updated on 11 May 2021
Without great leadership, the conversation on mental health will not progress and much-needed change in the legal profession will not eventuate. Now is the time for action. For something that affects one in four people each year in England, it is astounding that awareness and education on mental health has been so poor.
Across the world, covid-19 has helped shine a spotlight on the importance of mental health and wellbeing, and has manifestly increased awareness and engagement on the topic in the legal profession. There have been numerous panels, podcasts, articles and press releases demonstrating how important this topic is. That said, to effect real change and to turn the statistics on their head, we need to do far more. It will take strong leadership by the senior lawyers of our great profession to keep up the momentum long after covid-19 and the anticipated return to the office.
As Elizabeth Rimmer, the CEO of mental health charity LawCare wrote in Lawyer Health and Wellbeing: how the legal profession is tackling stress and creating resiliency: “The roots of the mental health issues we see in the legal profession today are not solely based on the 24/7 culture, although these are additional factors now – the roots lie in the culture and practice of law. If we want to find solutions to these issues we need to understand what it is about the culture and practice of law that is having a negative impact and look at what we can do differently to better prepare lawyers for life in the law and support good mental health.”
One of the simple ways we can support good mental health in law is by keeping the conversation on mental health and wellbeing going, reducing the stigma, and creating an open culture in our workplaces. The most powerful messages are often those driven by the leaders in our profession. There is a misconception by junior lawyers that the leaders and partners of our organisations are an invincible force who have never been affected by poor mental health. If you reflect on the statistic that one in four will experience poor mental health of some kind each year in England, many of our leaders and partners must have experienced poor mental health of some kind during their careers. This is a powerful message that is not delivered often enough.
I was fortunate to attend a panel early last year comprised of partners of City law firms where mental health and wellbeing in the profession was addressed. I was shocked that 75% of the panel had experienced poor wellbeing or had otherwise experienced burnout during their careers. It should not have shocked me given all the information available on the profession’s poor mental health, but for some reason I had wrongly presumed that these successful leaders before me were invincible. I left the event with the sense that this message needed to be shared. Experiencing poor mental health is not a career limiting step; it affects every level and every corner of the legal profession (whether directly or indirectly). Treating mental health differently to physical health perpetuates the stigma and has silenced members of the profession for too long. If we want to truly change the culture in law, the conversation on mental health needs to be driven by the partners and leaders of the legal profession. In the words of Elizabeth Rimmer (CEO, LawCare): “We need everyone in the legal community speaking up about mental health, sharing their experiences (if they want to) and putting it on the agenda in their workplace.”
Every act of leadership on mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession enables the conversation to continue and will change the current narrative and statistics. We each have a stake in our profession and a responsibility to each other to reshape the profession now and for those practitioners that will follow.
Elizabeth Mason is a committee member of the Junior London Solicitors Litigation Association (JLSLA) and an associate at Reed Smith.