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Managing mental health in law firms

Making sure mental health is systematically included in the agenda at management meetings helps start the conversation that will allow you to pick up the issue before it’s too late, says Paul Bennett

24 January 2019

Can you remember the last time you spoke to your staff to check on their mental health and welfare?

Mental health is a growing concern in society and in law firms, yet it can be a difficult conversation to have. Good managers approach it discretely, indirectly perhaps, but they make sure staff are ok.

The recent High Court case of Solicitors Regulation Authority v James and Others [2018] EWHC 3058 (Admin), in which I acted for one of the three solicitor parties, has turned the spotlight on to misconduct by individuals when encountering a mental health episode.

The three respondent solicitors were employed in radically different law firms: a high-street firm, a private equity-backed ABS and a respected City firm.

Mental health issues may arise in almost every law firm because it’s about illness for that individual. As managers we have to be proactive and manage the risk of mental illness impacting on our staff and partners.

We cannot presume mental health issues will not arise within our firms just because we are friends, good people and in a nice rm. Professional disciplinary cases help highlight themes for the profession because they focus on the management of people.

How as partners and managers should we be managing the mental health challenge? What have we done to reduce the risk of something going wrong for our staff (and ourselves)?

Mental health issues typically range from anxiety, depression and stress to bi-polar disorder. Raising awareness is key: are we as managers thinking about the impact on others of our policies, processes, client expectations and third-party pressures from the courts and other law firms?

I encourage my law firm clients to add staff wellbeing to their management agenda. Why? The agenda item starts a regular dialogue which they can then record to help focus all managers in their firm.

Asking the following questions can help:

  1. Are there any trends in absences?
  2. If we have a doctor’s note indicating any form of mental or physical health condition, how do we support solicitor X back into work?
  3. Do the fille reviews show a rushed or overworked colleague?
  4. Is anyone showing stress and anxiety around the office?

If so, has anyone spoken to them to see what support they need? For solicitors the commonly reported issues are stress, depression and anxiety.

The legal sector charity LawCare focuses its resources heavily on mental health and every GP has access to various resources to help those needing support.

The key to managing mental health is recognising it is a health issue. The known triggers include:

Long or excessive working hours;

Presentism – the pressure to be seen in the office;

Pressure to bill more fees;

Client pressure to always be available;

Oppressive or bullying management – those forceful personalities who win work and cases might need more support themselves to manage people effectively.

We all work hard, we all have periods of intense workload for cases or transactions but only those with an underlying health condition may become ill. This means practically as managers we need to have the issue on our radar.

You, as a manager, need to be proactively looking to support others to ease things before they become serious. The recent High Court case involved months of build up to the actual problems for those three solicitors involved and all rms now have the chance to learn from the unfortunate experience of others.

Having a difficult conversation

A discussion does not have to be formal to be effective. Have a coffee or a quick chat about the weekend with a colleague and check they are ok. Asking “Do you need any support? You appear to have a lot on at the moment.” Or “How was your weekend?” 

If someone indicates they worked for most of it then discuss what you insist as a manager happens to support them because they are too valuable to be overworked in that manner. Saying we will do more to help; and then doing it are key.

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Paul Bennett is a partner at Aaron & Partners LLP

www.aaronandpartners.com

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