The reason we’re speaking is that the Law Society is on the cusp of rolling out a new member service to practitioners called ‘Psychological Services’. Antoinette is heading up this exciting new venture – a first for any law society in the world.
The service has its genesis in the ‘Shrink Me’ module that was developed by the Society for trainee solicitors.
“We have been working with students in this way for eight years,” says Antoinette, “so there’s a lot of evidence to show that this works. There has been so much positive engagement with future members of the profession – many of our trainees are now qualified and continue to be involved with us in a very active way.
“Our team had the privilege of listening deeply to the concerns, hopes, desires and challenges experienced by thousands of now full members of the profession. As I and my team of ten psychotherapists sat with trainees, we increasingly felt a ‘whole-systems’ approach was the only way of effecting lasting change. Otherwise we were patching up the wounded to go back into battle!
“So, unlike any other jurisdiction, the Law Society has a clear view of what the ‘pain points’ are, and has an appreciation of the incredible potential of our legal community when the ‘right’ conditions are created.
“In psychological terms, we think of this as creating a ‘facilitating environment’, so that lawyers can reach their optimal potential, professionally and personally. One should not be at the cost of the other. This is the driving force for me, personally.
“Psychological Services is a way of taking these principles and all that experience – which we know works highly effectively – and bringing that to our members in a very positive, collaborative way.
“This is a collaborative initiative – it’s not the Law Society dictating or threatening the current business model. It’s about collaborating and helping law firms and individual practitioners.”
Sense of urgency
So who’s behind this – and why is it being introduced?
“This is driven by the Council of the Law Society,” Antoinette says, “which understands the fantastic sense of the urgency and the importance of this for the profession.
“At the Council meeting last January, there was much debate, discussion, understanding and support for the value of having a psychologically informed way of thinking about professional practice. The president, Michelle Ní Longáin, has taken the lead on this.
“Other key supporters on the senior management team who have backed this new approach are the outgoing deputy director general, Mary Keane, who understands the very positive impact that the programme has had on trainees and believes that all members should be able to benefit likewise.”
The other main drivers are director of education TP Kennedy and director of representation and member services Teri Kelly.
They both saw the opportunity to graft elements of their departments together in order to deliver this exciting new approach to members’ development.
Antoinette says: “This is a system of training that is world class. We now want to extend it so that it’s available to those members who didn’t have the opportunity to avail of this type of service during their own solicitor training.”
Not just about mental health
The programme has also had significant input from professional wellbeing executive Julie Breen, who says: “I see the expanded Psychological Services being about the Law Society connecting with current and potential members in a meaningful way, understanding what drives members, what their strengths and difficulties are, and having authentic and curious conversations with them about these.
“It’s also about supporting members to connect with each other, and creating spaces for strengthened relationships, support networks, and collaboration.”
Breen points out that the focus of Psychological Services won’t solely be on supporting the profession through a ‘mental-health’ framework. “There are so many connected and influencing factors that affect our person over time, such as gender equality, diversity and inclusion, legal and firm structures, systems, culture, and social shifts, such as the MeToo movement,” she says.
“As a service, we are curious about all of these connecting parts that shape us individually, whether as trainees or practising lawyers – and as a profession.”
She also points to the Dignity Matters Project, which forms part of the new expanded service. Breen believes that this has the potential to change the profession from the inside out. Dignity Matters started with members putting forward a motion at the 2021 AGM for the profession to internally reflect and examine itself in relation to harmful workplace behaviours.
“I believe that the success of the project now depends on what members, firms, and the Law Society do collectively to drive forward the Dignity Matters Report recommendations.
“I don’t think the project will succeed if the Law Society alone, or individual members alone, make changes. It needs all of us – and the expanded Psychological Services plans to bring us together to drive this collective action.”
Antoinette says that “basically, Psychological Services will address the psychological and emotional development of a lawyer, the internal attributes and capacities of a lawyer, the hidden qualities that make your day-to-day life work well, and what constitutes an effective leader in your team or group.
Qualities such as empathy, listening, being able to lead from a very inclusive way, and being able to engage with clients from a position of understanding are all investigated.
“This may feel like a very different way of addressing the needs of a solicitor, but we teach them because they’re not something we necessarily inherit naturally, and so they need to be taught,” says Antoinette.
“And just like we need to learn how to do a transaction or conveyancing or any of the other transactional aspects of law, there are many additional required skills that, up to this point, were either learned on the job if you were fortunate, or perhaps never acquired at all.
“In the new Fused PPC course, which will start in September [see p46], Shrink Me will be a semester-long module.
“Starting in September and running until Christmas, it will introduce a number of new ways of learning, including something we call ‘free time-concentrated therapy’. We’re not aware of any other jurisdiction that provides this as part of their legal training, but it makes so much sense to us that we should do so.”
“High demands on the personal wellbeing of lawyers is a global issue, so it’s not particular to Ireland,” Antoinette continues.
“I think what’s different about the Law Society, though, is that we’re responding directly and strategically to the underlying structural causes. We are moving beyond pathologising individuals and into the creation of a healthy and sustainable way of practising law.
For example, young people across the professions, globally, are not staying in their careers for anything like the period of time they would have in the past.
That’s a very expensive way of running a practice, because you might invest very heavily in trainees, and then find that the average period of time they remain is nine to 12 months or one to two years, rather than ten to 15, or 20 to 25, or 40 years of service.
That whole psychology of service has evaporated. There’s huge support now for the idea of movement – of moving jobs. Young lawyers, similar to young medics and tech professionals, are moving around the world.
“Currently, the starting salary for a young lawyer in Britain’s ‘Magic Circle’ firms is anything from €121k to €160k.
“That’s an incredible market – one we can’t compete with on a salary basis. However, by redesigning work in a clever way, we can create workplaces that can entice young people in a more meaningful way, and encourage them to stay.
“The idea of young solicitors staying with us just because they’ve joined us or they’ve trained with us – that’s gone. We need to reflect on the structure of law firms, the structure of business, the way we engage with people and with clients – and we’re starting that process.”
What building blocks is she putting in place to facilitate this change?
“To begin with, we’re looking at lawyers ‘in the round’. We’re starting with secondary school students who are looking at their options. We’ve already started to promote law among transition-year students in order to try to include a much broader spectrum of people coming into the profession.
“We’re going to work right up through each traineeship, addressing the key stages of challenge throughout the first five years. The IBA’s recent global wellbeing report highlighted nought-to-five years as one of the critical periods for young lawyers in terms of stress, of not being adequately resourced to do the work given to them, and not having a safe place in which to make mistakes or to get support.
“In addition, we will be addressing other categories, such as women who are at particular risk of leaving the profession early, because it hasn’t necessarily adapted to the fact that we now have 50/50 men and women in practice.
“By working with women to empower them to assert their own needs and design a workplace that works for them, that will have an incredible impact. We’re also going to be working with senior leaders – our ‘high-impact lawyers’.
“These senior lawyers are the profession in many ways. They get to determine the shape and structure of their firms, which in turn determines the impact for everyone else in those firms. I should add that Psychological Services can’t lead this change in the profession if it’s not done in tandem and in consultation with senior leaders.
“We’re very fortunate that, for those senior leaders we’ve approached in the Irish market, they are very open to addressing these issues. I think the experience is very different to what people might imagine. It’s not threatening, it’s not taking away their business model. It’s discovering the ‘pain points’ and helping them to build solutions.
“Psychological Services wants to hear from people leading teams, to hear what it’s been like to be at the helm over these past couple of years – and what we can provide for them. So, for instance, what kind of supports do they need? What kind of member services should we be providing?
“If we’re working in a psychologically informed way internally, we need to work in a psychologically informed way when we consult with our members. So this isn’t going to be us deciding or telling anybody what they need. We’ll be using our skills and frameworks to help build new ways of working that are regarded as good practice in many other industries, but have been slow to come to law.
“This is not a choice between creating a healthy work environment or the business. It’s an enhancement of business. Business is changing – and we have to change with it. I am so proud that our Law Society in Ireland is a leader.
“We have been resourced so generously, over many years, that we now find ourselves working side by side with our international colleagues through the International Bar Association and the American Bar Association to build a healthy profession globally. It’s an incredible honour, and one that all of us at the Law Society should be proud to be part of.”
In a nutshell
Law School Psychological Services was established in January 2014. What began as a small counselling service has expanded rapidly to cater for a range of psychologically informed programmes and services.
Its primary work has been with trainee solicitors attending the Professional Practice Courses. The service is now being expanded to collaborate with qualified solicitors and law firms.
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