This is a stressful time for trainees qualifying in the autumn as they jostle for NQ places either in their own firm or at a new one. It comes at a time when mental health in law is high on the agenda. In this blog, we look at the current state of mental health in the profession and what steps trainees can take to control the stress of finding their first role post qualification.
As part of last week’s Mental Health Awareness Week, Gowling WLG brought four dogs into its London office to help destress its staff. Apparently, it has been proved that petting animals can reduce anxiety.
We have no idea of the impact of Gowling’s initiative but one person who commented on the story in Legal Cheek was unconvinced: “So they’re trying to remedy a structural and systematic mental health epidemic in the legal profession with… a dog?”
Beneath the sarcasm, this comment raises some valid points. Is it fair to suggest that there is a crisis surrounding mental health in the legal profession?
Legal mental health charity LawCare believes so. It is setting up a new confidential online messenger service offering support to legal professionals. “More and more people in the legal community are reaching out to us for support every year so it is vital we expand our support service,” says CEO Elizabeth Rimmer. Last year, LawCare’s helpline received its highest ever number of calls.
The situation is especially acute for trainees and junior lawyers, the primary target of LawCare’s new service. A survey last year by the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division revealed that 39% of trainees reported suffering from mental health problems. More than 80% said they thought their employer could do more to provide help, guidance and support. (We doubt the opportunity to stroke a Labrador was high on their wish list.)
Yet, this comes at a time when firms say they are doing more than ever before to promote wellness and mental health. Nine firms recently signed up to the Mindful Business Charter, among them Freshfields, Ashurst and Hogan Lovells. The charter aims to promote a culture of “openness and mental wellbeing”.
Firms are increasingly conscious of their workplace culture, too. Earlier this month, Gowling WLG was recognised as one of the top ten best places to work in the UK by UK Best Workplaces. And legal website Roll on Friday recently posted its list of top firms for work/life balance, with Bristows and Mills & Reeve taking joint first place. One junior lawyer at Bristows said the firm “respected employees getting out of the office to meet life plans”.
Clearly, many firms are taking wellbeing seriously, although there needs to be a healthy dose of scepticism between what they say they do and what they actually do. At the end of last year, Legal Cheek ran an article about an unnamed top City firm that asked its trainees to pull an all-nighter days after publicly promising to support the mental wellbeing of its lawyers. A leaked email from one of the partners said trainees who declined to help would need to “provide evidence of their inability to help”.
A knee-jerk reaction when reading this type of story is to lay all the blame on firms for the stress suffered by their lawyers. But is this fair? In an article in The Lawyer, coaches Zita Tulyahikayo and James Pereira QC make the point that “part of the responsibility of an individual is to take care of themselves. You buy the appropriate clothes to do your job, and it follows that you do what is necessary to be fit for purpose. This is not to deny the role of employers in supporting wellbeing. It is simply to point out that the individual must also take some responsibility for themselves.”
They go on to say that “stress is not a mental health issue if one knows how to manage stress well. Most do not. What they have is a compromised ability to perform well, which is a wellbeing issue.”
So, what steps can trainees take to reduce their stress as they strive for their chosen NQ role? Stress often arises due to feeling a lack of control, so it makes sense to take control of as much of the process as you can. ‘Control the controllables’, as the saying goes. This includes:
1. Making a plan
Start the process early and decide exactly what you want to achieve. This may be as basic as making a clear choice about your preferred practice area or even whether you want to stay at your existing firm.
2. Doing your research
You’ve worked in law for two years now so use it to decide what you want from your career in terms of work/life balance, partnership prospects, quality of work, etc. Pick the brains of colleagues, friends and contacts about their experiences in the profession so you get as broad a view as possible.
3. Updating your CV
When you think about it, you have probably gained more experience than you initially think. Make sure you give a clear overview of what you have done and what you have learned during your training contract.
4. Preparing carefully for interviews
Do as much research as you can about the department or firm you are interviewing with and practise answers to questions. Remember too that the purpose of the interview is to find out as much as you can about the firm and if it is the type of role and environment that will suit you.
5. Not getting discouraged
If you don’t get the job you want, stay positive. Use every application and interview as a learning experience so that you present yourself in a better light next time around.