“We are not invincible”: Talking about anxiety in the legal profession
“I can’t believe how reassuring it is to know that we’re not alone in the way we feel.”: The power of communication for anxiety.
Featuring panellists with lived experience of anxiety, a recent LawCare webinar offered insight into the particular challenges seen in the legal sector.
Shared anxiety experiences demonstrate the impact on individuals
The webinar panel, chaired by Lloyd Rees of Freshfields, identified the various triggers and situations that had resulted in them suffering debilitating anxiety, including:
- Perceived and actual lack of control over working life.
- Caring for young family, and unwell family members while holding down a high-pressure job.
- Undiagnosed neurodiversity and a lifelong disposition to anxiety.
- Feeling pressure to be the “perfect” lawyer.
- Impacts of the pandemic.
This anxiety manifested itself in a number of ways:
- Making uncharacteristic mistakes at work.
- Sunday evening “dark blues” and a sense of dread about the week ahead.
- Work avoidance: calling in sick despite anxiety about letting people down.
- Abandoning life and socialising outside work.
- Extreme guilt.
- Physical illness symptoms.
- Suicidal ideations.
For some members of the panel, anxiety had developed and worsened over a period of time.
For others, it struck suddenly and without warning. However, all had found themselves in a situation they felt they couldn’t escape from.
Anxiety sufferers are often reluctant to seek help
A common thread among the panel was that they didn’t feel they could talk to anyone – work colleagues, family or friends – about how they were feeling.
They felt immense pressure to cope in what is understood to be a high-pressure profession.
They assumed that everyone else must be coping and it their personal weakness was to blame.
This is a common trait among the high achievers who are typically found working in the law: they feel intensely uncomfortable with admitting vulnerability or weakness.
Panellists also talked of guilt that, having worked hard to secure a career in the law, they were not thriving.
Panel member Sonay Erten, Consultant Solicitor Advocate and neurodiversity and mental health champion, summed up the pressure many feel: “There’s this image of being a lawyer - being strong and able to handle anything.
“You don’t want to give off the impression that you can’t, and you worry that it will affect your career progression.”
Katy Link, Associate at Fletcher’s solicitors, picked up on the negative impact that this pursuit of “invincibility” has in the legal environment.
“I thought I was invincible and I wasn’t expecting anything like this to happen to me. I tried to motor on as much as I could, to the point where I was waiting for the day I was going to drop dead because I felt so ill with it [anxiety].”
The panel had taken a variety of different steps when they reached crisis point including:
- Starting Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and learning to identify anxiety triggers and symptoms.
- Seeking online support through LinkedIn groups focused on helping anxiety sufferers working in law.
- Using LawCare’s support resources.
Matt Verrell, a former corporate lawyer who is now an executive coach and wellbeing advocate had developed anxiety to such a debilitating extent that he felt his only option was to leave the industry.
“When I came out of law it was almost instantaneous – I felt the anxiety fall away and I have never experienced it to the same degree again. An environment shift is the last resort, but it was the right thing to do for me.”
Offering better support for anxiety sufferers
Matt’s experience demonstrates the real risk that lawyers will leave the profession if recognition and support for anxiety sufferers don’t improve.
The first step is to normalise discussions about anxiety and mental health to tackle the stigma – perceived or actual – around the issue.
As Matt discovered: “Once I started sharing how I’d been feeling I didn’t sense people were judging me – actually they were happy to help. There is a lot of support once you look for it and are happy to accept it.”
Katy says starting conversations is essential and that workplace mental health champions have a central role to play: “We can’t “fix” anybody, but we can let them know that there is someone there to help them and signpost them towards resources.
“We must encourage the dropping of the “poker face” and look for signs that someone might be struggling.”
She also believes lawyers need to be kinder to themselves and should try to resist perfectionism. “We must break down the barriers of invincibility,” she urged.
“Even if it’s only being honest about your own circumstances, if you can get comfortable discussing it, it helps others.”
Sonay recommends that anxiety sufferers work to establish a morning routine that grounds them before the day begins.
She also underlines the importance of a good support network, whether at home or in online communities that “really do care about mental health in our profession.”
This was a timely and important webinar which should prompt further awareness and discussion of the anxiety problem facing legal professionals.
LawCare provides a number of resources to help those experiencing anxiety:
- Information and resources on mental health & wellbeing for legal professionals (lawcare.org.uk)
- law092-2020-factsheet-anxiety-aw.indd (lawcare.org.uk)