Tackling mental health in law firms

Recent news that the head of global law firm Baker McKenzie, Paul Rawlinson, is taking temporary leave due to exhaustion raises the question of whether law firms are doing enough to support the wellbeing of their employees, says Averil Leimon.


We were yet again lamenting the levels of stress rampant in the UK, appalling male suicide figures, the detrimental impact stress is having on the output for businesses and quality of employee’s work. But are statistics like a loss to employers of £33-42 billion annually too huge to make any sense? Perhaps the fact that one in six reported mental health problems in the last week alone, makes it more real. 

High-performance culture

The legal industry, a high-performance culture faces the these very challenges, many would say more. Working as a lawyer can be very stressful, with extremely long hours, large workloads, and often an unrelenting requirement to meet client or business demands. Official figures, published by the Health and Safety Executive in 2017, on ‘work-related stress, depression or anxiety’ ranked the legal profession fourth in the list of the most stressful jobs.

Legal helpline

Meanwhile, statistics revealed by the charity LawCare, highlighted that calls from lawyers to its helpline has reached a ‘record high’.  Nearly half of the solicitors and barristers who called cited depression (17 per cent) and workplace stress (27 percent) as the reason. Other problems included disciplinary concerns, anxiety, and bereavement, financial problems, bullying and harassment, chronic illness, alcohol and drug abuse, career development and relationship issues.

Slaughter and May tackles mental health

One of the employers who has taken ownership of mental health in the workplace and trained mental health first aiders is leading international law firm Slaughter and May. It believes supporting the mental wellbeing of its staff is essential to ensuring its employees can operate at the top of their game. Introducing Mental Health First Aid training is just one of the steps the firm is taking to provide a mentally healthy workplace.

Male domination

Most organisations have not actually changed their deep-seated beliefs about mental health and in our experience this is particularly prevalent in male designed and dominated organisations, where what is running through management’s minds is, ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’. 

Stressful organisations

Stressful organisations, of which there are many, assume there is only one way of doing business, long hours, presenteeism, intense working, constant travel with no time to develop the hinterland that would provide resilience to face challenge successfully. Stressed, anxious and unhappy people are not as productive as they should be at work.  According to the 2017 Stevenson Farmer review, the cost of poor mental health in the  is estimated to be between £33bn and £42bn, approximately two per cent of the UK 2016 GDP. 


Lawcare cites a growing number of calls to its helpline and it is showing no sign of abating. The charity receives a wide variety of calls to its helpline from barristers feeling burnt out, young trainees and students struggling with the workload, and experienced lawyers and partners dealing with depression. However, in response to such alarming trends and the advancement of the mental health agenda across the wider society, the legal industry – despite a steady start – has in recent years began to take decisive steps to address mental health in the workplace.

Culture of good mental health

The Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce, launched in 2016, is gaining momentum and support. The cross-profession taskforce was initiated by the Law Society in partnership with other legal organisations, including the Bar Council, CILEx Regulation, LawCare, and BPP to promote and support mental health and well-being in the legal community. Similarly, the City Mental Health Alliance was established by a coalition of businesses in London and is currently chaired by Nigel Jones – partner at Linklaters. The Alliance is steered by senior leaders striving to create a culture of good mental health for City workers, and to share best practices and increase mental health understanding.

Emotional well-being

Sophisticated and forward-thinking leaders are psychologically astute and recognise difference - of personality, background, values, ages and anxiety levels - and play to people’s strengths and different drivers. These organisations ensure that there are systems in place to spot the signs quickly. Research shows that emotional well-being problems are more likely to recur or persist if they are not addressed promptly and with the right treatment and support and there is clear evidence to show that early intervention can help prevent issues from becoming more serious.  

New virtual care

However, with bodies like the British Medical Association (BMA) warning that thousands of patients are waiting more than six months for access to psychological “talking therapies” to help them cope with negative thoughts and feelings there is much to be done in this area.It is encouraging to see health and well-being providers now starting to offer mental health support as an integral part of their offering, with some companies offering self-referral to a mental health teams within 48 hours.  We are also seeing the advent of new virtual care offerings in this arena with healthcare technology companies like Teladoc Health, that are not only effortless for employers to provide, but demonstrate positive outcomes and value for patients seeking help for a variety of mental health conditions. For an employer, these services set your business apart by truly demonstrating that your employee’s wellbeing is extremely important to your organisation.

Commercially successful

When work is the place you go to because you believe that your talent and potential are valued and recognised, where you are given the opportunity to achieve the success you seek, then it not only becomes a haven for well-being but employees are more productive and the end result is a win for an organisation who will certainly be more commercially successful. So, don’t waste time and energy on box ticking exercises but go for a deep change in culture. Lives depend on it.

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