Love for Lawyers: Some reflections on mental health and the legal profession

When I told my dad that I wanted to train to be a solicitor, he took the news better than I thought.  I'd asked him to front the first chunk of fees and living expenses as well, which were hefty even in those days, and he took that in good humour.  Such good humour, that he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, "Do you know why they bury lawyers six feet underground?".  Genuinely unsure, I gamely asked why.  "Because," he said, "deep down they're really nice people".

I appreciated my parents' support in training to be a solicitor, at the outset and since, and smiled at my dad's joke then (and am still smiling at it now).  But as I've spent time practising law in the City, I've had cause to reflect on that joke in different ways over the years.  To be honest many of the lawyers that I've met have been very nice people on the surface, and not just deep down.  I have a long list of colleagues who I treasure, and many fellow lawyers who I respect.  There are also people who I'm glad not to bump into again, but I suspect that's not so different from any other career, profession or industry.

Yet I wonder if lawyers hold a particular, and not always treasured, place in the public consciousness.  If you're lucky, a lawyer on TV might be a tireless crusader for justice, righting wrongs with their tie undone and shirt sleeves rolled up, with every piece of law at their fingertips and no apparent need to sleep or have friends (which might not be great for your mental health in the long run).  If you're unlucky, a lawyer on TV might be a grey bureaucrat who delights in crushing the little people for the highest paying client (Mr Burns' attorney from The Simpsons, I'm looking at you).  Some shows or movies think we might be better off without lawyers at all in the future, so justice can be dispensed more effectively (anyone old enough to remember Judge Dredd?!).

Either way, I'm not sure that lawyers are necessarily at the top of anyone's list when it comes to their personal wellbeing.  Which is a problem, because there seems to be real concerns about lawyers' wellbeing, especially among the most junior members of the profession.

The Junior Lawyers' Division ("JLD") of The Law Society in particular has been expressing concerns about junior lawyers' wellbeing and resilience for the past few years.  This has coincided with growing international interest in lawyers' wellbeing and mental health.  Happily, this is resulting in increasing initiatives within the profession to understand and deal with poor wellbeing in lawyers, although this work remains at an early stage.

The JLD helpfully propose a three-pronged approach: tackling workplace culture, providing support and ensuring appropriate training and education in mental health literacy.  Certainly, any solution must be as complex as the problems that it seeks to tackle, and work on both the macro level (targeting the whole profession) and the micro level (within the workplace culture of each office).

It is good to see attention being paid to this issue, and steps taken to begin to address it.  In doing so, it is important not to confuse training alone with a solution.  For example, it is not enough to provide resilience training and then expect lawyers to be "tough enough" to handle matters as they currently stand.

One positive example of tackling this issue holistically is the Mindful Business Charter that is gaining traction among many law firms (including mine) and businesses, setting a number of simple practical steps that can change culture quite dramatically.  As many are recognising, there is a clear business case for happy employees who deliver the first-rate service law firms strive to achieve.

If I could offer one further, and final, piece of advice from my own journey, and years of supervising junior colleagues, it would be this.  Practising law is a life-long journey where you are constantly developing, reflecting, improving and learning.  It is vital that junior lawyers – and their colleagues, however senior – are kind and give them permission to undertake this journey, and not unreasonably expect themselves to ace everything the first time they try it.  Therein lies one of the constant challenges of law in that you never feel you have "arrived", but also one of its greatest rewards as you grow as a professional over time.

Written by 

Jonathan Hyde, Director, DWF Law LLP

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