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Mental health: a once taboo subject for City lawyers

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Ahead of Tuesday’s ‘Mental health and wellbeing in the law’ event with Taylor Wessing, litigation partner and head of the firm’s Wellbeing Network, Laurence Lieberman, chats to Legal Cheek‘s Aishah Hussain

Laurence Lieberman

Laurence Lieberman, a partner in Taylor Wessing’s busy disputes and investigations practice, is always on the go. When we speak, Lieberman, who also heads the firm’s India group, tells me he has just returned from various locations abroad resolving complex business disputes.

Indeed, the work is more often than not, international in nature, and Lieberman, who focuses on life sciences and financial services, was drawn to litigation for this very reason. The prospect of arguing interesting, contentious legal points in a courtroom or arbitration similarly appealed to Lieberman, who studied law at the University of Cambridge. The bar, however, didn’t: it felt too ‘stuffy’, and “I needed something more commercial, more buzzy”.

But working in the City can be demanding. City law firms are considered to be highly pressured environments in which long hours can be the norm. The work/life balance at Taylor Wessing, in Lieberman’s experience, is generally in favour of having one. Things do get busy, he concedes, particularly during trial or when working on an injunction but generally, he manages his workload well and gets great support from the associates in his team.

Event: Mental health and wellbeing in the law – with Taylor Wessing on Tuesday 15 October

Taylor Wessing takes the health and happiness of its lawyers seriously; and wellbeing has moved up the agenda in recent years. Its ‘Disability, Mental Health and Wellness’ team, relaunched this year as the ‘Wellbeing Network’, and is responsible for promoting lawyer wellbeing. Lieberman heads the initiative.

A suite of support systems are in place to enhance the wellbeing of its lawyers. There are psychologist-led mental health awareness sessions and training available for mental health first aiders. The annual Wellbeing Week comprises a rota chock-full with activities and includes sessions in mindfulness, yoga classes and financial advice clinics. TW lawyers can join funded sports teams and there’s also a subsidised gym membership to help unwind. Flexible working initiatives and family-friendly policies also help foster a supportive culture at the firm.

The movement continues to gather momentum. In March, Taylor Wessing became the first law firm to purchase subscriptions to meditation app Headspace on behalf of all of its staff. In May, the firm launched an in-house GP clinic for all London (where the firm is headquartered) employees. In June, Lieberman was appointed head of Taylor Wessing’s Wellbeing Network. He had always had an interest in lawyer wellbeing but sadly, it was the breakdown of his marriage four years ago that led him to take up the role. “It made me realise what it’s like to come in to work each day and just get on with things despite having a lot going-on in your personal life,” he says.

Find out more about training at Taylor Wessing

What’s next for the network? It was World Mental Health Day yesterday and for this, the firm lined up numerous stress-busting activities. A goal for the next six months or so, however, is to adopt the principles of the Mindful Business Charter, and aim to sign up. The charter has so far been signed by 17 law firms, who collectively pledge to change avoidable working practices that cause a negative impact on lawyer wellbeing.

In his 20 or so years in practice there has, Lieberman observes, been a positive, attitudinal shift towards mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession. This, he attributes, in part, to the ‘generation gap’ which has brought with it an increased willingness to engage in issues previously considered ‘taboo’ but now openly discussed and widely reported in the press.

But there’s still a way to go and Lieberman hopes the firm’s Wellbeing focus will bring about cultural change within the firm, particularly at partner level. “Some people can be cynical, or very British about the topic and don’t talk about it — not deliberately — they just haven’t thought about it as something that is important,” he says. “If I can bring them around and get them talking, to the extent that they want to, rather than feel as if they have to suck it up, grin and bear it, then I would consider that a big achievement.”

Event: Mental health and wellbeing in the law – with Taylor Wessing on Tuesday 15 October

Lieberman’s top tip to law students struggling to balance their studies with applying for training contracts is to “seek out someone with a sympathetic ear” — whether that’s through charities such as Samaritans, support groups at university, or friends and family. “The critical thing is to not let the situation fester. It’s easier said than done but the first step is to acknowledge you need help and then go out and get it. There’s a huge support network out there,” he advises.

Getting a training contract at a top commercial outfit has become an increasingly competitive process in which rejection is, unfortunately, part and parcel. It happened to Lieberman, for example. He scored an overall 2.2 grade in the second year of his undergraduate law degree. That was particularly trying for him since the types of firms he was targeting for training contracts at the time tend to recruit in the penultimate year of study. He didn’t receive any offers he wanted, which spurred him to reapply in his third year, focus on his studies (Lieberman graduated with a high 2.1), and then complete a masters in law at Cambridge. He eventually landed a number of offers, including one with City outfit Simmons & Simmons and began his training there in the autumn of ‘96.

The unexpected twists and turns of life eventually straighten out once you gain perspective, says Lieberman, who meditates every day and finds useful in this respect. “An upsetting event won’t feel as distressing a year or two from now if you allow yourself time and space to breathe — when you’ve gained perspective. You learn from the experience and that’s how you build resilience” — an important skill to show in training contract application forms — says Lieberman, who was formerly a senior associate at DLA Piper and performs in a six piece pop rock band in his spare time.

And how should students approach explaining mitigating circumstances on the application form? The best thing, in Lieberman’s view, is to be upfront and not defensive. “If you’re open and honest about your reasons it will always be taken the right way,” says Lieberman, who is involved in Taylor Wessing’s graduate recruitment process. “It’s important to remember recruiters are people and will be understanding when provided with an explanation; and if you’ve overcome it, it can be viewed as a strength.”

Laurence Lieberman will be speaking alongside four other Taylor Wessing lawyers at Tuesday’s ‘Mental health and wellbeing in the law’ event. You can apply to attend the event, which is free, now.

Find out more about training at Taylor Wessing

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