Life in LawCare: a volunteer’s perspective

10th Jun 2022

While many professional and personal difficulties may feel isolating, an anonymous LawCare volunteer has found that few challenges are unique – and a problem shared is a problem halved.

I entered the legal profession, in the early 80s, at a time of wide shoulder pads, Margaret Thatcher and a culture of machismo, frequently fuelled by alcohol.   

It was an interesting and colourful world, but also highly competitive and judgemental. It was a given that one must succeed and win: failure was belittled and criticised. These imperatives applied to both male and female lawyers, when little else was equal.

In such a climate as I have described above, it is unsurprising that no-one spoke of mental health issues such as stress and anxiety. To have done so would be to reveal weakness and to show that you couldn’t “cut it”.

Certainly, there was no encouragement or safe space to talk about personal or professional issues, or, at least, none that I was aware of.

Roll on forty years and I am now retired from the profession. Although I achieved my personal objectives, it wasn’t easy. At times, I found it a struggle and fell prey to anxiety and depression.

Unfortunately, I didn’t become aware of LawCare until I finished work. When I did, I wanted to offer my knowledge and experience to help others to navigate the challenging and often hostile world of the law.

I became a volunteer in September 2018 and have worked on the helpline and as a peer supporter.

In my experience, there isn’t a typical caller to the helpline. Everyone is different and so are the problems they encounter. However, there are some common themes that I have identified.

Toxic work environments

Speaking to those in the early stages of their career, I find that many of them struggle with the transition from trainee to newly qualified. Suddenly, they face new and greater responsibilities, often without the structure and support they had during training.

In the absence of a dedicated channel of communication in which they can request advice and assistance, they become fearful of making mistakes, upsetting clients and prejudicing their career prospects. Stress and anxiety become part of daily life.

From lawyers at all levels of qualification, I hear about the issues of bullying and unreasonable behaviour.

Streams of late night and weekend emails demanding an immediate response and unfair criticism which undermines confidence – all of these create a toxic mix for lawyers, whatever their level of experience and expertise.

In many of the calls I receive, people speak about being burned out. Crushed by heavy workloads, fee targets they find difficult to meet and maybe dealing with family and financial pressures as well, they tell me they feel exhausted by and unequal to the daily pressure of work. Often, the only solution they see is making for the exit.

What has struck me, over the period I have been volunteering at LawCare, is that people are seriously contemplating leaving the law due to burnout at earlier stages in their career.

Burnout: an increasing threat

Some are only one or two years qualified, yet, already, they are deciding that they can’t face a lifetime of working in what they perceive to be such a harsh environment.

Towards the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021, LawCare conducted an extensive survey of 1700 people working in a variety of areas within the legal profession, called ‘Life in the Law’. The age range was 26 to 65, with the largest represented group being 26 to 35 years. Participants worked in a wide range of areas within the legal world.

LawCare used a scoring methodology to determine participants’ risk of burnout. Within this methodology, a score of 34.8 or more represented a risk of burnout. The average score was 42.2.

These worrying results accord with what I am hearing on the helpline.

The survey found those aged 56 to 65 were less likely to suffer burnout than their younger colleagues, possibly because they had more autonomy and control over their working lives.

From my own experience, and speaking to callers approaching, or in retirement, I have discovered they can also be profoundly affected by work considerations, albeit different to their younger colleagues.

If they no longer inhabit their work persona, with whom they are so familiar, then who are they? Where will they fit into society? How will they find purpose when their work is finished?

I don’t recall any discussion around these issues when I finished work, yet I shared similar doubts and concerns.

Conversations about good mental health need to extend across an individual’s entire working life to ensure that issues and concerns are addressed at every stage of their career.

The impact of the pandemic and home working

Judging by the calls I have received, the pandemic exacerbated problems for many who were

already suffering stress and anxiety.

Most people I spoke to were working, at least some of the time, from home. Many were not going into the office at all.

One caller, who was involved in a difficult disciplinary process, told me she was glad she didn’t have to go into the office as it meant she didn’t have to face colleagues involved in the process. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for working from home.

For others, the pandemic had a damaging effect on their mental health. A young criminal barrister, less than ten years qualified, told me he was struggling with isolation, already a problem for him.

His work often touched on distressing and violent crime. Pre-pandemic, he would de-brief with colleagues and instructing solicitors, over coffee or a drink after work.

This helped him to process and assimilate his work. Strict Covid restrictions made any socialisation impossible.

Without the opportunity for discussion, he told me he regularly walked the streets at midnight, trying to find a way to calm his mind without laying all his troubles on his partner.

I spoke to young lawyers who had struggled to find advice and help, even  pre-pandemic when they were in the office full-time.

For them, it was a much bigger deal to try and ask for help by phone or email, because it meant a record was created which could later be used as evidence that they couldn’t cope.

Happily, it’s not all doom and gloom. By and large, the importance of good mental health is now openly recognised and discussed.

Law firms and organisations have policies and procedures in place, often providing access to professional help, such as counselling. There are appraisal systems.

Some firms establish “buddy” and mentoring networks as well as opportunities for regular one-to-one meetings between junior employees and their line managers.

Unfortunately, some callers have told me, these can become ‘tickbox’ exercises in which no meaningful conversation ever takes place.

The LawCare survey found that 69% of the participants reported that they had experienced mental ill-health in the 12 months prior to the survey, whether self-diagnosed or not.

More needs to be done to create an environment for legal professionals which is psychologically safe.

What can be done to help?

Overwhelmingly, what I have learned during my time with LawCare is the extent to which callers value the safe space it provides to speak frankly, in non-judgemental and confidential conversation.

All LawCare volunteers are working or have worked within the law. Repeatedly, callers tell me what a relief it is to talk to people who understand the pressures faced by those working within the legal profession.

Some people need or want more than one conversation. LawCare offers Peer Support, which may be two, three or, sometimes more conversations between a caller and the same volunteer.

Where possible, callers are matched with Peer Supporters who have encountered something like them.

Peer support can provide an opportunity to formulate coping strategies and to check in with the same person, from time to time, to discuss progress or ongoing issues. Again, the fact of shared and fully understood experiences is key to these conversations.

On a personal level, working at LawCare has benefited my own mental health. Through exploring with callers the issues which are troubling them, I have been able to better process some of my own.

In the twenty-first century, no-one should be made to feel unwell in their working environment, nor should they have to feel afraid or inhibited to speak out when and if they do.

If you would like to learn more, click here to find out more about the work that LawCare does and the support that they can provide.