This year’s National Wellness Week drew to a close a couple of weeks ago but the spotlight very much remains on how we in the legal profession can look after ourselves better.
This message is coming increasingly loud and clear, following on from warnings from the Criminal Bar Association earlier this year that the bar is ‘in the grip of a mental health crisis’. Sir Andrew McFarlane, the new President of the Family Division also warned recently of the possibility of judges and lawyers risking mental breakdowns due to increased workloads and the disarray of the courts and it has just been announced that members of the judiciary who hear traumatic cases are going to receive emotional support including from a 24 hour helpline and face to face counselling.
There’s no doubt that the cuts to legal aid, not to mention the high expectations of clients and our ever-increasing availability to them are big stresses on us. We all also go through personal problems of our own and many are affected by the on-going austerity measures and the Brexit-related malaise.
How do we make sure that our wellness now becomes a priority rather than just a topical talking point?
Diligence and its dangers
Firstly (and perhaps counter-intuitively), I think we need to be honest about the fact that many in the profession still see working hard to the point of self-neglect as a badge of honour. Recently I was privy to an exchange between two lawyers, with one thanking and congratulating the latter for responding so swiftly to the former’s work-related email sent in the middle of the night. This is not uncommon and there are pay-offs to being seen to be perpetually available. For many, particularly junior lawyers, if you limit your hours to 9-5pm, some will see you as less than totally committed to the job.
The rush to respond
Honesty is also the order of the day when it comes to acknowledging the phenomenon of competitive communication. We’ve all had that experience when we’re working on a case and one person sends an email over a weekend. That might genuinely be the most stress-relieving way that person can think of to deal with the situation; to get the email written and sent rather than have it hanging over them until Monday. But of course that has a knock on effect on everyone else involved, some of who will feel the pressure to respond to save face rather than due to any urgency from the client.
Boom and bust
There’s still also a last-minute working culture in some law firms and I think most of us can relate to that situation where a piece of work has sat on our boss’s desk for a period of time and then all of a sudden it’s ‘all systems go’ no matter what the hour until the job gets done. The lack of control and ability to manage your own workload remains one of the most difficult aspects of the job for the more junior end of the profession.
What about us?
The classic character traits of the lawyer can also prove to be bad for our mental health. This includes perfectionism, a tendency to try to ‘rescue’ people, pride and a reluctance to recognise when we ourselves need help and to ask for that help. All of this leads to a tendency to overwork, to take too much responsibility for our clients’ problems and to put dealing with our own ‘stuff’ to the bottom of the list. We have high expectations of ourselves and others, leading us to chronically underestimate how long it takes us to complete tasks; thereby placing more pressure on ourselves when we cannot meet our self-imposed deadlines.
But what can we actually do?
My view is that, in order to become more ‘well’ as a profession, we need to get a) more in tune with ourselves and our needs such that we are able to identify sooner when our balance has gone wonky and to b) educate ourselves and our staff about boundaries and self esteem such that we find it easier to say ‘no’ when we need to.
To support this process, we need to create ‘anchors’ in our work lives that provide us with consistent and regular support. One idea that I (and many others) advocate is having a system of therapeutic support for lawyers and judges that is regular and (relatively) non-negotiable. A number of family law firms now have such systems in place, having recognised the toll of vicarious trauma on their lawyers and the need to look after them.
This support can be on a one-to-one basis or in a group with colleagues or contemporaries from other firms/chambers/courts. The ‘non-negotiable’ nature of these anchors is the crucial bit because, too often when we’re busy, we become out of touch with how we’re really feeling. These are the times when we need support the most but we’re the least likely to ask for it or to prioritise it over client work.
At a time when many parts of the profession are struggling financially, I hope that some will see the long-term benefits of investing in this sort of support. Otherwise I fear that we will continue to lose brilliant people from the profession due to the build up of stresses and strains over time.