Mental health and wellbeing among disputes lawyers—views from London International Disputes Week 2021

Mental health and wellbeing among disputes lawyers—views from London International Disputes Week 2021

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:

  • why they are DR lawyers and what brought them into the profession, and
  • what would they be if they were not a lawyer?

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.

  • many highlighted the constant variety. They appreciated the fact that their job keeps them on their toes and is never dull
  • others also appreciated the fact that you feel as though you are making a change
  • Mulcahy highlighted the requirement to use specific skills, such as logic, analytical thinking and communication

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.

 

What are the challenges of a career as a disputes lawyer?

 

Easdon highlighted three key challenges he faces as in-house counsel:

  • the absence of a buffer between the lawyer and the business. The matters he is dealing with will impact the business, in a greater or smaller fashion. Usually, when he is brought in to engage on matters, it is because something has gone wrong, which in itself creates tensions that he must be sensitive to
  • the inherent uncertainty of litigation—things do go wrong in litigation and when they do it falls to the lawyer to explain that to the business. Operating across various regions can exacerbate this challenge, as certain legal systems may be less predictable than others
  • the ‘always on’ culture—Easdon has seen an increasing expectation that lawyers are available 24/7. With the boundaries between work and home becoming more blurred this is becoming even more prominent, with a transition from ‘working from home’ to ‘living at work’

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.

 

Top tips for managing your own and your colleagues’ mental health

 

  • Easdon highlighted that ‘it is not rocket science’ to be respectful and considerate in communications (and at all other times) but that people should be mindful of doing so. This can be done in various ways, considering:
    • how you are communicating with people,
    • when you are doing so and
    • whether you are clear in what is expected of them
  • Easdon also felt that in-house counsel should be proactive in engaging with external stakeholders to understand each party’s expectations
  • Haberman felt that the importance of project-management is underrated by lawyers and should be implemented more in order to set achievable objectives and manage expectations
  • Mulcahy stressed that building a support network, at any level in the profession, was vital to helping manage difficulties
  • She also felt that it is important to set your own boundaries, as no one will set them for you. This will help sustain your resilience in the long term
  • Byrska reminded listeners never to resort to personal attacks no matter how trying the case may be. This will not achieve anything tactically, as judges will not look kindly upon these. Nor will they help you professionally, as the world of litigation is not large

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:

  • implementing a policy of delayed sending during weekends
  • building in gaps during the day, such as reducing meeting length (if possible) to 45 minutes instead of one hour

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:

  • Solicitors Assistance Scheme – free confidential help and advice for all solicitors in England and Wales, their families and employees, on any problem, whether personal or professional
  • Solicitors Benevolent Association (SBA) – help for solicitors in serious financial need because of illness, accident, redundancy or other adversity (020 8675 6440)
  • LawCare – supports and promotes good mental health and wellbeing in the legal community, provides resources and a confidential helpline (0800 279 6888)
  • Mind – mental health charity
  • Health and Safety Executive – guidelines for managing stress at work

 

 

Note: this is a summary of the discussion and does not purport to be a full account of the event.

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About the author:
Gloria is a Paralegal in the Lexis®PSL Paralegal Hub. She graduated in International Law and Globalisation from the University of Birmingham in 2019 and has been at LexisNexis UK since March 2020. She has experience working for US, UK and Italian law firms on a range of matters, including IP, financial services and immigration law.