical sense that is of concern to many students.

There is no doubt that there is a growing understanding and recognition of the real value of diversity in the legal profession, and an increasing commitment from organisations across the sector to take action. But we have a long way to go. The regulatory framework is important, but we need more than this: we need a culture change.

I work for LawCare, a charity that promotes and supports mental health and wellbeing in the legal community. Every day we listen to lawyers who tell us their stories about the challenges they face in not only getting through the door but in staying in the building.

There’s the young female trainee who is being sexually harassed by a senior male partner, and too frightened to tell anyone. The barrister at the criminal bar feeling burnt out and wondering if this is a sustainable career. The woman returning to work after her first baby, unable to cope with the long hours expected of her, and worried she won’t have a future at the firm.

The young barrister, the first in his family to go to university, navigating an unfamiliar work culture. The experienced partner waking up at night worried about a mistake he has made. The lawyer returning to work after time off for stress, convinced the firm want to get rid of him. The legal executive not able to tell her line manager she has been diagnosed with depression.

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The single parent doing the LPC part-time and juggling work, unable to get a training contract. The judge worried he may have a drink problem. These are sorts of calls we receive every day on our helpline.

What is perhaps overlooked in the diversity debate is how mental health and wellbeing fits with inclusion.

People who feel connected and have a sense of belonging, who have control and autonomy in their working lives, are happier — happier lawyers are more productive and more effective.

There is little published peer-reviewed data on the mental health of British lawyers. But studies from the United States show that lawyers have higher rates of stress, anxiety and depression when compared to the general population, and we know from recent data from the Health and Safety Executive that lawyers place third in the most stressed occupations (only behind ‘welfare professionals’ and nurses).

Why is this? I don’t think it’s that lawyers are genetically pre-disposed to poorer wellbeing; there is something about the culture and practice of law that is having an impact.

The long working hours, the perfectionist mentality, the stigma of admitting you are feeling overwhelmed or have a mental health issue, managing the expectations of clients, working with vulnerable people, the intensive and expensive study, the lack of support for management responsibilities, the forced cultural norms that can lead to exclusion, no vocabulary to talk about emotions and how our work affects us — these are some of the factors that can have an effect.

The good news is these are things we can do something about. We can make the education of our law students about how to manage under pressure mandatory. We can provide better support for our junior lawyers. We can encourage our profession to talk about mental health. We can promote the value of effective staff management. We can stop expecting people to work long hours and weekends. We can challenge poor behaviour such as bullying and harassment.

We each need the support of others to be at our best. Lawyers are problem-solvers and I believe there is real opportunity now when these issues are under the spotlight to work together across professions and organisations to improve our workplace culture so that not only can anyone get through the door, they can stay in the building, and thrive.

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.

This article is based on a speech given by Elizabeth Rimmer at a recent Westminster Legal Policy Forum event on diversity and inclusion. You can read Legal Cheek‘s coverage of the conference here.

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