With all our talk about wellbeing in the legal profession, what’s the glaring gap?

What are we not talking about?

Well, who do we mean when we talk about the ‘legal profession’?

Is it just lawyers or do we include secretaries, PA’s, IT staff, front of house and reception, clerks?

Yes, it’s tough being a lawyer. But does that mean those who support us get off scot-free?

I think not.

This is particularly so during lockdown.

Was it easy for IT teams to support lawyers during the sudden jolt out of office-based working to working from home back in March 2020? Ensuring systems didn’t collapse while often receiving flak from the stressed lawyers they were supporting?

How about those who were still required to come into the office during lockdown to deal with the logistics of the move to home working? Being called upon to suddenly switch roles, like Clark Kent to Superman in a phone box (but in a less fun way). Becoming a jack of all trades overnight try and keep the show on the road in trying times.

How about clerking teams? As Hannah Markham QC, Head of Team at 36 Family points out: ‘they are the ones who have been holding the fort during unprecedented times, often working alone in their homes without the camaraderie and support of their teammates. They often respond to ‘crisis’ calls from members of the team, who may have taken suddenly unwell, or who are managing the illness, or indeed death of a loved one.’

The domino effect

It’s great that these days we’re more aware about vicarious trauma amongst lawyers. How difficult it can be to carry around your clients’ woes, ire and disgruntlement on top of one’s own.

But what does that mean for those who support lawyers?

While lawyers often find themselves on the receiving end of clients’ unmanaged trauma, those who support lawyers are exposed to the unmanaged trauma of both the clients and the lawyers. Quite the double whammy.

Yes, it can be a frustrating job, being a lawyer. Expectations are high and annoyance can’t be directed at the client (or, when it comes to barristers, at their instructing solicitor). But where do those feelings go? They don’t just vanish into thin air. No, they often come out sideways: at the clerk over confusion over diarising a trial, the PA or receptionist who didn’t transfer the call properly to you, the IT support person who didn’t get your laptop working quickly enough.

Hannah acknowledges this: ‘Whilst we lawyers want to believe we behave in an appropriate way when under stress, the reality is that sometimes clerks (and other support teams) find themselves having to manage unnecessary and unfair comments and a high level of anxiety and or stress.’

There’s also the difficulties associated with working in an increasingly rickety court system. Yes, lawyers endure a fair amount of stress associated with that. But often it’s the clerks who face the full force of it, as well as the IT teams trying to support lawyers in participating in online court hearings with wobbly technology.

Front line or in the trenches?

We often talk about lawyers as on the ‘frontline’ in terms of facing clients’ stress. It may sound curious, but sometimes being in the driving seat can be helpful in terms of managing stress.

If it’s your case and your client, as difficult as it may be, you have some control over the situation. You (usually) understand the situation and the different factors involved. Having some autonomy and ability to address the issues can protect you against at least some of the stress and worry.

If you’re working in a supporting role, often you don’t have this sense of control. You may not have full sight or understanding of the case and what’s going on. What you may experience is a snapshot of what’s happening, often at the most stressful juncture; the client venting at the person front of house as they can’t get through to the lawyer, the clerk hastily trying to rearrange court hearings that have been inconveniently diarised.

Often you get exposed to the case at the sharp end but then don’t get to see the issue through to the end, first-hand. So that sense of ownership and resolution that can help to bring you down from stressful experiences can be missing.

Pressure from all angles

The pressures on support staff are multifarious and often unpredictable. They are the ones who are often placed into the role of ‘fixer’, the person relied upon to sort everything out when things go wrong. Hannah notices, in relation to clerking teams that, when unexpected things issues come up at unsociable hours, they are often the ones who ‘find themselves reassuring the team members, but then also having to step up and let the solicitor know of the situation, find urgent cover, often managing high stress situations.

Seen in this light, is it any wonder that anxiety is rife amongst our support staff as well as our lawyers? If a great deal of your job is about managing various people in a stressful and panicked state, wanting you to sort their problem out immediately, of course that is going to take a toll mentally.

Speaking out

It’s important to understand that it’s often hard for support staff to speak to managers/HR teams/heads of chambers openly without fear of judgement or of not being heard. While it’s often difficult for any of us to secure any changes to our working environment, this is particularly so for our support staff.

Support for all

So, in summary, we need to support those who support us.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the commitment and versatility of those who’ve supported us during lockdown.

And let’s think about our wellbeing in an inclusive way as we all seek to recover from the pandemic.

With thanks to Hannah Markham QC and the legal support staff who have contributed anonymously to this piece.

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