Mental health and law: does IP have a culture problem?


Rory O'Neill

Mental health and law: does IP have a culture problem?

GrAl /

A 24/7 working culture and shrinking boundaries between home and the office are some of the problems the profession needs to address to prevent mental health problems within its ranks, reports Rory O’Neill.

In 2017, Graham and Val McCartney’s son Jonathan took his own life at the age of 35. Jonathan was a successful patent attorney at Haseltine Lake in Bristol, and his tragic death induced his parents to try to understand more about the mental health problems facing lawyers.

In the wake of their son’s death, the couple established the charity Jonathan’s Voice in his memory. Their goal is to promote a greater understanding of the suicide risk for young professionals and help businesses put in place better support systems for their staff—especially in law and IP.

“We found there were a lot of national charities doing good things, but their support materials were mostly generic,” says Graham McCartney. “We felt there was a need for bespoke support for the IP sector to address stress, anxiety, burnout, and the types of personalities who enter the legal profession.”

Their starting point was to work with IP Inclusive, an organisation dedicated to promoting diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the IP sector. After surveying people working in the profession, it “became clear that people had challenges to do with mental health and wellbeing,” McCartney says.

And after several years of engaging closely with the sector, he feels there are a number of characteristics specific to IP and law which may help explain the pressure IP professionals find themselves under.

Negative emotions in law

“IP tends to attract perfectionists, people who have perhaps been successful in previous careers but can suffer imposter syndrome in law,” McCartney says.

This point is echoed by Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive officer of the charity LawCare. “The type of people who become lawyers have thinking styles that are very helpful for law, but if you don’t manage them well, they can negatively affect your mental health.” Rimmer says.

It’s not just to do with the personalities of lawyers—it’s about the industry’s culture, as well as the day-to-day realities of the job. Part of the work of Jonathan’s Voice is to discuss with law firms what they can do to help their staff.

“They need to look at any unhealthy cultural expectations in their organisation,” McCartney says. “These are very pervasive. Many patent and trademark attorneys are working long hours with very tight deadlines and financial billing targets. Lawyers are under immense pressure to get things right, to meet these important deadlines. Mistakes can have huge financial implications for clients.”

Rimmer agrees that one of the biggest barriers to mental wellbeing in law is cultural. “Mental health and wellbeing has gone much higher up the agenda, which is great, but a lot of the focus is about supporting people in the sector,” she says.

“And then you’re putting them back into an environment which hasn’t changed. We need to look at more than the individual; we need to look at the culture in law firms.”

”We felt there was a need for bespoke support for the IP sector to address stress, anxiety, burnout, and the types of personalities who enter the legal profession.” - Graham McCartney, Jonathan’s Voice

Mental health in IP is an issue that Emily Collins, vice president, San Francisco office, Kilburn & Strode, feels passionate about. While at Oxford University, she founded a mental health awareness campaign. “I have carried that work forward in the IP world, working with IP Inclusive and Jonathan’s Voice to improve mental health in the workplace for IP professionals,” she explains.

According to Collins, the taboo around mental health is deep-rooted within conservative professions such as IP law. “I focus a lot of my efforts on addressing the stigma around mental health in the workplace. Stigma means that so many people don’t seek help for mental health problems because they are scared of being judged, or thought less of if they do,” she explains.

“Many IP lawyers are conscientious and care a great amount about their careers. They worry that an employer finding out about a mental health problem might have a negative impact on them. The absence of open conversations around mental health means this assumption can remain unchallenged,” she says.

“If we can break the silence and create an open conversation around mental health, many people will feel able to seek health for problems without fear of judgement.”

The challenges of the 24/7 culture

Despite greater awareness of mental health and wellbeing in society at large, Rimmer fears the challenges in law are getting worse.

“We were set up in 1997 to deal with a concern around how much lawyers were drinking,” she explains. LawCare offers a confidential support service for people working in the legal sector who are experiencing difficulties. But since the charity was established, the concerns cited by legal professionals have changed, with overworking and a “24/7 culture” now a key part of the picture.

“The 24/7 culture didn’t exist then as it does now. The advent of technology means it can be very hard to switch off. The long working hours culture is endemic,” Rimmer explains.

The unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated concerns about the extent to which work is intruding into the home and people’s lives.

As Rimmer puts it: “Working long hours means you have less time to look after your mental health, and COVID has amplified all of that. At the moment, one-third of our contacts have a COVID-related issue.”

The pressures that come with working from home are particularly acute for junior staff, she feels, while many have found themselves working longer hours during the pandemic. “We’re possibly sleepwalking into a burnout crisis,” she fears. “People have really been living at work.”

McCartney argues that law firms need to be proactive and replace unhealthy cultural expectations with positive ones. “There should be an expectation for people to take their holidays, and that when they’re unwell, they take time to look after their own mental health,” he says.

“The type of people who become lawyers have thinking styles that are very helpful for law, but if you don’t manage them well, they can negatively affect your mental health.” - Elizabeth Rimmer, LawCare

How responsive has the industry been to a conversation that implicitly carries a degree of criticism about how it functions? McCartney reserves particular praise for representative bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) and the equivalent body for trademark lawyers (CITMA).

“They’ve taken the issue on board and recognised how important it is to be at the forefront of dealing with this,” he says. McCartney cites the work of Andrea Brewster, lead executive officer of IP Inclusive, who contributed to a CIPA podcast on mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

A slow burner

With law firms, McCartney describes prompting greater awareness of mental health as more of a “slow burner”. Part of the challenge, he feels, is convincing them that it makes business sense to do it.

“I’m sure it’s to do with chief executives and partners feeling that talking about mental health is a difficult issue. We’ll do a half-day workshop or two-hour course free at the point of delivery, but there’s a time cost for them to release partners and senior staff to come along and do that. It’s about convincing people that you need to take that first step,” he says.

“Senior leaders need to walk the walk,” Rimmer agrees, saying there’s been a tendency to leave the mental health agenda to human resources, or set up wellbeing committees with enthusiastic junior staff.

“But because law is so hierarchical, people in firms need to see senior staff talking about it and practising what’s preached.”

That means that senior staff themselves need to exhibit behaviours that are conducive to good mental wellbeing. If junior staff don’t see those above them taking time off when appropriate and keeping strong boundaries between home and work, they’ll probably feel much less comfortable doing that themselves.

Rimmer and McCartney agree that it’s in the best interests of law firms to take some possibly counterintuitive steps, because failing to prioritise staff wellbeing leads to workplace absenteeism and difficulties in recruiting good employees.

“People coming out of universities are more tuned-in to talking about these issues. If you want to recruit the best people, you need to be able to talk about it too,” McCartney says.

“Stigma means that so many people don’t seek help for mental health problems because they are scared of being judged or thought less of if they do.” - Emily Collins, Kilburn & Strode

Rimmer adds that mental health gets to the heart of legal work and what it takes to succeed in the profession.

“A lawyer’s mind is their greatest asset—the work requires concentration and attention to detail. If you have poor mental health, you may find your capacity to apply your mind is impaired, you won’t be able to do your best work and are more likely to make a mistake or a poor ethical decision.”

Coming out of the shadows

There remains the fundamental issue of the divide between home and work, which has become so blurred over the past year. For all of the concerns over the economic impact of COVID-19 on the legal sector, law firms have, in general, done pretty well.

Rimmer points out that December 2020 was among the highest billing months for the UK legal sector in its history. Increased productivity and output surely demand more of the staff working in the sector. At a time when staff are “living at work”, there is a risk that business success will be used to justify extracting more out of those creating that value.

This makes the increased focus on mental health and wellbeing more important than ever, but crucially it must be followed up with action.

“It would be an unfulfilling profession that didn’t put its members under a certain amount of pressure,” observes McCartney. “Law is an extremely rewarding but challenging profession, where stress is probably inevitable.”

Mental health and wellbeing, then, needs to come out of the shadows and be at the forefront of how the legal sector evaluates its own success.

As McCartney says: “It’s important that people look after themselves, and that talking about mental health becomes as commonplace as going to the gym. It’s not about pictures of people sitting with their heads in their hands in dark rooms.”

Here are links to organisations that can provide advice and support:

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Mental health, patent attorney, IP law, D&I, trademarks, CIPA, CITMA, productivity