Dec 10, 2018

Written By Becky Kells, Editor, AllAboutLaw

Lawyers, fit your own oxygen masks first

Dec 10, 2018

Written By Becky Kells, Editor, AllAboutLaw

The legal profession can be emotionally taxing, which can exacerbate existing mental-health conditions in lawyers, as well as provoking work-related episodes of poor mental health. The Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce met in May to discuss how lawyers can develop emotional competence—to be good at their jobs, but more importantly, to maintain their own mental health.

“It’s really easy to cross-examine someone if you’ve shrunk them,” said James Pereira QC. The prominent environmental law silk was reflecting on a time when he was faced with an intimidating presence in the courtroom. His response, he recalled, was to put the man in a box in his mind, then shrink him down to a smaller size.

In a profession where an unflappable presence is a respected skill, Pereira’s honesty about his own nerves is refreshing. He was speaking as chair of a roundtable discussion between members of the Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce, held on May 10 this year. The rest of the discussion took a similar tone: legal professionals and educators talking about the need for honesty about mental health. Lawyers suffering from mental-health disorders isn’t new, but being honest and open about it, and seeking help, is. This is being spearheaded by awareness campaigns. Research by Wellbeing at the Bar shows that 59% of barristers demonstrate unhealthy levels of perfectionism, and one in three finds it difficult to control or stop worrying. LawCare, which has a mental-health helpline for professionals across the legal sector, said that 27% of people who called in 2017 did so regarding stress, 17% called with depression and 13% called in relation to career development. 

Mental health is an issue that’s evidently affecting younger lawyers: 45% of those who called LawCare in 2017 were juniors. With this in mind, it makes sense that mental-health initiatives should be in place before junior lawyers enter the world of work, at university or as part of training. Professor Rachael Field from Bond University, Melbourne, said law schools had “an ethical imperative to prepare graduates for the real world of work” and urged them to “use the curriculum to catch everyone”. Noel Inge, managing director of CILEx Law School, stressed that not all lawyers go to university, and we need to reach those who enter law through a different route.


It has become a cliché that everyone needs to talk about mental health, with little guidance or explanation of how best to go about these discussions. Mental health is an incredibly broad term in itself: it covers long-term disabilities and disorders, chronic issues with stress, anxiety and depression, workplace bullying, bereavement, addiction and substance abuse, to name just a few. When we consider how many mental-health conditions exist, and how many lawyers are encountering them, it becomes clear that talking broadly about mental health is just a starting point.

However, within the boundaries of the legal profession, it becomes easier to spot patterns, identify career-specific issues and come up with practical solutions. The Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce looked at the idea of “emotional competency” or “emotional intelligence” within the legal profession. It examined the need for lawyers to be aware of mental health as a factor when dealing with clients and internal staff alike, and looked into the importance of supporting good mental health in legal professionals. 

“Emotional competency is similar to emotional intelligence,” said Emma Jones, an Open University academic and fellow of the Inner Temple. Jones explained that emotional competency draws on a huge body, in which “emotion and cognition are intertwined”. She was critical of the fact that “thinking like a lawyer” has too often meant suppressing emotion, when in fact lawyers should acknowledge and utilise it.

At the student level

In the US, a 2016 study revealed that 42% of law students believed they might need some sort of mental-health treatment—be it for depression, anxiety or alcohol abuse—but only half this group went on to receive help in the form of counselling or other treatment. Back in the UK, with a mental-health crisis acknowledged at universities, it would seem that law students face a similar struggle.

First and foremost, a mental-health condition is a medical issue, which requires consultation with a doctor and to be treated accordingly. But to bolster this, there’s a lot that needs to be done at the university stage to promote good mental health, rather than hindering it. Noel Inge, managing director of CILEx Law School, drew attention to the fact that many student lawyers are training in increasingly marketised universities, and will qualify into a profession that’s similarly profit-driven. This only adds pressure to the students in these systems. “How competitive a society do we want?” asks Inge rhetorically.

With this in mind, one way in which emotional competency can and should be applied is through the curriculum. Currently, just 6% of teaching staff have mental-health-awareness training. While there’s a lot of research into the ill-effects of mental health in the legal profession, this needs to be turned into an action plan to give to professionals, should they encounter a student who’s struggling. Caroline Strevens, head of the University of Portsmouth Law School, emphasised that there are tools in place for students dealing with mental-health issues—counselling, mentoring and personal tutors—but a common problem that arises is that students don’t know why they are suffering from a mental-health condition. Strevens was also concerned that many students were separating emotion from their law career. 

In Australia, the process of integrating mental health into the law-school curriculum has already begun. By doing this, students are able to see the connection between elements of law—such as dispute resolution, ethics cases and communication style— and their own emotional wellbeing. “Law students need to see that what they’re doing is relevant to becoming a lawyer,” says Professor Rachael Field of Bond University, Melbourne. Pro bono was also highlighted as a great way to practice emotional competency, with many universities having law clinics and related projects to give students emotional responsibility. With real outcomes that aren’t always desired, they provide a great way to help students come to terms with rejection and failure, giving them the chance to face such things at a time when they have an active mentor. 

Understanding at which points lawyers will require emotional competency in their careers—such as handling rejections, losing a case, communicating in difficult or sensitive ways, or working on ethically challenging matters—will better equip students for the future. The same issues that require emotional competency are those that could also present environmental challenges to lawyers’ mental health: having adequate training and education at the university stage could make dealing with such issues easier further down the line, helping lawyers professionally and personally.

Beyond university

The stereotypical lawyer is someone akin to Harvey Spector of Suits: a person who works long hours, makes countless personal sacrifices and somehow remains emotionally detached from every ethical dilemma or earth-shaking case that comes his way. It’s not an image that matches up to reality—at least when these hardworking, emotionally detached lawyers finally go home. “You’re entering a hierarchical organisation—people don’t open up,” says Kayleigh Leonie, who represents the concerns of NQ students from years 0-5 within the Law Society. “Trainees are afraid to admit they’re struggling.” 

It’s not a problem unique to solicitors either. Rachel Spearing, chair of Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group, said that students on pupillage must navigate a similar culture shock, dealing with “the competitive nature of law from day one, plus the costs, plus any unrealistic expectations”.

For lawyers entering either profession for the first time, there’s not one single solution that fixes the culture shock—and possible mental strain. Firstly, mental health must be separated from the idea of weakness. Secondly, solutions for any lawyer who is struggling need to be more visible within firms or chambers. Kayleigh Leonie says that law firms must foster an “open and honest” culture that encourages all employees to speak about their mental health. “One way to achieve this is by showcasing senior employees who have experienced periods of mental ill health and ask them to share their stories. This gives a positive message internally that the law firm is supportive, which can help to break the stigma associated with mental ill-health.” 

Mental-health first-aiders (MHFAs) can also be a positive feature in a law firm, so long as they are used correctly; they should not be difficult to access, or someone who isn’t visible within the firm. “MHFAs of different levels of seniority should help young employees feel like they have somebody to talk to,” says Kayleigh. In addition, the panel spoke about the benefit of wellbeing mentors and champions. Less intrusive and less formal than mental health first aiders, it could be that such people are easier to approach than a first aider. Ultimately, the panel agreed that firms should have a variety of options, as mental-health issues take many forms.

Emotional competency in the working world

Having a better understanding of the emotions that affect the legal profession will lead to better practice: not only will lawyers themselves be happier and healthier, they will be better equipped to guide clients through stressful and emotional processes. Caroline Strevens stressed that, if lawyers look after themselves, they will be able to provide better client service.

Ultimately, better education and understanding of difficult emotional issues, coupled with a legal sector more accepting of emotions, will lead to more sensitive and attuned client service.

However, for lawyers or junior lawyers seeking to become emotionally competent, this shouldn’t be a process primarily to serve clients. Caroline made reference to a popular airline phrase: “Fit your own oxygen mask before helping others.” No lawyer should prioritise a client’s mental wellbeing at the expense of their own. The primary benefit to being an emotionally competent lawyer is the personal health and peace of mind it brings.

LawCare: what is it?
LawCare provides support and information to legal professionals on all things related to mental health. In addition, it runs several campaigns to raise awareness and tackle the stigma surrounding mental health.

Who does it help?
LawCare helps all branches of the legal profession: solicitors, barristers, barrister’s clerks, judges, chartered legal executives, paralegals, trademark attorneys, patent agents, costs lawyers and their staff and families. LawCare says, “Our support spans the legal life from a student to training to practice and retirement.”

The LawCare helpline is 0800 279 6888. It is a confidential and free service, open Monday–Friday 9am–7.30pm, weekends & bank holidays 10am–4pm. If you need to speak to someone urgently outside of helpline hours, call the Samaritans on 116 123.


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