Mental Health Awareness Week 2024: let’s talk about wellbeing

Mental Health Awareness Week is a time when we are supposed to take notice of our own and others’ mental health. Isn’t it better to think about it every week?

The tragic death of Vanessa Ford in September 2023 highlighted the crisis in mental health in law professionals. No-one, including her husband or colleagues, spotted the signs that Vanessa was suffering from a mental health crisis.

Chasing billing targets, poor work-life balance, dealing with opposing lawyers and dealing with other people’s trauma every day are just a few reasons why the legal profession has found itself in this position. The pressure cooker of private law is clearly visible, but where are the safety valves to prevent the next tragedy?

The SRA issued the new workplace culture guidance Workplace environment: risks of failing to protect and support colleagues in May 2023, five months before Vanessa’s tragic death. This guidance sets out the SRA’s approach where they consider that individuals and firms have failed to take appropriate steps to look after colleagues’ wellbeing. It sets out the main standards that apply to solicitors and law firms and those responsible for their culture and the systems in place within them.

It states:

As a regulator, we do not direct the working practices or procedures that firms and the individuals working in firms should adopt. However, we will take action if we believe that there has been a serious regulatory failure. For example, where the work environment does not support the delivery of appropriate outcomes and services to clients. Or creates a culture in which unethical behaviour can flourish or where staff are persistently unable to raise concerns or have issues addressed.

The SRA will take regulatory action and hold individuals and firms to account for serious failures to meet standards in accordance with their enforcement strategy.

The SRA Code of Conduct for Solicitors, RELs and RFLs states at 1.5:

You treat colleagues fairly and with respect. You do not bully or harass them or discriminate unfairly against them. If you are a manager you challenge behaviour that does not meet this standard.

Has this been effective? It appears not yet, as LawCare reported in their 2023 impact report a 95 per cent increase in cases reporting exactly the sort of behaviours that the new rules were supposed to stamp out during 2023.

Your wellbeing and seeking help

Family justice professionals play a crucial role in supporting their clients through challenging times. However, you must prioritise your own mental health as well. The demanding nature of thework, coupled with the emotional weight of the cases you handle, can take a toll on your wellbeing.

Fortunately, there are resources available to support family justice professionals in maintaining good mental health. Here are some of the places where you can seek help:

  • In an emergency, you can ring the NHS 111 helpline.
  • LawCare is the mental health charity for the legal sector. They offer a free and confidential telephone helpline open 9am to 5pm every weekday: 0800 279 6888 and an online chat service during the same hours. They also offer training, resources and research that promotes positive change in the culture and practices of legal workplaces.
  • The Law Society runs a pastoral care helpline for member solicitors experiencing personal, financial, professional or employment difficulties: 020 7320 5795. They also have resources for managing stress and mental health.
  • Wellbeing at the Bar has an assistance programme for barristers, barristers’ clerks and legal practice managers: 0800 169 2040They also provide online resources and access to networks of support.
  • Cilex members also have access to resources and support via their website.
  • Many law firms have Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) in place. These programmes can offer confidential counselling and support services to employees. EAPs can assist with stress management, work-life balance and other mental health concerns.
  • Mental health charities such as Mind (0300 123 3393), Samaritans (116 123) and Rethink offer a range of support services including helplines, online resources, and counselling. They can provide guidance on managing stress, improving wellbeing, and accessing appropriate mental health support.
  • Connecting with peers who understand the unique challenges of the family justice field can be valuable. You can join peer support networks or professional groups where you can share experiences, seek advice and receive support from others in similar roles. LawCare offers a peer support programme and Resolution has a 121 mentoring programme that is free of charge for members and allows you to connect with a peer outside of your everyday professional network. The Solicitors’ Assistance Scheme is run by solicitor volunteers and supported by the Law Society, LawCare and the Solicitors’ Charity.
  • Working closely with a supervisor, where the relationship is one of monitoring and assessing individuals’ workloads, capacity and competence to do the work – not just checking that you are progressing client matters – can make a difference.
  • Resolution has many useful wellbeing resources for members to access.

You must prioritise your mental health and seek help when needed. By doing so, you can better support your clients and maintain your own wellbeing. Mental Health Awareness Week serves as a reminder to prioritise mental health throughout the year, not just during one designated week. Together, we can create a supportive environment for family justice professionals and promote positive mental health in the legal profession.

Sue Palmer-Conn is co-chair of Resolution’s wellbeing committee