"During my traineeship, I was repeatedly bullied by a female partner who shouted at me in front of others for no reason except it seemed to give her a power trip. I had recently lost a parent to terminal illness, but rather than be sympathetic, she seemed to perceive my sadness as a weakness and the bullying only got worse. I really struggled and my confidence was destroyed.
"I had a senior colleague in whom I confided, who I will always remember as my solace through that dark period."
That was one of the formative influences for "Ash", the Journal’s resident career advice columnist, who for the past 10 years has tried to help younger lawyers through the problematic work situations that regrettably appear all too common in the legal office.
Of that episode she concludes: "I had a very good friend I eventually spoke to, who assured me everything would be fine and I just needed to get out of there, which I did."
From that experience, she was conscious about helping out new trainees and junior members of staff, and they in turn confided in her with their problems. "Some of the stories were horrendous and that’s what prompted me to think that we need a bit more transparency about these issues.
"I wanted to assure young lawyers that they were not alone in these situations."
Hence the monthly columns, every one of which Ash assures us are based on real-life experiences. And while, even as she remains anonymous, Ash has heard lawyers say they can relate to the conundrums discussed, she knows reactions to the column are mixed. "I’m not surprised by the more negative comments at all. I think there is still a lot of ignorance and a lack of empathy in the profession towards issues such as bullying and mental health."
She adds: "We always assume that everybody is bright and confident enough to confide in someone, but not everyone has someone to talk to. So if the column gives somebody assurance that they are not alone and offers possible solutions, this can only be positive and validates its purpose."
Toughen up – or culture shift
Ash believes that despite some steps making it easier for employees to raise issues, there is still a long way to go. "There needs to be a culture shift in the way we approach things. For example, the value of mental health definitely needs to be recognised. It is important to everybody, and mental health issues are something we can all experience in various forms."
That applies to all genders. "The most macho male lawyers can be under a lot of stress that makes them more irritable or unable to sleep. But they won’t recognise it as necessarily related to mental health because I think they feel there’s a bit of a stigma attached to that. There seems to be a real culture of bravado and getting on with things."
The pressure on female professionals has reduced over the years, though there is still much room for improvement. A mother of two, Ash has experienced the immense pressure placed on women returning from maternity. "Often people don’t come back to the same job. I found on both occasions that my temporary cover was taken on permanently, and I felt a bit lost as to where my place was, which didn’t help with the whole coming back to work." Within three weeks of returning after her first child, she was even asked by a senior manager when she was planning on having another baby, so he knew whether to keep her maternity cover on. "That’s unfortunately the kind of remarks that are not alien to what I’ve experienced throughout my career."
Best family friendly firm?
How do we improve workplace culture? Ash believes that while HR can be very helpful to employees who are struggling, their lack of independence from the firm limits what they can do. Instead, she suggests that every firm considers having a mentor for junior members of staff, or a dedicated partner to focus on colleagues’ wellbeing. "Someone who is very approachable, affable, and able to speak to people – that everybody feels confident enough to speak to. If that person is a partner, they would be able to share, anonymously even, issues that must be resolved if the firm doesn’t want people to leave."
The Law Society of Scotland could also act. "I don’t doubt that they try their best in terms of raising awareness about mental health and other issues, but I think there is a bigger role to play in the sense of perhaps setting up a charter or protocol for all law firms to ensure they are looking after the mental health and wellbeing of all their employees."
In addition, "You have the law awards – what about awards to recognise the firms that have the best family friendly policies, for example? Or the best work-life balance? That in itself would show it’s something the Society and others care about as well. And it might cause others to review their policies."
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