“There’s a culture of long hours. People are under pressure to make their billing targets and bring money into the firm if they’re in a commercial firm. If they’re in the public sector, public cuts make it harder for those solicitors to generate income for their firm.
"Also, you’re representing your clients’ interests and making sure you do the best for them. You want to be successful for them. I think that all makes for a highly stressful occupation.”
Free and confidential
LawCare is a free and confidential helpline for Law Society members who are under strain, whether with mental or physical health problems.
The problems can be personal and highly sensitive – depression, anxiety, physical illness, addiction – or something going on in the workplace, such as bullying or stress.
You don’t need to be on the brink of catastrophe in order to call. LawCare is there to help solve it, and their phone line (freephone: 1800 991 801, email: email@example.com) is open not only to lawyers but also to their families and staff.
Elizabeth is the charity’s second CEO, having taken over from Hilary Tilby. Before joining LawCare in September, Elizabeth was executive director at the Institute of Group Analysis and, before that, at Alzheimer’s Disease International.
She began work as a solicitor in clinical negligence, and the experience was sobering. “I found it quite a challenging environment,” she says.
“I got a traineeship in a firm that was highly regarded in clinical negligence, and then got kept on as an assistant solicitor, so it was great. But what I found hard with medical negligence and litigation was the adversarial component to it.
“People were coming to you after terrible things had happened to them or gone wrong. They came to you thinking that they were going to get all the answers to their questions.
"You came to realise that the process is designed to financially compensate people for their loss – but that you can never financially compensate people for their dreadful experiences. I found that quite stressful so questioned whether I really wanted to do this.”
“I found it hard having people in my room crying, telling me very distressing stories. I felt so sorry, and really empathised with their position and thought, what a terrible tragedy and now there’s this litigation that’s going to go on for four or five years and you think, you can’t put this to rest. I did an MA in medical law and ethics at King’s College and took a year out to reassess.”
That was when Elizabeth found a part-time job with Alzheimer’s Disease International, answering phones and sending faxes. A month in, her boss had to leave suddenly – due to stress – and Elizabeth was promoted to his job, which she kept for ten years.
Root and branch
Over tea and biscuits in Dublin, Elizabeth talks lucidly about the way organisations are run in a ‘hyperconnected’ world. The issue that comes to the fore is wellbeing at work and improving working culture from the roots up.
“This whole well-being agenda about healthier workplaces is certainly becoming more talked about, not just in law but across a range of professions,” says Elizabeth.
“It makes commercial sense that the healthier the work culture is, you’re going to find it easier to recruit people and to retain them – and that female employees who’ve been with you for ten years and gone off and had a baby can stay on. Creating workplaces that are more flexible, giving people opportunities to work from home, potentially, will pay dividends.”
More flexible working
Elizabeth says she notices that many law firms in England have begun giving more time off. “I think there is a lot more flexible working, including working from home, because we live in a hyperconnected world. In LawCare, we don’t have an office, we all work from home,” she says.
“That was what attracted me to the job. I have a young son, so it means I can be at home. I can work, but I can also empty the dishwasher. I can do the school run and I can go to the school assemblies because I’m on my phone or email and I’m going to be home in ten minutes. Flexibility is what people want.”
Her organisation, she says, “has an advocacy role to play in making sure you’ve got a good, productive, ‘well-retained’ workplace. I would like to see the law societies in the relevant jurisdictions, and the equivalent for the Bar, taking these issues seriously and putting them into their strategies.”
Curious as to why lawyers have a dedicated charity to support them, when many professions don’t, I ask why people don’t just go to HR with a problem.
“There’s a reluctance for people to come forward because they might think it’s going to be a bad mark against their name. Will they ruin their chances of being promoted? Will it be reported to the partners?
"Our service is totally confidential – we don’t report anything. Everyone who works our helpline has been a solicitor. They understand what that environment is like in the way that someone else may not understand it.”
LawCare research shows that 16% of those who visit the website come from Ireland. And yet, despite the excellent service offered, LawCare is not getting as many calls as it should: “The awareness is very low,” Elizabeth says. “Law Care must be serving a quarter of a million people and we get 500 calls a year. It’s an interesting question, why people aren’t calling us.”
Mental health stigma
The reason may be stigma, she says. “Mental health is the poor relation in the health services. We’re big on public health campaigns and there isn’t a huge amount that focuses on how to look after your own mental health. It doesn’t get the same recognition that it should because the burden of mental health is huge to society.”
Does she have ideas as to where mental health stigma comes from? “It may be as basic as you can’t see it,” says Elizabeth. “Someone’s got a broken leg, you can see it.”
Another worry, she says, is “the minute you’ve been ‘labelled’ with a mental health problem the perception of you is that somehow you’re not as competent as other people. What if it happens again? Are you somebody who’s going to have to be watched in the work place? Will things unravel around you? There’s a fear factor, so it is stigmatised.”
What is the CEO’s vision? Elizabeth plans to exploit the web in making LawCare accessible to the new generation of social-media-hooked lawyers and also to people who find it hard to pick up the phone.
“I’d like to see us developing a well-being app,” she says. Her aim is to remove the stigma felt around discussing problems at work, and her warm and pragmatic approach inspires confidence.
“By us raising awareness about the importance of talking about mental health and bringing it into the working culture, these problems can be met. It’s not all doom and gloom, and people can get on with their lives.”