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Mental health: top law firms commit to new working practices to support employees

More than ever before, there is a greater focus on mental health in the legal industry. The profession is renowned for its long hours and high pressure—often underpinned by the unrelenting requirement to meet client or business demand.

Whether it’s a partner in a City firm working around the clock; a high street family lawyer juggling multiple cases; or, an under resourced local government solicitor—the effects of a challenging legal professional career can, in some instances, cause stress and lead to mental health problems. This isn’t a new phenomenon, it’s been happening for generations. However, in recent years, the legal industry is increasing efforts to change the trend by raising the profile of the mental health agenda and make improvements to the working life of legal professionals.

Some of the initiatives set up in the industry include the Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce, a cross-profession taskforce initiated by the Law Society in partnership with other legal organisations to promote and support mental health in the legal community; and, the City Mental Health Alliance, a coalition of businesses in London, 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 legal workers, and to share best practices and increase mental health understanding.

There are also many law firms and businesses pioneering their own mental health and wellbeing initiatives to increase the awareness around the issue, and provide essential on-site support for employees. Only last month law firm Dechert LLP, in its London office, introduced Mental Health Champions and Mental Health First Aiders, which involves a group of employees undergoing mental health training with St John’s Ambulance to enable them to provide support to colleagues who may be struggling with mental health issues.

In another positive step, in tackling the stigma around mental health in the legal industry, some of the UK’s largest law firms and banks have collaborated in an “unprecedented alliance” to address avoidable working practices that can cause mental health problems and wellbeing issues for employees.

Developed by Barclays, Pinsent Masons and Addleshaw Goddard, the Mindful Business Charter represents a landmark pledge by cross-industry organisations—based upon a set of core principles including to improve communication, and respect rest periods and the considerate delegation of tasks.

At a signing event last month, other organisations adopted the Charter and pledged to take the necessary steps to support its principles including: the Lloyds Banking Group, NatWest, HSBC, Ashurst, Baker McKenzie, Clifford Chance, Eversheds Sutherland, Hogan Lovells and Simmons & Simmons.

Stephanie Hamon, Managing Director and Head of External Engagement, Legal, at Barclays, and an Advisory Board Member for Thomson Reuters Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law programme, said: “Historically UK Legal D&I Committee had lots of success of running initiatives and events to further the dialogue on diversity within Barclays, but this is an opportunity to effect change for the better not only within Barclays but beyond into our panel firms and across the legal industry”.

Hamon went on to highlight the significance of the cross-industry collaboration, adding: “This is the first time that a legal function or its panel of law firms have drawn together a set of principles designed to sustain better mental wellbeing within the workplace. For an industry which has worn its long hours culture as a badge of honour, this recognition of the need to support the long term mental health of colleagues is unprecedented.

“The aim of the Mindful Business Charter is to prompt colleagues to think about making small changes to the way they work to reduce instances of avoidable stress in the workplace. By encouraging all colleagues to make small changes to the way they work, then together we can make exponential improvements to our workplace culture”.

The launch of the Mindful Business Charter is encouraging, and symbolises further evidence of the legal industry taking the mental health and wellbeing of its employees seriously.

It signifies a collective desire among the leading professional services organisations to drive change in working practices that can fuel mental health problems. Embedding such change, however, will not be easy—but it is another positive step on what will be a long journey to improving the legal workplace culture.

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