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What it's really like working in the law with a mental illness

"I avoided contact with my colleagues for fear that they would see that I wasn’t coping and was just not really there."

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What it's really like working in the law with a mental illness

Peter Riddleston is Learning & Quality Director at LawNet
Mental health issues are something that I care very deeply about. I’ve suffered with depression and anxiety on and off throughout my adult life. Right now, I’m in a pretty good phase. About two years ago I took up running and now run marathons and half marathons as part of my support for the mental health charity, Mind. This has enabled me to speak out about my own mental health journey and I’m lucky because the company I work for understands that I can struggle with my mental health and is very supportive.

It’s now a long time since I worked as a practising solicitor but I can remember clearly how I felt during the times when my depression and anxiety were really affecting me. Being in that dark tunnel of depression took a terrible toll on me and made working a daily battle as I struggled to cope with worsening symptoms.  Here are a few examples of what I experienced.

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  • I simply couldn’t concentrate on anything. I’d try to read a document and find that I’d get to the bottom of the page and couldn’t recall anything of what I’d read. I’d lose focus in meetings. People would ask me a question and I’d have no idea at all how to answer. 
  • My attention to detail disappeared. In a job where attention to detail is absolutely crucial, having an illness which rips this to pieces is a deeply uncomfortable place to be.
  • My time management was very poor. My inability to concentrate made completing small tasks much more difficult so everything took me ages and I would lose time. I would drift off for long periods into a spiral of negative thinking and wouldn’t be able to complete work. My fee targets and the possibility of hitting them became an utter irrelevance and totally unattainable.
  • I had no confidence in my judgement. My ability to give any sort of advice got lost as my analytical skills steadily disappeared. I’d look at the wrong issues because I just couldn’t stay focused on what was relevant for the client. Understandably, colleagues would question my competence and this hurt me deeply.
  • I became very forgetful. This must have made me seem incredibly unreliable. I’d forget deadlines and meetings and struggled to follow more than one or two basic instructions.
  • I avoided contact with my colleagues for fear that they would see that I wasn’t coping and was just not really there. I needn’t have bothered. I think most of them were all too aware that I’d steadily ceased to function on any professional level at all.
  • I had constant anxiety that I was physically ill. This led to me feeling on edge all the time which was exhausting leading to tiredness affecting me during the day and a lack of a regular sleep pattern at night.

Leaving my career as a solicitor behind was very tough and it took me a long time to come to terms with what I’d been through. But, steadily over the last fifteen years or so, I’ve continued to work in the legal sector and forged a rewarding and enjoyable career, specialising in learning and professional development, something which I’ve always been interested in. There have still been difficult times when my mental health hasn’t been good but I’ve steadily found ways, such as running, to work through these spells.

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