It wasn’t the kind of trend you could miss. Since August, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of lawyers seeking Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) at our clinics. This trend has been strongest at our London clinic, where roughly a third of our entire client base, at the time of writing, is in the legal profession.
This stands at nearly double the combined number of the next two highest professional groups we currently treat — architects and bankers. As to the exact people seeking help, we’re treating legal professionals of all levels, but trainees doing their rotations and partners tend to be the most common.
For the most part, the lawyers we treat are looking for help with anxiety disorders and alcohol problems, almost always caused by the toxic cocktail of gruelling hours, inherently confrontational work environments and intense competition from other practices. The unrelenting workload leaves many legal professionals psychologically exhausted, which in turn leads them to drink simply to unwind.
Only recently, one client summed it up: “I spend almost all of my waking hours in the office, and in the short periods I do spend at home I’m constantly checking my emails or on the phone. I literally don’t have any time to relax, so I find myself drinking more alcohol at work events and client meetings in an attempt to de-stress, and I then drink after work as a reward for getting through the day, or for a particular job well done.”
This dangerous cycle is not just damaging individuals but is inevitably damaging the law firms themselves, too. After all, the fundamental value of legal practices is the intellectual property they hold, or the ‘thinking-power’ of their legal teams. So it’s 100 per cent in their interest to care for the mental health of their staff. But do they do this?
Well, you can’t deny that most legal firms have well-developed human resources and occupational health departments that are designed to safeguard their employees’ personal wellbeing. However, more often than not the support they provide to their employees in practical terms is token at best.
Another problem is that the internal perception among staff, often quite rightly, is that these departments are a double-edged sword: while they cover the firm’s legal obligation to supply reasonable support, they also serve to remove staff from post if they are seen to be struggling in a way that might affect their professional performance.
Clearly something has to be done, not only to give staff the support they need but also to protect the bottom line. After all, finding a way to address emotional or psychological issues before they require occupational health involvement delivers significant savings in sick leave and other health costs across the firm.
Potential solutions are, firstly, to include emotional resilience skills within legal supervision and continuing professional development; and secondly, to separate emotional health from occupational health and instead treat it as a Corporate Social Responsibility function.
In this scenario, staff could anonymously refer themselves to an external therapy clinic in the knowledge that their employers have endorsed them. The idea is that this happens before emotional issues become significant problems that might subsequently require occupational health involvement.
We did exactly this with a financial institution recently and they noticed a significant and almost immediate reduction in their staff occupational health requirement, as well as an improvement in morale and culture.
In summary, it is arguably Al Capone whose thoughts best reflect the changes from which legal firms will benefit: “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness. I am kind to everyone, but when someone is unkind to me then weak is not what you are going to remember about me.”
Perhaps the time has come for law firms to distinguish more clearly between weakness, and the need for emotional resilience support? As an industry that relies almost exclusively on mind-power as its product, the legal world should treat the mental health of its lawyers as paramount.
Alex Hedger is clinical director of Dynamic You cognitive behavioural therapy clinics
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