Let us start with kindness. Is the solicitors’ profession a kind one? Perhaps it is to clients, but not to the people who work as lawyers. Typically, lawyers are given unrealistic billing targets which hang over them like the sword of Damocles. They have seen what happens to people who do not meet targets and it is not pretty. No one needs that kind of persistent stress. And the financial ‘catastrophising’ it causes.
There is also a strong culture of presenteeism in the office – being visible and seen not to leave on time even when your day’s work is done. I have even seen partners stay late to read the paper because they do not want other partners to see them leave before 7pm. It is ludicrous, right? The long-hours culture and not feeling able to ever disconnect from email and mobile phones cause relentless pressure. With no time for rest it is inevitable that many lawyers burn out. The work itself is high-pressure – there is no room for mistakes in law. But if solicitors worked in a kinder way and felt supported, the stress of the work would be much less.
‘Stress is cultural. It isn’t what is happening that causes stress. It’s what we fear will happen in the future. We spend much of our lives running from imaginary fear…Maybe there’s another way. Maybe if stress is caused by unkindness and by living in the future, the answers may involve staying in the present and being kinder… Kindness keeps you well.’
From Stress-related Illness, by Dr Tim Cantopher
So are we really surprised at the extent of mental health illness in the profession? How can we be when we know what the causes are and yet they persist? And that is before we even tackle the thorny issue of bullying, which seems also to be rife in law. Perhaps it is a hangover from school when bullying was an acceptable way to achieve what you wanted. Perhaps. That was never my modus operandi but I know many people for whom that is just a normal way to behave.
There are certainly still people who see no harm in bullying as a management technique. But it is very harmful. It causes mental breakdown, suicides and talented lawyers to leave the profession. That and the fact that, having had a breakdown, the social stigma against mental illness makes a return to work even harder than before. It is OK to confess to mental illness if you are Catherine Zeta-Jones or Stephen Fry. And talking about it is a positive if we hope to reduce stigma. But here in the real world of law, there is still much to be done.
Clearly, this is no way for lawyers to live or for the profession to thrive. I count far too many solicitors on my client list to be speculating about this. It is a fact that poor conduct and outmoded ways of working are causing a mental health crisis among solicitors. Fellow solicitors judge their peers. Who takes time off work for mental health without fearing it will all be over? It may be acceptable to have time off for cancer or a heart attack, but time off for a breakdown is in most cases the career kiss of death. Sure, there are firms where mental health is treated with more respect, but not many. And what is also clear is that even the firms that say they are doing good work in this area are not: it is just window-dressing for the outside world.
So what can we do to stem the tide of good people leaving law and to help the profession back to good health? What if we each took the time to notice people in our teams who were struggling and offer them an ear? What if, on seeing someone in tears at their desk, we went over to check that they were OK? Being mentally ill is not about not pulling your weight. It is about trying to keep going in spite of terrible adversity. In a job that demands mental alertness, burnout, depression and anxiety can be crippling. So what if we all did a bit more to support one another? Would that be such a bad thing?
We can all make tiny steps to make our profession kinder. Let us start today.
8-14 May is Mental Health Awareness Week
Karen Jackson is managing director of didlaw, a London-based law firm specialising in disability discrimination around mental health