Thanks to efforts by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, Ruby Wax, and Elon Musk , mental health, for long the poor relation of health services in Britain, is now being taken seriously. Although many people may dismiss royalty and celebrities for opening up about their own day-to-day struggles (after all, aren’t they supposed to have the perfect life?), the fact they are breaking down the stigma associated with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, should be applauded and encouraged.
However, questions are being asked in the legal community whether enough is being done to support lawyers who may be struggling with unrelenting workloads, pressure from senior partners and clients, and personal problems.
Talented solicitor left ‘broken’
This month, the Law Society Gazette reported an award-winning corporate lawyer avoided being struck-off for sending a series of emails to a client assuring him that their matter was progressing, in order to “buy himself time” .
The Solicitor’s Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) found that the lawyer had been dishonest in his dealings with the client, but his exceptional mental health circumstances meant that striking-off was not seen as an appropriate solution.
The solicitor, Peter Naylor, who was named as ‘South West Young Dealmaker of the Year’ in 2014, told the SDT he felt “broken” after the pressure of working every weekend for an extended period to cope with his caseload, began to take its toll.
From July 2013 to February 2014, Mr Naylor’s work was more stressful and contentious than usual, with a series of transactions that required completion in short timescales and were particularly aggressively negotiated. By the end of this period, Mr Naylor was left ‘physically and emotionally drained’.
In handing down a suspended two-year ban, the SDT stated, “The tribunal was sure that the misconduct arose at a time when [he] was affected by mental ill health that affected his ability to conduct himself to the standards of the reasonable solicitor”.
Mr Naylor must also provide half-yearly reports to the SRA regarding his health and fitness to practise and was ordered to pay costs of almost £10,000.
His former firm, TLT stated in response to the matter:
“We work hard at TLT to create an open and supportive work environment that enables all our people to succeed in their chosen career, recognising the pressures common across legal private practice. A core part of this is supporting both mental and physical health and we have a number of policies and initiatives in place to do this including flexible working, private medical insurance and a comprehensive employee assistance programme that provides confidential access to professional medical and mental health support.
‘In this specific case, we have managed the matter to ensure no negative impact for the client involved and have supported Peter from the moment we became aware of the issue and have continued to do so throughout the tribunal process”.
Lawyers and stress – just part of the job?
At the end of 2017, the Health and Safety Executive reported that the legal profession was third on the list of the top four most stressful occupations in the UK. The other three were welfare professionals and nursing and midwifery .
According to the statistics, 3,010 of every 100,000 workers in the legal profession have reported feeling stress, depression or anxiety in the past three years (the study covered the period between 20147-2017).
The main cause of stress stated was workload, in particular, the need to meet tight deadlines. In addition, too much work, pressure or responsibility were cited as reasons for mental health problems.
Judging from the comments from solicitors on the article, although law has always been a stressful profession, the increase in SRA rules and regulations which can lead to an investigation if not complied with, coupled with increasing demands from clients mean the pressure has become more intense in recent years. And, contrary to popular belief, it is not just ‘City’ firms who pile on the pressure, High Street practices are just as demanding.
A way forward to a calmer future?
In May 2016, as part of Mental Health Week, the Law Society published an article about stress in the workplace and what law firms could do to protect their staff .
It stated that all law firms should create a risk assessment and monitor the mental health of their staff. Although it may be uncomfortable to ask “how stressed are you” in an appraisal, the only way to know if the pressure is getting too much is to create an office culture where feeling overwhelmed is not seen as a weakness and asking for help when things get too much is not a luxury, but an expected behaviour.
Failure to implement mental health strategies in your practice could lead to mistakes being made, or, as in the case of Mr Naylor, who was clearly at the end of his reserves, clients being told “things are fine” when in fact, their matter is at a standstill. Richard Branson’s quote – “Clients do not come first.
Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients” rings true for the legal profession as it does in any other. If you want clients to receive quality, timely, professional service, so they keep returning, you must ensure the solicitor in charge of the matter is not quietly falling to pieces.
We have been helping legal professionals with professional disciplinary and regulatory hearings for over 20 years. If you have any questions relating to an SRA investigation, please call us on 0151 909 2380 or complete our Free Online Enquiry and I will soon be in touch.
If you are feeling stressed, or suffering from depression or anxiety, you can seek help by calling LawCare on 0800 2796888, or the Samaritans on 116 123 – https://www.samaritans.org/.