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‘An open letter to my fellow lawyers — it’s time to be completely honest about mental health’

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Lack of support coupled with poor work-life balance is creating a “perfect storm”, warns doctor turned trainee solicitor Gavriel Sapir

Friends, it is high time to speak about a real pandemic plaguing the legal profession: our Mental (ill) health. With your permission, I raise this topic out of care and respect for all my colleagues including you. Before becoming a trainee solicitor, I qualified as a medical doctor. I have been trained to care. Despite its prevalence, mental health is palpably, poorly addressed in legal circles, presumably due to stigma and reputational outcomes. We hear it from all sides. Regardless of a firm’s size, location, or prestige. No one appears to be immune.

A snapshot: In the general population (before COVID-19), amongst women, major depression is the leading cause of years lived with a disability, anxiety ranks 6th on the list. Amongst men, depression ranks 2nd, drug use disorders 7th, alcohol use disorders rank 8th and anxiety ranks 11th. In England, one in four will experience a mental health disorder during their lifetime. This is a staggering picture of an unhealthy society.

Now let’s pause for a second and look ourselves in the mirror: with the glamour, glitter and promises of financial return, legal employees are often pushed to work endless hours, typically supervised by poorly trained, mid-range management who almost thoughtlessly delegate tasks with little to no acknowledgement to personal or family life.

Too often we hear: ‘These are the sacrifices we make’. This carelessness is normally coupled with little to no employee autonomy, or the promotion of employee safety where there is no openness to feedback, criticism, and mutual respect, heavily regimented because of hierarchical structures. This is the picture described by the American Bar Association in 2021.

Add to that scant, poorly signalled, or insufficient resources available to prevent episodes of mental ill health or clinically treat it. The perfect storm arrives with the absence of a rigid separation between professional and personal spheres. After all, everyone is meant to be accessible all the time, right? We have adopted the above scenario as a sine qua non recipe on the road to legal success. Except that we are failing. And this is a collective failure.

It is all too farcical. That road has led us to failure, at the expense of our most precious resources — our people’s mental health, and their families who often bear the brunt. Let’s have an honest conversation: who are we trying to fool? What is the real trade-off we are dealing with here? And how can this occupational hazard or quagmire be undone?

It is high time we take mental health seriously. This comes to the heart of what being a lawyer is: to promote justice and to do what is right, in the words of the SRA’s Code of Conduct; and to act with integrity, “to maintain trust and act fairly”, always understanding the “ethical, regulatory, and legal implications” of our actions in the provision of service. But aside from learning the principles of business law and litigation, we are not thought to think about what these words truly mean to us. When was the last time you were invited to consider what these words mean?

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The World Health Organisation defines good mental health as a state where: “every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. In the UK’s legal profession, the scale of mental (ill) health is pandemic: A 2021 report issued by wellbeing charity LawCare describes that amongst 1,700 consulted UK legal professionals:

• the average recorded burn-out score was 42.2 (a cut-off score of 34.8 denotes “high risk of burnout”). The “exhaustion” element of burnout considerably exceeded the recommended cut-off point, particularly when participants were asked to score “there are days when I feel tired before starting work” (score of 3.36 out of 4).

• 69% responded they had experienced mental ill health in the past 12 months. Either anxiety (60.7%), depression (28.9%), physical manifestations of stress (28.9%) low mood (48.4%), strain on relationships and family life, and feelings of being unable to cope due to stress (22%).

Dear colleagues, where have we gone wrong?

1. A cultural change is paramount for everyone. A legal profession with persistently low levels of poor mental well-being is neither sustainable nor healthy. How long will this continue until it ceases to attract the best talent in a generation already described as ‘anti-ambition’ because of its heightened concern for mental wellbeing? How long will it take until clients perceive their lawyer’s ability to protect their corporate interest cannot be properly discharged in unhealthy occupational environments? Or until this hurts the reputation and integrity of legal workplaces and the profession as a whole?

2. A cultural change will support equity, diversity, and inclusion. Structurally, issues abound thanks to poor or non-existent managerial training, particularly in the lack of psychological support, growth and development needs of staff and lack of basic mental health support. Culturally, the picture is all too common: bullying, harassment, sexism, racism, and the all-too-common passive-aggressive behaviour that seasons interpersonal, hierarchical relationships. For some, the sink-or-swim equation of ‘up or out’, encouraging unsustainable hours, and unrealistic billing targets, is all too common.

3. A cultural change will involve multiple stakeholders. Employers, regulators, and professional bodies have a moral and legal duty of care to protect and promote the health of their employees and members. That means recognising mental (ill) health is not a weakness and is neither unsuitable for legal practice. This will in turn generate positive outcomes, forcing professionals to discuss strategies and develop protocols to disclose difficulties without the fear of retaliation, penalty, or stigma. As employees, we all have a duty of care to initiate dialogue and look after our colleagues in equal measure. It is good for our interpersonal relationships, good for the office, and it is excellent for business.

Unfortunately, talent, especially young talent is too often wasted precisely because it is disproportionately affected by chronic anxiety disorder, depression, substance abuse (whether prescription, illegal or alcohol use) and many other forms of self-harm. We hear it all too often at law school and later from colleagues working everywhere in the legal career. It is indeed a pandemic.

Gavriel is a qualified medical doctor, turned trainee solicitor.

Struggling with the stress of work? Contact LawCare via its helpline or live chat

25 Comments

Ariel

Maybe mental health problems are rising because young people coming into the profession haven’t been used to the tough knocks and winning and losing like previous generations were.

(16)(100)

"Woke snowflake"

What a ridiculous comment. Mental health problems have always existed, what’s happening now is younger generations are able to recognise them more readily and feel more empowered to discuss them openly and take steps to address them, which is a very good thing. There’s nothing to be proud of about being overworked and taken advantage of by employers, and repressing feelings of anxiety and stress is damaging and counterproductive.

(81)(3)

Alan

Typical entitled millennial response. Look at me, I’m going on sick leave because someone used the wrong pronoun when passing me my organic kombucha in Whole Foods. This country is going to the dogs I swear.

(13)(78)

Anonymous

Your soul is beige, and your tongue is made of corduroy. ‘Reader’s Digest’ is engraved upon your cerebellum.

(25)(3)

Marie

I completely agree that more work can be done to promote mental health awareness and wellbeing in the profession, but I do have some sympathy with the sentiment if not the delivery of the original comment. If wellbeing was not prioritised by previous generations then perhaps toughness is an under-appreciated quality among my age group.

Anon

Alan, your comment alone suggests you’re unfamiliar with what true good mental health looks like. It’s our natural state before we accepted the idea that our role in life is to work as much as possible to buy things we don’t need. It may be that you’ve never experienced it, except in fleeting moments on holiday or at weekends.

Paradoxically, persisting with your view is what leads to a decline in growth. You need only look at the consistent data on declining mental health outcomes and low productivity.

But then data shouldn’t really be needed as it’s not rocket science – humans aren’t machines.

(5)(1)

Anon

WTF are you on about. When was this golden period “before we accepted that our role in life is to work”?

Between our hunter gatherer stage and the industrial revolution, the vast majority of regular people were essentially uneducated peasants. Then the industrial revolution came and people (children included) were doing 15 hour days in factories. Now most people work an 8 hour day in an office.

Anon

To Anon at 11.17am:

Hunter gatherers worked 15-20 hours a week.
Lawyers at large firms work 60+ hours a week.

Thank you for flagging how the Industrial Revolution changed this.

What is making you so angry?

eaglehobo

>It’s our natural state before we accepted the idea that our role in life is to work as much as possible to buy things we don’t need.

#partnerpenn #midtierprestige “Wait a moment. That’s not our role in life? It is for our associates.”

Anon

In law firms this becomes a question of supply and demand on multiple levels. Clients demand round-the-clock responses to get things done. Unless all law firms agree that this is not reasonable (which they won’t) then demanding clients will go to firms that can provide that service. If there is corporate demand, there will be law firm supply

Trainees (which is what the author has experience of being) and junior lawyers do not have to choose firms that have an expectation of round-the-clock responsiveness. If they do, they can expect the £170k or whatever the top US firms are paying at NQ. If they don’t, they can’t. Don’t expect to be an NQ earning £100k+++ (when you have very little to offer other than your time – as you have no experience) and not have to give up your time (and with it the ability to relax / switch off). If you want that – choose to work somewhere who’s expectations match your own.

There will always be people who are prepared to sacrifice money for health. I don’t think we can regulate to solve this.

You can’t have your cake and eat it.

LinkedIn (which is where I saw this article) is awash with trainees posting about their struggles (i cried on my first day as it was all too overwhelming #mentalhealth). Mental Health seems to have been completely redefined by Gen Z who think it means they can enjoy a fast track the spoils of success without having to suffer the pressure that exists in the corporate couldron. If its too hot in the kitchen, find another kitchen.

Many people suffer real mental health problems. Opting in to a career which has never been clearer on expectation and crying about it when it become exactly what it was always going to be does not put you in the “struggling with mental health” camp

(49)(13)

MC ass

I think where the distinction lies is in your colleagues. I did my four seats and qualified into a busy transactional practice, where I am often very busy but my mental health is completely fine.

One of my seats was also very busy, but my principal and all the partners in the department were complete arseholes. No thank yous, dumping work on you at the last minute then running off, hyper critical and condescending if you made a typo in the documents they had you drafting at 2am, gossiping and badmouthing other trainees in front of me, and just generally being all round bad people and managers. I had a serious injury at one point and had a senior associate calling me to turn comments a few hours after the operation – literally something her secretary could have done. My mental health was fucked, absolutely in the gutter.

In my current team everyone is lovely so, while it gets busy, I’m not also dealing with the pressure of being surrounded by dickheads and office politics. We work for those demanding clients and it isn’t a problem. I regularly work late nights and my mental health is great.

So a lot of it is around expectations and culture, and less about the hours. In my opinion at least.

(68)(0)

Matchstick recovering from burnout

This! Absolutely this!

Very similar experience on my end where one transactional team (at the time the crown jewel in the firm’s roster of teams in terms of making money and trainees wanting a seat there) just had the most awful people. Every single trainee to go through that team was disillusioned, and genuinely messed up afterwards because of just how gruesome it was to work for those specific people.

Contrast with the transactional team I qualified into. Yeah, some nights are late and that’s can be grim from the perspective of lost sleep hours, but the team is so well managed and non toxic that it’s not really ever a source of frustration to do a couple of Kate nights in a row, and just part of the job on occasion.

Lots of people told me at qualification to not pick a team based on people but on the work because people move. while this is generally true, never settle for a team so toxic that your mental health takes a dip just seeing an email from one of them in your inbox. Strike a balance between interesting work and bearable coworkers.

(28)(0)

Anon

Certain practice areas also attract these type of individuals so the two are intertwined. Think PE and lev fin as examples

(8)(0)

Anon

“There will always be people who are prepared to sacrifice money for health. I don’t think we can regulate to solve this.”

Yes we can. It’s same reason we have standards and watchdogs around things like advertising, betting and tobacco – humans can be easily pressured or influenced into acting against their own best interests.

Whilst we may like to believe we have free will and conscious choice, it’s a myth that disintegrates upon interrogation.

(4)(1)

Merlin

Do you want six figure starting salaries or better mental health protections? The two are pulling in opposite directions and thinking otherwise is fantasy thinking.

(15)(17)

Anton

I am very much wanting to be having my cake in my hand whilst at the same time wanting to be eating it in my mouth whilst simultaneously having it in my stomach.

To whom do I apply for all of these things and to whom do I complain if I am unsuccessful?

(6)(1)

Al

One of my friends is very involved with wellbeing at the Bar.

One, very senior, practitioner recounted that it is quite common for him to hope to be hit by a car. Nothing too serious. Just enough to put him in hospital for a few weeks so he can have a legitimate excuse to get away from work for a bit.

We all commented “Yeah; but everyone feels that.”

But of course, that is the point.

I see the temptation to say suck it up princess. But I feel that’s a luxury that soon wears off. It really hits you when you realise, there is no end to this, and it will be like it for the rest of your working life.

And that’s just at the Bar. Whilst life at the Bar is far from a doddle, at least we don’t have that billable hours culture. There is a bit more flexibility for us. In the end I just moved out to the sticks and got a lot more picky and choosy about what work to take on. And I am very glad I did.

So I am all for ways of mitigating against the stresses and the risk of burnout.

(25)(0)

Anon

Jesus. Imagine actually wanting to be hit by a car because life in chambers is so horrific.

I wouldn’t take that £100,000 tax pupillage even if they offered it all in cash to my house.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

You believe “Stigma” is the issue, I believe those directing it are.

(0)(1)

Anon

“Sticks & stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”

We seem to distinguish between physical & mental health. Off with covid? Broke a bone playing football? Ok.

“In this job, you get paid £150k to climb down chimneys. Every year we lose a few clumsy oafs but they knew the risks when they signed up. Do they want £150k or a safe working environment”?

I think we’d all agree that the above is unacceptable. Yet, when it comes to safeguarding mental, rather than physical, health, a lot of people seem to think it’s fine to tolerate a culture where it is survival of the (mentally) fittest, literally.

That’s before we even open the next chapter on the link between mental ill health and physical health.

(12)(1)

Yadda

But people who do physically risky jobs are paid more because of that risk. So your central premise is wrong, rendering everything afterwards irrelevant.

(3)(5)

Anon

Not really, though.

Sure, some jobs have an element of risk, but H&S legislation is still there & reasonably practicable measures are put in place. I believe there is a blindspot when it comes to MH.

Risk in terms of mental health isn’t disclosed, monitored and talked about as much as physical health. Law firms wouldn’t say “well some jobs are physically risky and their pay reflects that. This job carries a risk of mental ill health and our salary reflects that.” Firms go on about their culture, and how MH is taken seriously. I don’t see the ‘so far as reasonably practicable’ measures put in place to mitigate against poor MH caused by work.

(3)(0)

Hmmmmm

No one is stopping you from being honest about mental health.

No one is stopping any trainee or future pupil barrister from writing a blog under their real name, posting on Twitter or including their mental health in their written applications.

The problem comes from hypocrites at firms and within chambers who feel they have a ‘right’ not to be confronted with the reality of what the profession does to people.

These sociopaths are the ones who use mental health as an excuse to oust others, claiming their mental health problems of these colleagues make them a ‘danger’ to clients or means they ‘can’t cope with pressure’.

See it for what it is – something some lawyers could potentially use to get rid of the competition around them.

(5)(0)

Tried and Tested

No, it’s not a new problem. Over the last three decades six key things have changed though: 1) the level of client expectation, 2) the arrival of new technology that allows enhanced client expectation for fast turnaround, 3) the demand for legal services in the private sector, 4) the number of firms competing for business across all sectors, 5) the relaxing of the requirements needing to be satisfied for entry into the legal profession, and 6) the salaries that firms are prepared to pay in response to all the foregoing. The burden on the more junior ranks at all firms has correspondingly increased beyond tolerable levels, especially with regard to mental health. As a profession, we face a huge problem.

(2)(0)

Middle aged

12 years pqe here. Mum of twin girls (aged 3). Am leaving practice as I’m bloody sick of the shark tank where firms chase the same work and clients think they’re owed far above and beyond what they pay for.

I work 3 days a week (10 hours each) but am time recording/working a full time week. I work due to childcare and so i can see my kids grow up before they go to school. However, working longer and longer weeks on a part time salary. When I’ve flagged this, I just get a shrug and mmhmm as the full time management team are working round the clock.

I don’t see how pp lawyers can have young families and keep up with their colleagues who do not. Yes, kids are a life choice, but I didn’t go into the law on the understanding it was career or a family. I very much believed you could have both. Haha. Looool.

I’ve had times where work demands have battered my mental health. Stress impacts sleep therefore you’re slower and work longer to compensate and that’s how I unravel. It’s like a rope that’s getting thinner and thinner, slowly thread/twine peeling away until SNAP and you’re mentally ill and have to pull yourself back again.

I don’t believe mental health issues are restricted to law and within the next 10 years, IMO more qnd more jobs will be unfilled as more youngsters decide not to sell their soul.

(4)(0)

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