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The final core conference session of London International Disputes Week 2021 (LIDW21) focused on an underemphasised but extremely topical issue, particularly during Mental Health Awareness Week. Although the statistics cited on the impact of the legal profession on lawyers’ wellbeing were troubling, the panel filled listeners with optimism, highlighting the reasons why they love the profession, and the hope and anticipation that attention to mental health is growing.
The session was chaired by Ed Crosse, Partner, Simmons and Simmons. The panellists were Chris Easdon, EME Head of Litigation, Investigations & Enforcement - Consumer Banking and Payments at Barclays; Martin Dittmer, Partner, Gorrisen Federspiel; Leigh-Ann Mulcahy QC, Barrister at Fountain Court and Deputy High Court Judge; Monika Byrska, Partner, Thomson Snell Passmore; Philip Haberman, Senior Partner, Blackrock.
Crosse introduced the session, which was, in his words, targeted particularly at ‘hard-nosed’ litigators. He reflected that it is rare to hear a litigator say they are struggling to cope, albeit results from industry research and surveys, such as the one taken by the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division, indicate that lawyers are struggling. Indeed, the survey’s results are extremely worrying, with 58% of junior lawyers having considered taking time off work for mental health reasons, but not doing so, and 14% of junior lawyers reporting suicidal thoughts.
This survey, and others like it, indicate that mental health is an important topic, and that the legal profession must do more to address it.
The conversation shifted to a more positive note, with Crosse asking the other panellists:
All the panellists expressed their love for the profession, with a vast assortment of reasons being given for why they are there and what keeps them in the profession.
In terms of what they be if they were not lawyers, we heard our panellists consider alternative careers as rock stars or dancers.
Mulcahy considered the question, and stated that, if she could, she would do it all again—a gratifying comment, making the author (a prospective lawyer) quash any growing inklings that she should leave her role to pursue a career as a rock star.
Having discussed the highlights, our panellists moved on to the difficulties they face as disputes lawyers.
Easdon highlighted three key challenges he faces as in-house counsel:
As a contentious probate lawyer, Bryska deals with highly emotional personal matters. She highlighted the constant dichotomy between clients, who expect to ‘quite literally, fight their case’ and the need to be a ‘detached DR practitioner’. She spoke of the difficulty in striking the correct balance between empathy and detachment when interacting with people at the most trying times of their lives—something no legal training ever prepared her for.
Mulcahy told listeners that she steered away from family law for this very reason, as she felt it could be difficult to detach from these areas. However, she stressed that even in commercial disputes, emotion and humanity is present.
Furthermore, when you don’t get the result you want in a situation in which you are invested in, Mulcahy stressed that litigators must do their job, even though the situation is emotionally taxing. They should prepare their clients for this opportunity and explore other settlement options.
Haberman gave listeners his view as an Accounting & Valuation Expert, who has been cross-examined over 60 times. He told listeners that he has found the most stressful situations to be ones where he felt under attack as an individual, although the first time this happened it was extremely difficult to deal with, he now understands this and has implemented mechanisms deal with it.
He also commented that lawyers, who are renowned for being perfectionists, may keep second-guessing themselves, resulting in a lack of self-confidence.
Dittmer felt that it is not necessarily long hours which cause stress and make the job challenging, it is more the working environment. For example, a lack of tolerance for mistakes can trigger stress and mental ill health.
Throughout the session, various top tips emerged from our panellists on how to manage the stresses of such a challenging career.
Many of our panellists reflected on Easdon’s point on communication, with Mulcahy issuing a plea to those instructing the bar to be considerate in their requests, particularly as, with judges, the power imbalance is such that consideration of personal needs must go ‘from the bench to the bar rather than the other way around’.
Crosse also recognised the importance of not communicating in people’s downtime and highlighted examples of best practice in considerate communication. For example, litigators could consider:
Easdon noted that the issue is that historically, levels of responsiveness have made firms more competitive. However, in my view, perhaps client attention may shift more towards the firm’s care for their employees, as well as their clients.
The session, which started with grim statistics, concluded with a positive outlook for the future. In his closing remarks, Haberman stated it was ‘comforting to see that wellbeing is so high on the agenda’, warranting a spot as the final core session of a week packed full of debate among DR professionals. Indeed, the session itself represented a testament to the ‘strength and ethos’ of the international DR community.
If you are struggling to cope, consider reaching out for help:
Note: this is a summary of the discussion and does not purport to be a full account of the event.
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