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Written by Brownwen Still

I have this month stood down as chair of the Board of Trustees of LawCare and it is interesting to reflect on changing attitudes to mental health and wellbeing by law firms during this period – and during the 23 years that I have been a trustee.

What LawCare is and what it does

LawCare was originally set up as Solcare in 1997. Solcare was a charity, initially funded solely by the Law Society, with the object of supporting solicitors with addiction and other mental health problems through a confidential helpline. LawCare now helps all lawyers in all jurisdictions across the whole of the UK and Ireland and is funded by their professional bodies. It continues to provide confidential support via its helpline and has added a webchat and email facility.  These are operated by LawCare staff who have all had private practice experience as solicitors. For those who need continuing support after this initial contact, callers are paired with “peer supporters” who are lawyers who have suffered similar problems to the caller referred to them.

This support is now enhanced by a website which contains a huge range of “self help” materials covering subjects such as depression, stress, anxiety, bullying, suicide, addiction and bereavement. The website also has a workplace hub, which offers help to firms wanting to provide a mentally healthy workplace for staff and a wellbeing hub for individuals. This year a new hub has been added to help those dealing with covid 19 related issues. Since lockdown, covid related calls have grown to about 40% of the total calls received.

Increasingly, LawCare’s focus has been on promoting wellness in the workplace by encouraging firms to adopt a supportive and open environment where people feel able to talk about problems which may be affecting them. To help do this, LawCare has been adding training materials to its website in the form of webinars which can be used in firms to support their internal wellness programmes. It has also added a free online training resource on emotional competency and professional resilience for individuals, which was developed in conjunction with academics. The course on Managing and Understanding Yourself takes 2-4 hours in total to complete but is broken down into smaller sections, and includes videos from legal professionals discussing wellbeing issues as well as a range of interactive activities.

LawCare is also now frequently invited to speak on the subject of mental health at conferences and its views are sought by the press when comment is needed.

Finally, LawCare has recently set up a research group involving LawCare staff, trustees and academics to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of working in law on mental health and to identify best practice in legal education, training and practice to support lawyer mental health.

Changes I have seen

When Solcare was initially set up the subject of mental health issues in the workplace was viewed as something firms did not need to trouble themselves with and huge stigma was attached to issues like depression and addiction. They were issues which were not discussed and this was exacerbated by the fact that legal practice has always tended to attract competitive, high achievers who find it hard to admit to any form of weakness. The prevailing attitude was that legal practice was considered a tough environment and if you could not stand the pressure, law was not for you. Because of this attitude, Solcare and subsequently LawCare, found it hard to gain any recognition for the support work it did. Few people were prepared to talk about these issues or acknowledge that there was a healthcare problem within firms that needed addressing.

Things have changed radically over the last 4 or 5 years with mental health issues being discussed far more openly and with many high profile individuals being prepared to step forward and talk about their personal experiences of, for example, stress, depression, addiction and bullying. LawCare carries on its website the stories of lawyers who have felt able to go public with their personal experience of suffering from, and dealing with, these types of problem. This has had a huge impact in breaking down stigma and encouraging open discussion.

High profile cases that have reached the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal and the High Court have shone a light on what can happen when firms treat their staff very badly and apply intolerable pressure to them and this has helped support LawCare’s concerns. The Tribunal itself felt moved to make the following comment:

“During the last 10 to 15 years, and in particular in the last 5 years or so, awareness and openness concerning mental health issues have developed. Management at law firms and elsewhere should be more alert to the warning signs, which included, amongst other things, decline in performance, physical symptoms of distress, and uncharacteristic behaviour such as a drop in reliability. Management should be able to respond appropriately, for example by providing access to external counselling services. We have all become much more aware of bullying and harassment in the workplace which can have a significant impact on employees, particularly those who might be described as being vulnerable.”

Firms are now beginning to recognise that a supportive workplace in which individuals feel able to talk about difficulties with their work or health is beneficial for the firm and its clients. A great sea change in attitudes is taking place. However, there is still a long way to go. Calls to LawCare’s helpline have made it quite clear that some firms have not got the message.

LawCare’s statistics show that year after year, stress, anxiety and depression form the vast majority of calls. Surveys have also shown that there are high levels of unmanageable stress, particularly amongst those newly qualified. In all this, LawCare is leading the way but there is still a long way to go.

Finally, LawCare is currently recruiting new trustees. For anyone interested, full details of the role and how to apply appear on LawCare’s website – https://www.lawcare.org.uk/get-involved/trustee-vacancies

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