It is still okay not to be okay…
Puneet Kaur Puri, a Senior Solicitor and Notary Public at Inheritance Legal Solicitors, and mentor at Sikh Lawyers Association explores the recent initiatives taken by law firms, legal organisations and their regulators to support employee mental health and wellbeing. She also shares her own experiences and tips for both aspiring and practising solicitors for seeking support and balancing work and social life.
Although the Pandemic feels like a lifetime ago, the context of unpredictability in connection to the lockdown, unemployment, several restrictions and the changes in today’s standard of living have impacted mental health severely.
In research conducted by Mental Health charity ‘Mind’, around 1 in 3 adults and young people said their mental health has deteriorated since March 2020. LawCare, an independent charity which offers support to the legal profession and legal community, found that 26% of individuals call their helpline due to stress and 11% call due to anxiety. The Law Society of Scotland also launched a three-year action plan to deal with the issues surrounding mental health within the legal sector. This plan was created alongside Scotland’s national programme, See Me, which found that 77% of individuals wanted to have a better understanding of mental health issues so they could provide support and stated that if training was provided, it would improve workplace culture with positive change.
It is clear to see that the Covid-19 pandemic had a domino effect on the whole world including the legal sector. Professions like the legal field can be extremely tough as it has the notion of being competitive and always resilient. Most solicitors state they work well under pressure, but it is this pressure that negatively affects performance.
A great example of a leader failing to safeguard the mental health of his employees was the former UK Chair of KMPG, Bill Michael, who told employees ‘to stop moaning’ during a virtual meeting where employees expressed their struggles with remote working during the peak of the pandemic. Although KMPG is an accountancy firm, and Michael did resign after issuing an apology, this is type of put-down response is common in all sectors of business including the legal sector too.
It is this perception that legal professionals find hard to speak against, whether it is to do with mental health affected by their legal career or personal issues they are dealing with.
Who is responsible?
The onus is usually on the individual to ‘fix’ their mental health but in reality, we all have a collective responsibility to a make positive work environment for everyone.
There is a long outstanding debate that stress, and pressure is part of ‘the job’ of being a Solicitor. This causes stigma around ‘mental health’ to, both legal professionals and the legal profession as a whole. It is understandable that stress would come within any job but when stress becomes excessive i.e., working long hours to meet client deadlines or demands which cross over into their personal life, leading to a lack of morale and increased leave.
Other factors can be dealing with personal issues as well as working in a high-pressured legal environment at the same time. Even external issues would have also had a drastic impact on mental health – the pandemic, the rising cost of living and the war in Ukraine. All these aspects are likely to have had a personal impact too.
Mental health is not a simple problem, it is quite complex with several issues. Depending on your legal field, the mental challenges you face will differ. For example, a Solicitor working in Private Client will have different mental challenges and problems than a Solicitor working in Corporate or an Advocate.
What can be done?
Law firms should focus on three aspects, in particular, when promoting employees’ wellbeing and offering advice and resources. These are support, training and culture. Undoubtedly, there are law firms which have been working towards improving this and implementing measures to tackle this issue, but the issue is far from being resolved.
Be proactive rather than reactive, the commitment from employers should be clear to supporting its employees’ wellbeing. With firms returning to office working full-time, it is essential to introduce a safe space for discussions on mental health. Encourage everyday conversation on mental health where individuals can speak freely with zero judgement and, when these issues are spoken about, realise that others are facing the same anxiety and stress. Storytelling is a great way to break down issues associated with mental health and build trust within a firm but also talking about it yourself or hearing about other people’s struggle can help you deal with your own.
Unlike a lot of individuals, I preferred working in the office and not remotely as it was quite challenging when other family members were also working from home. I remember being in my last year of my traineeship and looking forward to face to face meetings with clients. I thought this would improve my confidence, knowledge and communication but I never had a chance to exercise this until after I qualified.
I also remember trying to bury myself under my work and staying active i.e. working out, going for runs, walking the dog, but I did not realise that after sometime, I would feel alone and depressed, or feel like I was not getting enough work completed efficiently; I felt like a robot at times as the work that could be carried out was limited. There was also a social aspect which was sacrificed due to the restrictions which impacted me mentally as I couldn’t talk to anyone face to face apart from my family. In my opinion, talking on the phone discussing how you really feel does not have the same impact as talking to someone face to face.
I must admit, one aspect that did help me apart from Yoga, was the wellbeing webinars which were introduced by the Law Society of Scotland at the start of lockdown. These webinars cater focused on positive mental and are just as effective today. These webinars helped me realise that other solicitors are dealing with similar issues and gave me tips on how to manage this.
Another aspect is introducing training on diversity and inclusion. From the action plan carried out by the Law Society of Scotland and See Me Scotland, it is vital, now more than ever, to create positive changes and expand common knowledge about mental health within the legal sector.
For example, my firm, Inheritance Legal, has decided to have a monthly meeting with all staff to discuss workload and general issues. In these meetings, which are confidential, employees can state any issues they are struggling with, whether personal or work related, so the firm can assist and help ease or resolve their concerns. A similar approach was taken by Allen & Overy who introduced a monthly survey to gather feedback on mental wellness and concerns that its global staff were facing. Since then, they have created a ‘Minds Matter’ programme which encourages employees to discuss mental health and provide support where it is needed.
Other examples are Chicago-based law firm Baker McKenzie who started providing training to partners and managers in mental health whilst UK-based firm, Ashurst, set up a wellbeing space in their Glasgow office which staff could use for yoga, quiet reflection and check-in sessions. Global law firm, Dentons, also took the initiative to tackle this issue and implemented a ‘four-day week’ scheme across their offices in the UK, Ireland, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
However, European Law Firm, Fieldfisher, took a different direction and partnered up with LawCare for a round-table discussion of the pressures affecting both in-house lawyers and private practice. The first event, ‘Wellbeing in Law’ was hosted in April 2022 and discussed the understanding of wellbeing and devising ways of improving and monitoring this to help achieve a positive outcome. The round table discussion outlined three key questions which were:
What can senior lawyers and GCs do to improve their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of their teams?
How do/should lawyers measure 'success' in terms of a career in law?
What, if anything, needs to change in the practice of law?
Some of the responses to these questions included workplaces having:
Setting realistic deadlines;
The introduction to firebreaks - sensible recovery downtime between deals;
Red, amber and green days where staff would be able to acknowledge that some days will be slow, steady or busy (or a mix);
Awareness and introduction of initiatives to support psychological safety;
Time blocks in diaries for no calls and 50-minute calls to ensure breaks;
Introducing these measures could assist in overcoming the burnout Solicitors are facing and increase productivity and success.
Whilst in-house counselling and schemes are fantastic initiatives to support the wellbeing of employees, it is vital to recognise that not everyone feels comfortable speaking to someone internal or responds to the support offer in the same way. If you feel like listening to webinars will not help and you would rather speak about your concerns, then there are other avenues you can explore. For example, LawCare is a free and confidential service for those in the legal profession, including staff and concerned family members. The service is provided over the phone, email or online chat. After launching the Mental Health Awareness Week this year, they have continued to support and call for a change in legal culture.
Tips for solicitors, whether practising or aspiring
Recognise and seek support
Whether through internal mentoring schemes or external support, if you are feeling anxiety, stress or general mental ill health, try and use the resources made available to you or speak up if you feel there is lack of assistance. Taking that first step towards asking for help can definitely feel scary and overwhelming but recognising and listening to yourself that you need help is a voice you should listen to and shows great strength.
If more solicitors talk openly about the challenges faced in the legal profession, this will assist others by giving them an insight on the issues they may face and help navigate them.
Balance: work and social life
As one would know life as a Solicitor can seem daunting so it is important to take time away from your studies/work when you have the chance to strive for a health work and life balance.
For aspiring solicitors, researching firms and their working practices is a great way to figure out what environment you might be in. Try speaking to people who are already in the firm and figure out what the working life entails and what practices they have on mental health.
For practicing solicitors, it is essential to take time away from your desk when you feel overwhelmed and burnt out. Get into regular selfcare habits and if needed, diarise them. These habits can include going for a walk or take a coffee break.
During the pandemic, we felt more isolated than ever before, which was the key issue for many. Within the legal world, the pandemic took away the ability to network and attend work events or law fairs. It is fair to say that aspiring lawyers have had to work harder to build these connections and create professional relationships. Regardless of whether you are working or studying, planning regular catch ups with your manager or friends, will improve your mental health and is a great way to stay connected.
Following the pandemic-induced lockdown and introducing flexible working, the way we work has changed forever but there remains the cemented culture and stigma around mental health within the legal profession.
As stated above, it is clear that law firms and institutions are introducing the relevant measures and initiatives required to tackle mental health. It is still undecided if these measures and initiatives work for everyone or if the firms need to readdress these to ensure an all rounded support system for all staff.
As more conversations surrounding mental health occur in the workplace, more issues can be identified and solved – more systems of support can be established and introduced. The more we talk about mental health, both within the professional setting and in wider society, the easier life will become.
By Puneet Kaur
Senior Solicitor and Notary Public
BA Law (Hons), LLB, Dip LP, NP
Puneet's Linkedin profile can be found here.
Views expressed in guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The Scottish Lawyer.