“Nobody’s going to die…”

When I was a lawyer, people used to say that to me when I was stressed. As in – what we’re doing isn’t life or death so don’t stress about it.

It’s been a horrible couple of weeks in the press around death & suicide and, for those in the legal profession, a heartbreaking story about a much-loved lawyer as well as a female client in a divorce case in Cheshire who took her own life.

Working as a therapist with lawyers means that what I see now is that actually, really really sadly, sometimes people do die. Sometimes it is life and death.

And, as well-meaning as it is, that advice (and it’s bedfellows like “we’re not saving lives”) don’t stop lawyers stressing. Why?

1. The unhelpful brain

This is where my friend Brian the Brain I comes in. Because of the way Brian is constructed, he does not distinguish between ‘real’ danger (like a bear coming to eat me) and psychological danger (fear that a boss/client is annoyed with you).

2. Law is isolating

We all know this is true for barristers. You’re part of a set/chambers but you’re often on your own, working late into the night to get a brief done. For solicitors, the work might sound more collaborative but it isn’t. Because of the chargeable time system, every matter you work on is highly geared – you might be a mid level associate working with a partner and a trainee/paralegal but there will rarely be another associate at your level on the case with you. What that means is there is no one who can truly understand the complexities of the case and the difficulties of your role in exactly the same way.

So it’s easy to feel completely on your own.

We also don’t have time to sit around (I always picture bean bags in some fancy San Francisco office) knocking ideas 💡 around in an unpressured way, being creative. We communicate in time-pressured circumstances. We talk in sharp, staccato ways, we often interrupt each other. Instructions are barked.

So, the workplace often doesn’t feel psychologically safe.

3. The perfect storm

It’s not just about the culture though. It’s also about us. We lawyers were the bright kids at school. We’re always striving for those good exam results, the approval of others. We develop an external locus of evaluation. Our metric for success is what others think of us. Then we enter the world of law where often the feedback is negative. Doing things really well is a base line. It’s only when you stuff something up that anyone says anything.

And we’re our own worst critics. The cleverest people always are. And law teaches us to be professional worriers. So we develop what I call a disaster movie mind.

The answers to all this are not easy (obviously). But, with May’s Mental Health Awareness week coming up, my advice would be for law firms to focus on isolation. And practical ways of breaking it. And don’t avoid these most difficult of subjects. If you do, your people will lose trust in you.

What do you think?



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