Today is world mental health day – and lawyer-managers need to do more for their staff, says Richard Martin

While all workplaces must have a physical first-aider, looking after mental health at work is an increasing priority. Mental health issues such as stress, depression or anxiety account for almost 70 million days off sick per year, the most of any health condition, costing the UK economy between £70bn and £100bn a year. Mental Health First Aid is the mental health equivalent of physical first aid.

I was a partner in a City law firm before suffering serious mental health problems. I now advise workplaces on mental wellbeing as a trained Mental Health First Aid Instructor. So why does the legal sector – and managers in particular – need to make mental health a priority?

Type ‘lawyers’ and ’mental health’ into any search engine and you will get a myriad of articles from around the world confirming that lawyers suffer from depression and anxiety, and associated problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, at rates that far exceed societal norms and, indeed, rates within comparable professions. Most of that same research will mention that lawyers rarely talk about it either. Common psychological symptoms of anxiety and depression include memory loss, inability to concentrate, confusion, indecision, self doubt and impaired judgment – hardly the traits a client will expect from their lawyer.

There are various possible explanations for why lawyers seem to suffer disproportionately – not all of them unique to lawyers:

  • The constant demand for excellence and perfection;
  • The knowledge that clients are depending upon you;
  • The ever-shortening timescales within which to provide advice (client service agreements requiring responses within timescales that are too short in themselves and which ignore the demands of other clients);
  • The expectation that one puts one’s client first;
  • The ever-increasing chargeable hours targets.

And there is something in the image of what a lawyer is or does that needs a mention. Clients generally go to a lawyer when they have a problem to resolve – often a very serious problem. The lawyer is expected to be calm, authoritative, dispassionate and expert. In a sense they hold the problem for the client, and for every other client they are advising at the time. The lawyer will project that required image to the client and to those around them. A junior lawyer sees this in his/her boss and assumes that is the way one has to be, at all times and to all people – clients and colleagues alike.

How familiar is this conversation between two partners who bump into each other in the corridor (or more likely open plan space):

’How are you?’

’Oh, fine. You?’

‘Yes all good thanks. Busy?’

’Oh yes, very busy. You?’

’Frantic. Was here till midnight last night and back again for an 8am start.’

And off they each go, neither having mentioned, or perhaps been aware of, the underlying tension and anxiety around the work they have on, their own targets or those of their team, or the worries about where the next deal is coming from, or the fact that actually they aren’t that busy but pretended to be because that is what is expected, and now its worse because everyone else seems to be (or so they claim), let alone what is happening (if they know) at home, with their kids or whatever.

Lawyers tend to perceive themselves as either having too much to do or too little. Stress can be understood as being a perception that your resources are insufficient to meet the demands you perceive are being made of you. On that basis (it could be said) most lawyers are always stressed – either because they have too much to do or because they have too little and so will not be able to meet the expectations of client billings etc that the firm places upon them, and very few lawyers will feel able to express that vulnerability. And so it sits there, building and gnawing away.

The people side of being a senior lawyer involves getting the best out of your team, as well as helping them develop to be the senior lawyers of the future. Given all the above, having the ability to talk to your team about how they are, helping them to surface and address their worries is fundamental to that. That applies to having relational one-to-one conversations, mentoring and role modelling – which of course requires the emotional intelligence, self awareness and vulnerability to express how you are too. 

With all of the other demands on senior lawyers (client work, business development, firm management and more) it is a lot to take on, and not all senior lawyers are going to be equipped to do it. Someone has to do it though because otherwise we are leaving the ability of our junior lawyers to cope and progress entirely to chance – and that someone has to be respected and senior enough to be perceived by the individual lawyer and the firm as having a credible voice. 

For more guidance around how to approach and respond to a colleague who is experiencing a mental health issue download the free Line Managers Resource .

To find out how employers can support the wellbeing of their staff and demonstrate their commitment to World Mental Health Day, visit and download the free MHFA England Take 10 Together toolkit.

Richard Martin is a former partner at a City law firm