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To: Lawyers, From: Lawyers (Advice on Wellbeing to Mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2019)
13 May 2019
“I have always been told I’m resilient. What if I’m not today? What if I am not? What does resilience mean?”
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. There are plenty of articles available on the internet detailing the state of lawyers’ mental health and the vast progress that must be made to ensure that this is a role that can be sustainable and fulfilling to those who want to do it. Rather than speak in statistics, I set out to canvass the views of a number of truly fantastic lawyers that I know in the hope that I could draw upon their vast collective experience to provide some insight and advice. In order to do this I asked them to contribute anonymously to this blog by providing me with an account of aspects of the job that they struggle with, their methods of coping and creating a work-life balance, and – if they could – an account of the best advice that they’d ever been given by other lawyers about well-being.
This piece comprises of comments, accounts and top tips from lawyers of all types: Associates, newly qualified solicitors, barristers, trainees, and paralegals. Some have been doing this job for many years, some are just starting out. Some do predominantly legal aid work, others do corporate work for very high net worth clients. Some speak of their experiences working from London, others speak from further afield. At all levels there appear to be some common themes and characteristics of what can be so hard about this job at times.
The main themes that I’ve gathered from my informal ‘survey’ are summarised below, with direct quotes from those who I approached who were kind enough to be open and honest about a subject which desperately needs openness and honesty.
Before I begin, some disclaimers:
- Don’t get me wrong, our jobs are fantastic in so many ways and we all wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t think so. Despite all that may seem negative below, speaking personally there are times when my role brings me a satisfaction that I’m quite sure no other job could. However it’s important to be alive to the difficulties in order to build up the strength to keep doing the work that I love.
- Some of the subject matters that my colleagues and I deal with cover really tough and emotionally draining topics – I would be more worried about what it meant for us all if we weren’t impacted by this work from time to time.
- These aren’t necessarily feelings that we have all the time– but in the moments when we do, it’s ok to feel that way.
- Inevitably tips are suggested in an ‘ideal world’ and sometimes they will feel harder to implement than other times – you should probably still really try though. Different things work for different people so it’s worth experimenting.
On external pressure:
“I struggle with the pressure of the import of what every single case means to the client. It’s impossible not to have an ‘off day’ and when it happens it very much affects me mentally. I ruminate over it for some time and kick myself for not saying this, not doing that, etc. […] The client is sitting there watching me speak for her/him and it’s more than just knowing the law. You have to understand what they want, which includes more than just winning”.
On internal pressure:
“My pupillage supervisor once passed on some advice which may have been passed on by his many years ago. It’s intended to address those perfectionist tendencies that most of us have and the inclination to be self-critical after the case has finished: Don’t ever expect to say everything you want to say in court; if you miss one or two points, that’s fine but any more than 3 raises questions as to whether you prepared enough. I’m not sure how specific it is, but I’ve definitely found it helpful”.
On peer pressure:
“I think my predominant cause of stress at this early stage in my career is knowing the steps I need to take to become a success but also the competition that I face in getting there. It’s easy to compare myself to my peers… it’s draining and can be hard to keep motivated”.
On taking your work home with you:
“I try my hardest to have weekends free at least. I tend to work very long hours in the week and I think it is really important to have a completely free weekend (as much as possible). I never stop thinking about my cases though, which I don’t mind so much. I think it’s also important to have completely work free holidays… I would advise all barristers to put ‘I will not be responding until…’ as an out of office – and stick to it”.
On taking your work home with you (emotionally):
“The hardest aspect of representing vulnerable individuals is learning how not to take their pain and struggle home. Not that I’m always successful but I try to relax on the commute to and from work rather than dealing with work emails. Listening to a book on audible helps put work behind me on the way home from work”.
On coping with traumatic material:
“Working with asylum seekers means that I’m constantly dealing with extensive levels of violence. The stories I hear can sometimes trigger my own history of violence. In order to take care, I need to have boundaries around my work hours, ensure I have regular breaks and ensure I have enough support from my team, my friends and family and when needed – a good quality therapist”.
“I always thought that mental health problems were something that ‘other’ people struggled with, but not me. I was a high achiever and had a very nice life so a combination of pride and a sense that I wasn’t entitled to complain was at play in my denial. I had to find out the hard way that we all struggle at some point and after much stress and exhaustion finally realised that in order to do a good job for others you have to do a good job for yourself first. Be kind to yourself. In your moments of stress don’t kick yourself whilst you’re down. Lean on your support system because that’s what it’s there for”.
On making mistakes:
“As a junior lawyer working in legal aid where resources are scarce but demand is high, there is the added anxiety of learning everything for the first time but having a significant level of responsibility and trying not to make loads of mistakes along the way… I am constantly afraid of making mistakes, which is silly because that’s how we learn. The important thing is to be able to deal with mistakes in a rational way and learn from them… I am fortunate to have another trainee working with me who started at the same time and whom I can go to for support and vice versa. Sometimes it may feel daunting to approach a senior colleague for wellbeing advice and support so having a peer at a similar stage to you is vital. But at the same time I think it’s important to have good working relationships with your superiors so that you can go to them if you have a problem”.
On taking care of yourself:
“I came to the bar already having long-term mental health problems. What helps for me is to practice radical kindness, which to me means to not compare myself to the idea of what a barrister needs to be like. If I need to rest, if I need to take an extra day in a week to compose myself and get myself together, I listen to this and try not to bring myself down about it. I tell myself that it is worth it to take care of myself, to be the best version of myself for my clients and that it is necessary to enable me to be at the bar long-term”.
On learning when to stop:
“I think I’ve come to learn that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, the sign of a good lawyer is knowing when the day should end. We could work continuously, there is always work to do. But it takes time, skill and experience to say – actually this can wait until tomorrow or next week. My day can end. It’s something a lot of lawyers really struggle with I think and it’s not something you’re taught at Law School”.
A selection of tried and tested wellbeing tips provided by the lawyers that I approached:
- Eat well: it’s worth the effort to prepare yourself healthy meals
- Sleep well: even if this means taking an afternoon nap after a late night working, or setting a deadline for when you will stop working in the evening.
- Exercise: even if you feel drained it can be energising and gives your mind a break
- Take a lunch break where possible: even if amounts to no more than a walk around the block
- Speak to your friends and family about stressful situations
- Have a to-do diary where you pick three necessary tasks for the day and physically cross them off when you finish. (It apparently gives you more of a morale boost to actually cross off a task from a physical page). In that same journal, from the back, write down three things from the day which gave you a sense of happiness and satisfaction.
- Learn to say no: you don’t have to volunteer for everything that comes your way
- Keep all positive comments that you get from solicitors or clients and read them in moments of self-doubt.
- Carry snacks with you to court in case you get caught out in terms of your schedule
- Never return to work the day after your holiday – it will negate it all
- Use your own judgement about what is the most urgent and important task to do
- Relax on your commute to and from work rather than dealing with work emails
- Ask for help when you need it
- Make use of available resources (e.g. The Criminal Bar Association wellbeing services, a number of apps provide meditation and mindfulness sessions etc.)
So there you have it: wellbeing advice to lawyers, from lawyers. When I first set out to do this, what struck me the most was the high number of people who replied to tell me that they would be happy to provide anonymous details of their struggles, but felt slightly at a loss to suggest any solutions or practices that might help. It feels important for me to highlight this as a firm reminder that there is much work to be done in creating a long-term increase in wellbeing. I did however include it for another reason, in the hope that it comforts people who might feel stressed or overwhelmed to know that they are not alone in still looking for ways to improve their situations. This is a difficult job, wherever you sit in terms of seniority and whatever area of the law that you work in. Don’t be disheartened. There are so many perks, so much to be passionate about and great opportunities to meet amazing people (such as the ones quoted above!). Make sure you allow yourself to enjoy all of that by prioritising your mental wellbeing.
(With thanks to the wonderful lawyers who took time out of their busy schedules to talk to me about this!)Back to News