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When the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) reported in April 2017 that the proportion of JLD members reporting ‘severe’ or ‘extreme’ levels of stress was 26%, like many other junior lawyers, I was unsurprised.
A trainee solicitor at a niche firm, I was half-way through my training contract when I began experiencing regular panic attacks. The pressure of intense litigation (1am emails, abusive phone calls and being threatened by litigants in person), lack of any discernible supervision, the workload and responsibilities of a qualified solicitor and the constant fear of being shouted at and belittled in front of my colleagues (a daily occurrence and rite of passage) had worn down any mental strength I had managed to build up in my one year of legal practice.
Unable to switch off from work, I was sleep-deprived, panicked and having serious doubts about whether I had wasted thousands of pounds and years of my life training for a job that I was useless at. I was told by my firm that this was ‘just the way things are’, ‘this job is hard’, and ‘I wouldn’t do it if I were you’. All in all, the outlook was fairly bleak. But, I was resolved to push on, safe in the knowledge that my friends were all having a miserable time on their training contracts as well.
I was the most senior fee earner below the firm’s partners, who interpreted my panic as unwillingness to work and my new introverted nature as sullenness, informing me of the same in our open plan office, in earshot of the entire firm. I was told that there would be no future for myself at the firm or in the law if I didn’t ‘get myself together’ and that I was ‘too nice’, ‘weak’, and ‘wasn’t up to it’. When I told the senior partner that I felt the pressures of the job were making me ill and I needed some help, I was told that I had just become resentful, that no work could be taken off me as there simply weren’t enough staff and that there were ‘easier ways of making a living’.
In any other field, this situation would be ringing alarm bells and I would be advising any other person to leave, find another job and get on with their career in a healthier and more sustainable environment. However, the lesson learned at law school and consistently reinforced in practice is that a training contract is a means to an end. It is an opportunity that you are lucky to have and something that you just have to get through.
The attitude of “I went through it – so should you” from senior fee earners who trained in the 1960s and 1970s, meant that trainee solicitors at my firm fell out of love with the profession before they had even had a proper chance to experience it. My two predecessors left the firm as soon as they had qualified and one of my colleagues left before they started their training contract, deciding that the rounds of vacation schemes, assessment centres and interviews was preferable to the atmosphere that we were exposed to.
Of course, I didn’t listen to the advice I would have given anybody else. I continued, unsupported, in a role that was way above the abilities and mental resources of any trainee solicitor. Overwhelmed by a particularly nasty and lengthy litigation, I continued working, becoming increasingly unwell, exhausted and terrified about my future. I knew that if I gave up my training contract I would be throwing away my opportunity to qualify. I pushed myself until my body and mind couldn’t take anymore and I became seriously unwell, resulting in months off work.
In putting my work and the expectations of my firm before my health I sacrificed months of my life and my own wellbeing. It wasn’t until I spoke to LawCare, who offer emotional support to legal professionals, that I realised what I had been through was not my own failure. It didn’t mean that I couldn’t be a solicitor - it simply wasn’t acceptable for a trainee to be placed in the situation that I had been place in. Most importantly – there was no job in the world that was more important than my health.
During my time off I was able to meet with a number of legal professionals who had experienced similar circumstances and gone on to have fulfilling and rewarding careers. However, they agreed that the attitude of ‘it’s just the way things are at certain firms’ is pervasive. The SRA explained to me that it was an employment issue that they wouldn't get involved in. If you look at the guidance handed out to training providers, there are no requirements at all for the provision of mental health support, resources or training to junior lawyers. The requirement for sufficient supervision appears to have no checks and balances in place to ensure that trainees are not taken advantage of.
Training contracts remain a regulatory blind spot and over my numerous conversations with the SRA, the lack of surprise at my story and lack of any practical advice on what to do about this ‘employment dispute’ spoke volumes. If junior solicitors are to have any faith in the regulatory body, there needs to be accountability for firms who mistreat their junior staff.
The Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society wrote to the SRA in February of this year, raising concerns about this very issue. They cited two cases of vulnerable junior lawyers receiving harsh sanctions for misconduct whilst in ‘toxic and uncaring’ firms, where they were ‘deceived, bullied, pressured and humiliated’. This followed two SRA decisions in which a trainee solicitor and a junior solicitor were struck off for their actions while working in highly pressurised, unsupportive firms. Whilst the SRA’s response recognised ‘the unhealthy environments in which they worked’, they stood by their sanctions, and confirmed that they have the power to ‘discipline firms where they have an unhealthy culture, work or training environment’.
The main issue with this is that by the time the SRA come to discipline firms, the unhealthy culture has come to light through the loss of a junior solicitor’s career. This shows a reactive approach by the SRA which fails to take the necessary steps to hold training providers accountable.
I was incredibly lucky – I managed to transfer my training contract to an understanding and supportive firm and I will qualify with them this year. Rather than being ‘not cut out for this job’ as my previous boss helpfully described it, I was in the wrong environment - an environment of fear that nobody at any stage of their career should be exposed to.
Until the legal profession and its regulatory body takes practical and substantive steps to shatter the illusion of all legal professionals going through an ‘initiation rite’ of an unnecessarily gruelling and brutal training regime, nothing will change. I was fortunate to have a support network to help me through my period of work-induced ill-health but there are those who do not have the same benefits. It needs to be recognised that there are firms that are behaving appallingly in their treatment of junior staff, that it is no longer acceptable and that junior lawyers and the profession as a whole should not have to accept it.
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