Beyond attrition: Is winning at all costs consistent with the wellbeing and mental health of your team?

Published on: 14/05/2021

The final core panel session of London International Disputes Week was a thoughtful discussion about mental health in the legal profession.

Thursday afternoon’s final session examined the wellbeing and mental health challenges faced by those involved in the litigation process, from clients, to law firms, and from counsel to the bench.

Controversially, the panel was framed in terms of how lawyers engage with opposing counsel: Do we really need to send a 15 page letter on a Friday evening? Should any regard be had to personal commitments when requiring a brief to be prepared “by Monday morning”?

Timed as it was to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, it took a look at how all stakeholders could help reduce the pressures of those working at all levels in the legal profession.

Many of the underlying themes of the pressures of lockdown had been touched on in other sessions; but this was, rightly, a session which placed mental health issues to the fore.

In his introduction, the session’s moderator, Ed Crosse, of Simmons and Simmons, highlighted a recent survey by the London Solicitors’ Litigation Association, of which he is past president, which found that 95% of respondents felt the legal community needed to do more to promote the importance of good mental health.

Crosse began the discussion by asking Barclay’s Chris Easdon about the specific tensions in-house lawyers face, particularly when there are personal implications for those involved. More broadly, Easdon also warned against the re-emergence of the ‘always-on’ culture.

“I’ve seen, over the last year in particular, an increasing expectation that lawyers will be available 24/7,” he said. “Slowly over the last year, boundaries between work and home have become more and more blurred.”

As well as pressures exacerbated by the pandemic, the panel discussed the impact particular practice areas can have on an individual’s mental wellbeing.  The diversity of practice areas the speakers represented made it relevant to a broad audience, and their thoughts were carefully pitched.

Monika Byrska, who advises on contentious trust and probate matters at Thomson Snell Passmore, reflected on the challenge of dealing with highly emotional clients while also maintaining a necessary level of professional detachment.

“Bereavement gets people to express the most beautiful emotions,” Byrska said, “but at the same time the worst, and because of the profession I am in I see only the worst.”

The panel also considered the experiences of others involved in the litigation process. Philip Haberman, of Blackrock, spoke from the perspective of a forensic expert, explaining how he deals with the stress of being cross-examined, particularly when the attacks become personal.

He said: “My secret is to recognise that all the real work has been done much earlier. By the time it comes to trial and being cross-examined, my job is just to not get it wrong.”

For judges and barristers alike, heavy and unpredictable workloads can be a key contributor to stress. Leigh-Ann Mulcahy QC, of Fountain Court Chambers, noted that the inherent power imbalances and the hierarchical nature of the legal professions can prevent junior lawyers from speaking out, but she urged them to set their own boundaries where possible.

Having worked on the FCA Test Case litigation, Mulcahy had direct experience of managing teams and deadlines, against multiple counsels, and her insights were informed by having led teams of junior barristers and solicitors during lockdown, while adding an advocate’s insight.

Offering a perspective from beyond the UK, Martin Dittmer, of Danish law firm, Gorrison Federspiel, emphasised the crucial role a positive working environment can play in reducing stress, adding that it was important that the topic of mental health remained at the forefront of the debate beyond the panel’s discussion.

Towards the end of the session, the panel looked at steps that could be taken to help mitigate the pressure and stress. Easdon explained the importance of the Mindful Business Charter and the slow but steady progress being made in companies which had signed up.

In her closing remarks, Byrska summed up the panel’s key tips – be respectful, don’t assume, and speak up if you are struggling.

 

With assistance from Lauren Woodhead