Law firm leaders on what more can be done to protect junior lawyer wellbeing

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Top brass shine a light on workplace wellness and offer their tips this Mental Health Awareness Week

It’s no secret that stress, anxiety and burnout are rife within the legal profession. This is particularly the case in corporate law where the hours are long, the work is high stakes and often involves juggling workloads with competing deadlines for demanding clients.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme is anxiety. Earlier in the week LawCare encouraged the legal community to speak about their struggles with anxiety, having found over two-thirds of lawyers have experienced mental ill-health. Now we’ve spoken to law firm leaders on what more they think can be done to protect the wellbeing of their most vulnerable staff. Here’s what they had to say.

Sally Davies, senior partner at Mayer Brown

Sally Davies, senior partner at Mayer Brown

“Most law firms have work environments where there is a culture of high performance, high pressure and intense workloads, along with that generally comes self-imposed pressure and a fear of failure. Society has thankfully become more open in its discussions around mental health, wellbeing and particularly anxiety.

“I am glad this has become a key issue at work. Colleagues need to know it’s ok to speak about challenges and mental health issues they may be facing. As a leader, I want colleagues to know that we care. Help is at hand for those who need support. A particular focus of mine is trying to create an environment to prevent some of those issues from ever arising. In the dark ages when I was a trainee, if I felt overwhelmed, out of my depth or anxious (I did at times), I didn’t show it or talk about it. I ‘cracked on’ which is what everyone else did. I have now learnt that being open and showing vulnerability, as a leader is, in fact, a sign of strength. We are all human!

“Thankfully the legal sector has matured and with the help of mental health first aiders, in-house GPs, counsellors, mentoring and coaching systems and other support, I believe we are building an environment of trust and openness. It is vital we look out for each other. The sector is known for long hours. It is probably a sad reality that we spend more time with colleagues than with friends or family. Although, post-pandemic, a more flexible work environment has improved this.

“Small things matter, look people in the eye, take an interest in the people and, most importantly, listen. Show empathy, build trust and watch for signs of stress. Be prepared, when you ask the question, ‘How are you today?’ to react when the answer is: ‘Actually, I am not feeling great’.”

Adrian Cartwright, global senior partner at Clifford Chance

Adrian Cartwright, global senior partner at Clifford Chance

“When it comes to mental health and wellbeing, as an industry, we should strive to be more open. I’m not afraid of admitting that we don’t have all the answers, and we remain serious about continuously listening and improving. We want to encourage honest conversations where people feel empowered to speak up, an open door culture, and be ever more transparent about the reality of a career in law. Being more open is one step towards a healthier work life, with strengthened connections, greater collaboration and more fun too!”

Deborah Finkler, managing partner at Slaughter and May

Deborah Finkler

“It is vital that the sector continues to prioritise an open culture to talk about mental health and wellbeing, backed by practical support. Sharing stories of how people at all levels have coped with mental health is very powerful and reassuring, particularly for new colleagues. In our case, the firm focuses on creating a culture of openness around these issues as well as reviewing and introducing new benefits and support. The working practices code we launched last year is an example of an initiative to drive practical and behavioural change to support our trainees and associates after the challenging years of the pandemic.

“Partners and senior members of teams have a leadership role in day-to-day discussions, raising awareness, and around practical steps like work allocation and the piloting of new ways of working. We also have in place an internal network of mental health first aiders and listeners, as well as resources and benefits dedicated to giving our people the support they need both in and out of work. This, combined with engagement through Thrive, our employee network, and our Forums for both associate and business services colleagues are all important components of a holistic approach.”

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Penny Angell, UK managing partner at Hogan Lovells

Penny Angell

“Thanks to greater profile, awareness and understanding of mental health over the last few years, providing people with meaningful resources and tools to support their mental wellbeing has become business as usual for any successful law firm, including ours. We are currently celebrating Wellbeing month with various activities extending to support physical and financial wellbeing too, continuing to encourage in-person connection and collaboration. Everyone across the firm is able to access these, regardless of level or location. Ollie Ollerton (SAS: Who Dares Wins) shared his experiences of mental health and tips for managing personal wellbeing this week, in a highlight of our event programme.”

Helen Burton, London managing partner at Ashurst

Helen Burton, London managing partner at Ashurst

“The wider profession can help by not shying away from the topic of mental health and being honest about mental health struggles. The industry is moving forward, with charities like LawCare, but there is still a sense of taboo that we need to overcome. I suffered from stress and anxiety when I first became a partner — to the extent it was impacting my sleep and quality of life. I had counselling and learnt techniques (principally CBT) to help me manage this. I am still susceptible, but now I recognise the warning signs, usually an inability to sleep, and then work to take action quickly, either using the techniques I have learnt or even talking to a counsellor. Personally I know it’s hard to share these stories but I also know they can be helpful to anybody struggling — it helped me to hear that some of the successful lawyers I admired had also struggled at times. While there is no quick fix, we must keep having an open dialogue to ensure that mental wellbeing remains a priority.

“We need to ensure lawyers coming through the ranks know that to build a sustainable career in the legal profession it is important to take care of both our physical and mental health — and we need to ensure that the tools are available to achieve that. We need to keep the conversation going to encourage a healthier industry going forward. It’s also not good enough to just say it — we need to take actions, lead by example and ensure that our lawyers are taking time for themselves.

“This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week theme is anxiety. If any colleagues, junior or senior, might be experiencing anxiety, then I want them to know that they aren’t alone — your mental health should be a top priority. There are things that you can do to help manage anxiety — the key thing is to spot the triggers and take action promptly.”

Alexandra Gower, partner and training principal at Osborne Clarke

Alexandra Gower, partner and training principal at Osborne Clarke

“Mentoring tops my priorities list, and we support those starting out in their careers with both senior and junior mentors. This is alongside service line supervisors, and from a pastoral care perspective, our Trainee and Apprenticeship Leadership Group Partners have oversight. Support networks, whether that’s for apprentices or the recently launched Junior Women in Law network for example, are also helpful so juniors can swap stories and build connections with contacts at similar career stages both internally, with clients and across the sector. And ultimately an open-door culture is key. I think our firm is great at understanding people’s situations, educating our senior lawyers on mental health and how to deal with it, demonstrating good behaviours and supporting our people to thrive.”

Struggling with anxiety? Contact LawCare via its helpline or live chat



Some of these anecdotes were helpful but some just seem like lip service. We’ve been talking about this for years, so what proactive steps is actually being done..


The thing is you care too much, I’m a lawyer but honestly as long as do my best I’m not gonna sleep or cry over a job. I care more about other things in my life..

Junior lawyer

With the greatest of respect, I simply don’t buy this.

Some areas of law i.e private equity, are ultra high pressure environments with competitive timelines and a constant sense of urgency. This trickles down to associates who are subjected to such pressures over time and are inevitably burnt out and either exit law/go in-house, go on stress leave or push through but at the expense of relationships, social life and an unrealised hatred for the self.

The problem here is multifaceted. The current business model for such teams allow the firm to be competitive in the market and continue to generate profit. This is also compounded by the cultural entrenchment of long hours, hard work and a real sense of hierarchy that has been long associated with such areas of law. I’m sure the same can be said of other areas of law.
Additionally, we are very fungible. You will always get that ultra eager law student (and lawfluencers) that think being a lawyer is the saviour of mankind and will come in wanting to work 25 hours a day, 8 days a week and post all over their Instagram story how doing AM finishes closing deals is a vibe… until they themselves are burnt out by 2-3PQE and are then replaced by the next generation of the ultra-eager lawfluencers etc rinse and repeat

Anyway, unless and until firms are willing to acknowledge and undercut the profit centred business model in favour of a new well being centred model that puts employee welfare up with profit (not necessarily above it), then these “mental health awareness initiatives” will do absolutely nothing… and I don’t see firms undercutting the profit centred business model, they are businesses at the end of the day.

I was one of those junior lawyers that wanted to gobble up every hour but have now decided to quit. The money is great but the job isn’t what I thought it would be and I regret not doing something more meaningful to me.


Your point is well made and I think shows the fragility of the partnership model. The strong likelihood is that the leaders above who are prepared to say what they say do genuinely want change . However, we know that law firms rarely operate command and control thus leaving a bit of a free for all when it comes to leadership behaviours. It’s wrong I think then to criticise those that really do believe change is needed and are trying to instigate that. I think the idea of well being before profit is a nice idea but naïve given the competitive pressures that exist in the sector. The need to make more money is driven by the need to hire the best people. It’s exactly the same in the associate market in the US. Firms having to keep up with pay pressures because there are too many alternative places to go for more money. Unlike the accounting sector where the top dollar is paid to a small number of top firms, law is saturated with rich firms ready to pay more. This will only ever change if there are mega mergers and the competitive pressure lessens – that is unlikely to happen. In any event I would advocate more junior lawyers stand up to the bullies that exist in law firms and seek out mentors who can help them deal with difficult people. Taking personal ownership for your mental health is in your control – why people believe it’s someone else’s responsibility is beyond me.


When are Ashurst increasing NQ salary to match HSF? Why are Ashurst the slowest SC firm in terms of remuneration?

Lev fin 4PQ on their way out

Asking all the most senior lawyers in the firm who are so far removed for what it is like for associates these days is probably the biggest waste of time. The conduct that goes on right under their noses inside the firms goes completely against what they’re saying here.

Whatever the “[Global/Senior/Managing] Partner” has to say to the media outlets won’t change the behaviour of the partner in PE or lev fin or whatever that honestly couldn’t care about mental health of his juniors. And when there are burnout/mental health issues happening all over that team, nothing of consequence happens to that partner.

When the rubber hits the road, partners will always sacrifice their associates to keep their clients happy. Until that changes, whatever the global head at [X] firm says from their corner office to the media outlets doesn’t matter. As “junior lawyer” says in their comment above, we are very fungible.

Our high salaries are literally equivalent to danger/hazard pay – you get paid because you put your health on the line every day to do this nonsense. Sooner you realise that, the sooner you realise that you need to get out.

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