Mental health in a high performing culture: the changing face of law firms

By RedLaw | 10 Oct, 2018

To mark World Mental Health day this week, RedLaw Senior Consultant, Keith Miles, takes a look at the changing face of law firms in respect of supporting and caring for the well being and mental health of their employees.


The 10th October marks World Mental Health Day, an initiative originally set up by the World Federation for Mental Health, the object of which was to hold “a day for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma“.

Equally importantly, this day allowed for law firms, along with companies worldwide to take a step back and look at what they do for the mental well being of their staff, the environment that the firm encourages and the process for sensitively handling this critical issue.

I am old enough to remember times when law firms were at the very forefront of unfeeling, uncaring and, at times, downright brutal working environments. I remember talking to a junior lawyer at a City firm at the very end of his mental tether, on the cusp of giving up the law who was told by a Partner that he hadn’t seen him ‘suffer enough’.

Although we still have a pretty harsh hours regime at many firms and often are just paying lip service to a better ‘work/life’ balance, enormous strides in the right direction have been taken. Many law firms, HR and Partners can take a huge amount of credit for improving the working environment, identifying individuals who need help and then supporting those individuals. Nevertheless there is still work to be done. At the last World Mental Health Day a survey found that nearly 75% of junior lawyers believed their firm could do more to support mental health in the workplace. That is a thoroughly unacceptable figure.

In May this year the Mental Health Foundation conducted one of the largest workplace surveys to identify stress and mental health issues. They found that 74% of UK adults had felt so stressed at some point over the last year that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. That is also a thoroughly unacceptable figure and flags up a real worry in an often high pressure role such as the law.

As Katie Gledhill, Head of HR at Slaughter and May commented; ‘We work in a high performance culture’ (and mental health is) ‘something we cannot afford to ignore’. Slaughter and May along with other firms have trained staff to be Mental Health First Aiders and that is surely the way to picking up signs and dealings earlier.

By no means is mental health just a problem for junior lawyers. In a wonderfully insightful piece for Legal Week in May, John Blain a Freshfields Partner talks about how the pressures of being a lawyer built slowly and very unobserved. He comments; “I’m very comfortable talking about my own experiences. I’ve had some periods of real difficulty, mostly to do with work volume. When my children were young I was working very hard – basically only getting home on a Sunday for lunch – and one day, when I finished and was supposed to go back to the office, I literally couldn’t step out of the door. My body wouldn’t let me go back to the office. I was a senior associate and I was used to being in control, so this was very hard”.

Thankfully, he was supported in the firm and steps put in place to put him back on track. In the past that hasn’t always been the case and, as a recruiter, I have on occasion seen ‘burn out’ with lawyers even leaving the law.

Sometimes we can help and become unofficial Mental Health First Aiders. I recall an NQ turning up at my office having walked out of the firm, unable to cope with the pressures, with an uncaring Partner… they were ready to quit the law. Thankfully there was time and the opportunity to get them back on track and they are now a Partner and Head of Department. Their trainees are amongst the best cared for!

There are two key words in Mental Health Awareness Day and ironically it is the two you wouldn’t expect! The first is ‘day’. Yes, we focus our thoughts on this ‘day’ but this issue needs to be in our minds constantly. Is a colleague not coping? Is there something we can do to help to support?

The other word is ‘awareness’. It isn’t physical, we can’t always see the signs, it is hard to pick up whether this is a problem with a colleague or even ourselves. Amongst the somewhat mawkish quotes and videos that now pop up too often on LinkedIn is a short video of Chester Bennington from band Linkin Park, young and successful and laughing with his children and family. 36 hours later, he killed himself.

Never feel that it may not be affecting people around you. Your friends, your colleagues, people, anywhere. Never feel that you can’t help.