As a family lawyer, I have an insight into people’s lives, and often know more about my clients than perhaps even their own family and closest friends. I go through my clients’ finances, I speak to them about how they would like their children to grow up, and I advise them on how to handle their relationship with their ex. And in almost every case, one of my first questions is: ‘Have you got any professional support such as a therapist or counsellor?’
Family lawyers have always been aware of the benefits of counselling. We recommend that couples considering divorce first try marriage counselling, and separated parents consider meeting with parenting coaches or undertaking a separated parents programme.
We advise clients to seek outside help – but often do not practise this ourselves. As lawyers, we will benefit just as much from therapeutic intervention. That is, if we are willing to consider it.
Stigma of counselling
The legal profession has moved in leaps and bounds over the past few years in terms of normalising discussions about mental health. In particular, the pandemic has enabled many people to open up about their mental health struggles. However, while discussing mental health issues is becoming normalised, methods of treating and addressing these issues are not.
Counselling has carried a stigma for many, and sitting down to talk about your emotions and struggles is sometimes felt or seen to be weak or shameful. People are willing to talk about taking paracetamol to combat physical ailments, but are reluctant to mention taking medication for mental health issues out of fear of judgement.
There is no point in overcoming the taboo of talking about mental health if we are unwilling to normalise treating it as well.
This taboo particularly affects junior lawyers. Junior lawyers often work long hours over which they have no control, anxiously trying to impress their bosses and their clients. In particular, trainees are faced with the additional pressure of trying to impress to earn a position as an NQ. For those in this position, counselling often is not an option because of the practicalities.
Firms that offer yoga and healthy-eating advice are not going far enough, and businesses that are serious about addressing mental health need to do more
This issue has two elements. First, junior lawyers are not in control of their schedules and often have to work past ‘working hours’, which means they cannot attend NHS counselling sessions, which are only offered during the working day. Private medical insurance paying for out-of-hours counselling is not an option for many who are starting out and do not have the savings with which to pay for this.
Second, junior lawyers do not feel able to ask for time off for counselling because of the risk that others may question whether they are truly cut out for the profession, which means they will then not be considered for promotion.
There is a growing realisation among junior lawyers that, while working from home has brought many benefits, there have also been many drawbacks. Many junior lawyers live in shared houses or alone in small flats, often without any outside space. Housing decisions that seemed sensible when we were living at work no longer make sense when working from home.
Junior lawyers can no longer learn from those around them or share concerns in the usual way, and are more likely to struggle to build up their social networks in their firms in those first crucial years. This has had a negative impact on many junior lawyers’ mental health.
What can be done?
Many firms are wondering what can be done to help their junior lawyers, both now and when working in the office again (albeit perhaps only partially). Firms that offer yoga and healthy-eating advice are not going far enough, and businesses that are serious about addressing mental health need to do more.
Some firms are beginning to take greater responsibility for employee wellbeing. For example, Fieldfisher has hired a therapist for employees to use when they return to the office. Farrer & Co has hired a counsellor and increased their availability throughout the pandemic. Firms that offer private health insurance are likely to cover the cost of mental health practitioners. For counselling to be successful at firms, junior staff must be actively encouraged to use it.
Another positive step firms can take is to normalise the practice of staff asking for time off to attend a medical appointment, without having to explain what it is. Junior lawyers should be told that mental health issues are confidential, and that they can prioritise mental health in the same way they would prioritise physical health. HR departments can handle matters discreetly and appropriately, and junior lawyers should not be afraid to reach out.
For these measures to be truly accepted internally, management must ‘lead from the top’. Senior solicitors who have been through mental health difficulties (of whom there are many) and sought treatment should be the first to break the taboo. If those at the top speak out about it, junior employees can see they can prioritise their own mental health and will not be afraid to undertake whatever treatment they need.
Suzanna Eames, an associate at Farrer & Co, is vice-chair of the Junior Lawyers Division