Why Talking About Mental Health in the Legal Profession is More Important than Ever. By: Jade Felber
I am a future trainee at one of the largest law firms in the world, Clifford Chance, whose headquarters are in London. Writing this from the UK, much of the terminology that I use refers to the path to becoming a lawyer that is followed here. However, the content is relevant to lawyers practising in any jurisdiction. For any readers outside the UK, law students (and non-law students, as there is a ‘conversion’ route in the UK) wishing to become solicitors apply to corporate law firms for a two-year training period (their ‘training contract’), with the hope of being kept on at the firm as a newly-qualified solicitor afterwards. The process for barristers (advocates) is slightly different. The information generation has led to an upsurge in legal blogs on Instagram. Never before have there been so many resources on how to gain the holy grail piece of paper that gets law students more excited than teens at a Taylor Swift concert: a training contract. Legal bloggers have aptly learnt how to capitalise on this excitable audience, offering advice pieces based on the current buzzwords that fly around graduate recruitment material: ‘top tips on commercial awareness’; ‘how to impress at interview’; ‘how to research law firms’; and ‘how to answer the “why law?” question’ are amongst the most common of these. The information provided is useful. Or at least, better than no information at all. But as much as I love scrolling through my newsfeed to find top tips on how to perfectly colour code, highlight and alphabetise my legal study notes, and where to buy the cutest outfits for my legal internship (#ad #Ineedtomonetisetopayforlawschool), there is far more important information that needs to be imparted to young aspiring lawyers for success; not only during the application stage, but also for the longevity of their careers. Getting a training contract is only half of the story. Working in potentially one of the most stressful professions in existence comes with the need to understand yourself. Your mental health. The way that you operate and think. Your cognitive ability. Why you are so triggered when you receive criticism. Why you procrastinate and leave all your work until the last minute (spoiler alert: it’s not because you’re lazy, but because there are far deeper things going on there). Your strengths. Your limitations. Why you do what you do. This is true regardless of whether you have a pre-existing mental illness or not, and doing so may prevent one from being triggered in the future. Before I delve deeper, though, I want to dispel a (rather annoying) misconception that people with mental illness cannot cope under pressure. Whilst heavy amounts of pressure can exacerbate its symptoms, it does not CAUSE the issue. And, ironically, people with mental illness are often the best at working under pressure. A side effect of my mental illness was insomnia. I sat most of my final university exams on less than 2 hours’ sleep. And got some of the best grades in the entire student cohort. Sleep deprivation can be common as a young lawyer. No problemo – been there, done that. Sometimes, before I had learnt to manage my illnesses properly, the symptoms were extremely time-consuming. I had to learn to balance a full-time job, with my final-year exams at one of the best universities in England, with symptoms of my mental illnesses. Time management? No problem. I digress, but it is relevant to what I am about to discuss. Having been diagnosed with anxiety and depression at the age of 14, triggered by the death of my grandfather, I have had more than my fair share of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). I am now 26, meaning that I have had these illnesses to varying degrees of severity for 12 years. In that time, I have achieved top grades in the country at all levels of my educational journey, have attended a prestigious UK university, have been President of several societies at university, have (somehow) maintained a wonderful personal and social life, lived abroad alone in China and Spain, speak fluent Chinese and Spanish, have written two books, have pitched to CEOs of major international banks, gave talks on financial crime for a major financial institution, and all while going through some pretty awful personal circumstances and having two illnesses that apparently make me ‘weak’ and ‘vulnerable’. I am not writing this as some kind of conceited, self-congratulatory list of accolades. I am listing them to demonstrate what people can achieve despite of, (or in my case, with the help of, due to the unique way in which my illnesses help me to think and solve problems) their mental illness. In many ways, I am grateful for my diagnoses, as the therapy that I have received for them has greatly improved me as a human being in general. It has made me far more self-aware and high- functioning. Similarly, the adversity that I have faced has made me excellent at problem-solving (and 21st-century clients need diverse lawyers with diverse ways of thinking). Learning the intricacies of why I do what I do, why I think the way that I do, and how to overcome negative thought patterns, has helped me substantially in both my work and personal relationships. Take mindfulness, for example. Just one of the several skills I have in my CBT toolkit. It is a commonly-used psychological therapy for mental illness as it teaches you to live in the present moment. Those suffering from depression are often stuck in a repetitive loop that focuses on traumas or memories from the past. Those with anxiety are often living in the future, worrying about uncontrollable events that may or may not materialise. But mindfulness is not only helpful to those with mental illness. Being able to control your mind (the thing that’s, I dunno, kind of important as a lawyer) is extremely powerful. Being able to focus, with tunnel vision, on the task at hand, to be perfectly present, and to filter out all past/future thoughts, is powerful when you have a long to-do-list and demanding clients with tight deadlines. Being present in a client meeting, rather than letting your mind wander to the next task that you have to do in an hour, means that you are demonstrating active listening skills to your client, are more attentive, and remember more of what they ask of you. Meaning that you retain said client. Even in your personal life mindfulness is beneficial: you were present and mindful of your surroundings when you took the love interest that you’re trying to impress to Paris, meaning that you didn’t end up getting lost and having to ask for directions in your embarrassing French. Rather than eating in front of the TV, you mindfully eat your food, and notice its taste and texture. You notice when you feel full, meaning that you don’t overeat and are healthier as a result. I could go on with the list of benefits, but your mind has probably already stopped being present and has wandered to future thoughts of what you’re going to have for dinner, or when the torture of reading this article will end. So I shall continue. Forget learning replicable and generic tips about how to nail that interview, or how to network. Instead, learn the most powerful skill of all: to have control over your brain. Because once you do, you will have everything you need to succeed at interviews and as a lawyer. There is no point having a toolkit if the inherent tools within it are broken. No-one focuses on ensuring that the very tool that they use to go to these interviews, and to do their job, is in top condition and that they have understood how to get the best out of it.
I always did well at the interview stage of the application process. Why? Because the person interviewing me found it pleasantly refreshing to have someone in front of them who was not putting on a façade. They were not pretending to be anything other than what they were. In the legal profession, which is a profession centred around networking and human interaction, being humble and authentic is highly valued. Being a pretentious robot, is not. A better understanding of yourself, and of the way that you think and operate, means that much of the information provided by legal bloggers becomes redundant. If you truly understand what makes you tick, and the way that you think, you wouldn’t need to read information on ‘how to research law firms’. The types of law firms that are best suited to you, and that would appreciate your skill set, would become obvious, and researching them would be an organic process as a result.
Equally, if you have introspected to the point of a genuine level of self-awareness, then interviews become far easier. You can go to an interview, give a generic, robot template answer on ‘what your strengths are’ as per the guidance of [insert generic law blog Instagram handle here @LawwithLouise], which is the same answer that Bill being interviewed in the room next to you gives, or you can sit and invest time in learning more about your brain and cognition and answer with an authentic answer. Meaning that the law firm that is receptive to your authentic answer is one that is well-matched to you. When you are authentically you, you find a law firm that equally values you for you. And vice versa. You both swipe right, and it’s a match made in law-firm heaven. For some, introspection is a scary prospect as it can mean examining your demons as well as your strengths. It is at this point that people tend to push their demons to the back of the closet and hope that they never resurface, out of the fear of what they will uncover or uproot. But re-patterning negative cognitive processes (whether you have a mental illness or not), inherent from childhood, is a necessary element of becoming a successful lawyer and of preventing some form of burnout later down the line. When you are triggered by the criticism of a colleague, or you undermine a colleague that is more successful than you in front of others to feel better about yourself, or you are the office “yes man” because you find it hard to say no to taking on tasks from your colleagues, that is because something much deeper, rooted in childhood or past experiences, is present. Those who have addressed those issues are much nicer colleagues, and much better lawyers as a result. I am not suggesting that everyone runs to their nearest psychiatrist and enlists themselves for a year’s worth of CBT (#ad). But more self-awareness, and awareness of others, is beneficial both to your personal and work relationships, and to the law firm’s bottom line. Other than being encouraged to learn more about their own mental health, lawyers, and HR, should encourage others to talk openly about theirs within the firm. Statistics are thrown around about how much mental illness costs businesses. In the UK, it is around £50bn each year.
AND WHY IS THAT?
Unlike cancer, or the flu, or bronchitis, where the sufferer does not fear talking about their illness, and subsequently seeks medical attention, gets better with minimal absence from work and thus, minimal cost to the firm, in a competitive environment, lawyers are too afraid to talk about their mental illness. Like any other illness, mental illnesses (or rather, brain illnesses) are treatable and manageable. I’m here writing this blog post, and whilst my straitjacket is getting somewhat uncomfortable, I’m fine. I’ve only rocked backwards and forwards in the corner of the room twice today. In all seriousness, though, if any illness is not treated, it gets worse. So if a lawyer is not encouraged to be open and honest about their mental illness, they will suppress it, and it will get worse until they have a mental breakdown and are absent from work for months. Costing the firm a lot of money. Just like giving a cigarette to a colleague with lung cancer would exacerbate the symptoms of their illness, impliedly (implied by a competitive culture within a firm) forcing a colleague to suppress talking about their mental illness exacerbates the symptoms of the illness itself. What would have saved the firm money and reduced the abovementioned statistic? If the lawyer had entered a firm which has an environment that encourages its employees to declare their mental illness and to talk openly about it. With knowledge of this illness from the outset of the lawyer’s career, the firm can put in place support mechanisms to manage that illness (and to maximise their skill set and their working style), at a far lower cost to the firm than the aforementioned scenario. It’s as simple as that.
Open the dialogue on mental health, and you end up with happier lawyers, and a more supportive and collegiate environment. Most importantly, because I read @xoxoBarristerBettyxoxo’s blog on ‘commercial awareness’, the firm’s all-important bottom line comes off unscathed. DONE. So in a bid to help this cause, I founded Law in Mind, (another) legal blog on Instagram (@lawinmindadvocates). It provides helpful tips based on the psychotherapy that I received (it can take months to get past the mental health treatment waitlist in the UK, so if I can pass on any information that I learnt having already received it, then I am more than happy to do so) that anyone, with or without a mental illness, can apply to their work and personal life; first-hand accounts from both lawyers and non-lawyers on their experience of certain mental illnesses, with the aim of dispelling any misconceptions surrounding those illnesses; and information on how to hone your mental health to perform at your best at both the application and interview stage of applying to a law firm. Whilst I was being facetious about the straitjacket, the current perceptions on mental illness are remarkably Victorian. We have come very far from a society where homosexuality was a criminal offence, and where ethnic minorities were unheard of in law firms. So let’s do the same now with mental health. Sweeping the problem under the carpet does not magically eliminate it. On the contrary, it leads to statistics such as those mentioned above. Addressing it benefits both the individual and the firm. 1 in 4 people will at some point be affected by mental ill-health. Just because you are not suffering now, that does not mean that you will not in the future. Or that you will not have someone in your life that is. Once we remember that this is a discussion on ‘brain’ health and not ‘mental’ health, it removes the separation between ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ illness. The brain is an organ, like any other. It is treatable and, as I have mentioned, the positive ‘side-effects’ of brain illnesses can actually manifest traits that are really very useful to a career as a lawyer. The pressures of a legal career, compounded by the growth in mental illness due to the effects of Covid-19 and the social-media induced pressures of 21st-century life mean that law students, and lawyers, should be redirecting their attention towards an increased awareness of their own mental health, and that of their peers. Given its prevalence in the legal profession, firms should be creating an environment that encourages openness towards mental illness, not only for the benefit of their bottom line, but also for the benefit of their employees. There has never been a more important time to open the dialogue on mental health in the legal profession than now.