MAD World Exclusive: why it’s so important to bring the legal profession together to decide the best way forwards

Richard Martin (1000x1000) (1)

There has been much media coverage of the pressures of the legal profession following the tragic passing of Pinsent Masons Partner Vanessa Ford. In recognition of the industry’s unique challenges, our sister event MAD World is this year adding a Legal Summit to its agenda.

Pinsent Mason Senior Partner Andrew Masraf has confirmed he will be taking part in this Summit on 17th October in London, which will shine a light a light on the state of the mental health of the legal profession and why it’s so important that everyone comes together to decide the best way forwards to make the law a healthier profession.

Richard Martin (pictured) will be leading the Legal Summit. As CEO of the Mindful Business Charter (MBC), and, as an ex-lawyer, Martin is now one of the leading voices on mental health in the legal profession, as well as consultant at workplace wellbeing firm byrne∙dean.

His passion is personal; after 20 years working as a City employment lawyer he had a “big” mental breakdown resulting in hospitalisation and a two year recovery. This led to his interest in mental health, taking part in the This Is Me, London Lord Mayor’s mental health campaign, and training as a MHFA instructor, as well as working for the MBC. The charter is a practical framework that strives to “remove unnecessary sources of stress and promote better mental health and wellbeing in the workplace”.

We spoke to him to find out more about his perspective.

Can you tell us a bit more about your breakdown and what happened please?

Yes. I went on holiday in May of 2011 for a week and, at that point in my career, I was being lined up to be the next management partner at the law firm. I was on a big promotion track.

It was while we were away that I had my first ever panic attack and realised I was not very well at all. Things went downhill very quickly after that. I never actually went back to my law firm. 

I came back home. I tried to do a little bit of work from home, but quickly realised that was impossible . Then I spent a month in hospital. 

I felt completely broken and incapable of doing anything. I was very much starting again. Initially it was just about whether I could get dressed or make my own breakfast. It was a long time before I had any thoughts about work again.

What was it like for you going through that experience of being a senior lawyer, having a breakdown then going back and being really open about your experiences?

My employer kept a position open for me.

I was conscious that lots of friends, clients and colleagues were asking the  firm ‘where is he?’ And the firm was saying ‘he’s off sick’. 

I wasn’t on any mission at that time but I wanted to tell people the problem because I didn’t want them to think I was dying of cancer or something, although, obviously, a mental breakdown is a serious thing too.

The management was worried saying that would impact my ability to work again because people wouldn’t trust me. I’m not sure that’s true. But I didn’t care, I preferred that the truth was out there.

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We agreed some fairly anodyne wording, but I never ended up going back to work there. 

Why didn’t you return to your law firm after recovering from your breakdown?

I couldn’t face going back to the law environment. So we agreed I’d leave and I joined byrne∙dean and started talking about mental health.

What realisations did you have about the workplace after your breakdown?

I was an employment lawyer and the general idea is that if there are problems in the workplace what you do is bring a load of law to it and sort it out that way. I realised after much therapy that the reason why people behave badly in the workplace is because of what’s going on in their heads.

So if we could understand more about why people did things, the conscious and unconscious thinking that was going on, and bring that perspective into the workplace, we’d probably be much better at resolving issues when they happen but also possibly stopping them happening in the first place. 

And that’s the idea around the Mindful Business Charter. Rather than just raising awareness and putting in place supports to help people who are ill, why don’t we stop making people ill in the first place? Why don’t we change the ways in which we work so that we remove the unnecessary stress?

My purpose when I first started out in 2014-15 was to stop people getting into the situation I got into. But it’s moved on a bit since then and is more about how do we create workplaces where people can thrive.

How has your attitude to work changed?

Severe mental illness changes you. 

When you think about physical illness, if you break your leg, then the focus is all about ‘how do we get back to where you were?’ But generally speaking with mental illness that’s probably not very helpful because where you were was probably contributing to your illness in the first place. 

What was unhelpful about your workplace that contributed to your illness?

My firm was a great place with great people – there was nothing particular about where I worked. Rather it was about me. I was doing an awful lot of work to please other people, rather than actually what I wanted myself. As I have reflected more I have realised there was a mismatch between what I personally valued, and what was valued in my workplace and in many law firms generally. 

I think this happens alot in law because people tend to be conscientious. They tend to have the characteristics described in the book ‘Depressive Illness – The Curse of the Strong’ which make them more susceptible, which are moral strength, reliability, diligence, a strong conscience and a strong sense of responsibility. 

How did the legal profession react when you first started talking about mental health?

We hired a room on the Strand in London and invited 50 or so clients and it was the first time I’d spoken publicly about my experience, and we didn’t really know what was going to happen. 

What did happen was that practically everyone in the room approached one of the team and told them about their story about mental illness, whether it be about themselves or someone close to them. Everyone had a tale to tell and we realised we needed to be talking about this more and allowing those stories, and the reasons behind them, to be told.

You also recently invited senior leaders of the legal profession together after the tragic passing of Vanessa Ford, a Partner at law firm Pinsent Masons. Can you tell us about that?

Yes, we invited leaders to talk about the response to Vanessa’s passing. The senior partner at the firm concerned spoke and I spoke about why we need to act and we tabled some proposals. 

What do you think needs to happen for wellbeing in law?

There needs to be a much greater focus on health and safety from a mental health perspective that has more awareness and accountability. 

When I was ill, I was the last person anybody thought would end up with mental health problems. But we’re all different and react differently. We can’t predict how long hours, lack of sleep, lack of connection with loved ones, etc, will affect people or cause them to be be suicidal or in crisis. But we do know that those factors are significant risk factors. Therefore, we have to take more care of everybody. 

Do you think wellbeing has got worse or better in law?

It is hard to say with great accuracy because we have a lot more awareness of the issue now than we did even ten years ago. But I would say that law has become more intense and wellbeing has probably got worse because of a whole range of factors. A big one is undoubtedly the impact of technology.

When I first started work, we barely had the internet and we didn’t have email. So, you had to send letters, which would arrive a couple of days later. Then they’d take at least another day to consider it, before replying, which would mean another few days. You had time to think and reflect and the turnaround time was probably about 10 days. 

Now, with email, reply time is 10 minutes. And I don’t think the quality of work is any better. It’s probably considerably worse because lawyers haven’t got time to reflect. I actually think lawyers don’t have enough self-respect and are too beholden to perceptions of what they think their clients expect and unrealistic concepts of what constitutes good client service.

What else negatively affects wellbeing?

The pandemic probably played a part because people got used to not doing anything but working, and many haven’t stopped. 

Because of the war for talent, too, salaries for junior lawyers have gone through the roof, with some starting at £160K per annum. Of course, if you’re paying them that, you expect to get a lot back from them. So you work them very hard and that’s driven, partly, by the influx of US law firms into London.

Do you think there’s enough recognition that things need to change?

On one hand, there’s recognition that there’s a real problem. On the other hand, there’s been an increase in intensity at the same time.

So the idea behind the Mindful Business Charter is to create a movement and suggest solutions to the problem. But it’s a slow burner because people don’t change quickly. There has been change but it’s been slow. And who knows how AI is going to affect law, whether it will help or hinder wellbeing. For that, excuse the pun, the jury is still out.

The Legal Summit at MAD World, on 17th October 2024, will bring together speakers and attendees from across the legal profession to discuss key issues and decide the best way forward to make the law a healthier profession. Chaired by Richard Martin, the stellar lineup of speakers includes: Andrew Masraf, Senior Partner, Pinsent Masons; James Pereira KC; Dr George Artley, Legal Manager, International Bar Association (IBA); Jude Cragg, Director of Human Resources, Capsticks Solicitors LLP; Sharon Blackman OBE, Managing Director, Head of Services Legal, Citi and Nick Manners, Head of the PHB Family Department, Payne Hicks Beach amongst others. The Legal Summit at MAD World is produced in partnership with MBC and LawCare. You can find out more and register to attend here.

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