As questions go, and lawyers have to deal with many of them, these seem innocuous enough. Personally I reply (most often) ‘fine’. Or ‘hanging in there’ if feeling fraught. Or ‘top form’ if, you know, I’m on top form. The question is just interesting enough to require a response, and bland enough not to require any form of deep soul-searching for an apt reply.
Now, how about: ‘How is your mental health?’ Not a question that gets asked much (if at all). Much trickier. Could lead to minutes ticking by while you consider it and come up with an appropriate response. And what does this Socratic-type enquiry mean for your life anyway?
Many of us don’t ask that question, don’t have time for it, can’t face what the answer might be, would prefer the whole question of health – mental, physical and emotional – went away so we could focus on the important things in life. Like the next client, and their problems. The trouble is, as much as many lawyers like to act as if we are brains on a stick, it turns out we are living, breathing, feeling creatures, exactly the same as everyone else. But potentially wearing darker clothing.
Which is why I think Mental Health Awareness Week (11-17 May) is a good thing. It creates a space for questions, awareness and possibly answers which don’t get a look in most of the time. The theme this year is mindfulness, which is an interest of mine. I was first taught to meditate in about 1996, and have gradually (very, very gradually) increased the frequency of my meditation from once every five years (roughly) to, now, most days.
I feel better for it, and it definitely helps increase my resilience and reduces incidence of depression (which I have had bouts of for about 20 years). So I am part of an unofficial group of professionals organising an event at 6.15pm on Monday 11 May during this year’s awareness week, kindly hosted by Irwin Mitchell solicitors, which will explore how meditation and ethics from a Buddhist perspective can fit with the world of work. Or, indeed, if they fit at all.
The title, perhaps inevitably, is The Only Way is Ethics (I’m sorry about that). Those new to meditation/Buddhism are very welcome, as well as those who have an interest or involvement already. Lawyers and non-lawyers alike are invited.
Our thinking is this: being a lawyer is highly pressured, there is little let up, at work or even at home (or on holiday) for many. Lawyers are pretty bad at looking after themselves, or seeking support and this all takes its toll. The organisation set up to encourage lawyers to look after their health is LawCare. As things currently stand, LawCare’s website contains lots of useful information about how to deal with an alcohol or substance abuse issue, or how to manage a return to work after stress-related absence.
This is absolutely vital information.
The point of a mindfulness practice is, as well as providing a way of improving health once there is a problem, it can also help to try and prevent these problems arising in the first place. The Bar Council last year launched its Wellbeing Committee, which has undertaken a survey of the profession, the results of which have not yet been published. The Law Society and CILEx don’t have much to say about practical techniques towards stress reduction and improved mental health. At least, not yet..
Lawyers are pretty bad at looking after themselves, or seeking support and this all takes its toll
Mindfulness has been practised for at least 2,500 years, since before the time of the Buddha, so has a reasonable track record. It can be practised entirely devoid of any spiritual content or meaning, although personally that doesn’t work so well for me. Our event is deliberately headed from a Buddhist perspective, and the speakers (two authors, a retired judge and a psychiatrist) are all practising Buddhists.
The event will include a led-through mindfulness meditation and a discussion about how Buddhist ethics and work can co-exist or support each other.
When we started putting our event together, I was absolutely stunned that no one had run an event on mindfulness specifically for lawyers before. Mindfulness is the new buzzword in mental health. It can help with stress reduction, overall calm, focus, ability to deal with difficult situations, enjoyment of life and an increase in willpower. All things that seem to fit well with lawyering.
I appreciate the concept of sitting and paying attention to one’s breath for five minutes or half an hour could seem somewhat anomalous when you have just received another facetious letter from the other side and have 48 things on a to-do list at 6.40pm when it started out with 44 things on it at 9am. You may well recognise feelings of wanting to stamp all over your opponent’s pleadings, or even your opponent. Those feelings aren’t necessarily conducive to you giving your best to win your case, or to be pleasant to be around when you go home to those who love you.
Mindfulness can help with all this.
Our work as lawyers is important. The rule of law is important. Creating the best possible conditions for the work we do for our clients and for society more generally is worth doing. If we practitioners are burnt out husks, it doesn’t serve us, our clients, our firms, the legal system or, more seriously still, our families and friends.