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I suffered with mental health problems throughout my teens and twenties, although these were not properly diagnosed until I reached my 30s. Attitudes to mental health were very different at that time and my parents, who were both health professionals, were strongly of the view that I should not enter the mental health system due to concerns about how this might affect my future. This was not something that was discussed with me at the time, however, and so I did not fully recognise that I was unwell - my perception was that I was just someone who wasn’t as strong or able to cope as well as other people.
I felt an enormous pressure to do well at university and had a dread of failure. This exacerbated my mental health problems and led to some unhealthy behaviour which, looking back, was an attempt to deal with my feelings, and several bouts of illness, including a particularly severe episode shortly before my finals. There was a real question mark over whether I would be able sit my final exams, but with the support of my mother and my Advisor of Studies, Mr McGhee, I managed to get through these. I found out later that he and my mother had devised a system to check that I had made it into each exam and Mr McGhee would then phone my mother to reassure her. I have always found this very touching.
I got married in 1993 and our daughter was born in 1996, followed by our son 18 months later. Unfortunately, I suffered post-natal depression after both births, and this was particularly severe after my son’s birth, which led to an admission to hospital.
Spending two months in hospital was a daunting but ultimately very beneficial experience. This may seem an odd thing to say, as there were some very unwell and troubled people on the ward, including myself especially at the beginning of my time there, but the staff were extremely supportive and the opportunity to step away from daily life and focus on addressing my own mental health was invaluable. For the first time, there was an acknowledgement that I suffered from recognised mental health problems and was not simply someone who couldn’t cope like everyone else as I had always believed.
Shortly after my admission to the hospital, I was told that if I had not agreed to go in voluntarily, steps may well have been taken to make sure that I was admitted, such was the concern for my own safety and that of my children. In the hospital environment I felt safe and I was persuaded after several weeks that it would be beneficial for my son to join me so that we could bond. I was reluctant to agree to this, but the time we spent together allowed me to build up some confidence in my ability to care for him.
When I left hospital shortly before Christmas in 1998, I was by no means fully recovered and there were times when being at home felt overwhelming. I had not seen my daughter at all since my admission to hospital and it took time to build up our relationship again. However, gradually, with support from my husband and family, I started to feel more able to cope.
This was a very difficult time for me and my family and was one of the factors that led to my decision to take some time away from work altogether, as I did not feel able to juggle work and home life. However, even without that experience, I would have chosen to return to work part-time if possible, as having a family was important to me and I wanted to devote time to my children while they were young.
I had worked for a partner for a number of years and I made him aware of my health challenges. He was very supportive and kept in touch with me and, over time, he encouraged me to think about coming back to work. Gradually, I increased my hours from just one morning a week to two full days. I was very fortunate to have the understanding and support of a partner who saw me as an asset to the business and recognised that, although I could not take on a traditional fee-earning role, I had strengths and abilities that were of value.
Having been away from the work environment for several years and then working very much part time, my confidence in my abilities, which had never been particularly strong, had taken quite a knock. I had concluded that I would not progress further and the best I could hope for was to be able to work part-time for as long as this suited me. Little did I know that my career would go on to develop in a way that I could never have imagined.
In 2007, my husband (who is also a solicitor) pointed out an advert in the Journal for a Professional Support Lawyer (PSL). I had not heard of this role, but my husband encouraged me to apply as he thought that it sounded like the sort of job I would enjoy, and the role was part time. I went to the interview and left knowing that I would love the role, so I was delighted when I was offered the job. I joined the dispute resolution team at Biggart Baillie (which became DWF in 2012) and found that the role of PSL played to my strengths – a love of research; organisational skills; training; drafting articles and practice notes.
I worked very hard to make my first PSL role my own and actively sought out opportunities to develop the role and to work with other teams and departments across the business to raise the profile of professional support. I was promoted to Associate in 2010 and this was very important to me as, not long before that, I could not have envisaged achieving promotion.
In 2014, I was given the opportunity to take on a PSL role at Digby Brown. The firm had not had a PSL before, so I knew that I would have to impress to demonstrate the value that the role can bring. This coincided with my children leaving home for university, which allowed me to focus my attention on developing my role in a way that I would not have felt able to do previously.
I worked extremely hard and was thrilled when my contribution was recognised in 2017 and I was promoted to partner. It is still fairly unusual for a solicitor who works part time to be promoted to that level, even more so a non-fee earner, and I am very proud to have come this far, even if it has taken well over 20 years! It means a great deal for me to be recognised for the part I play in the success of the firm. I now have two colleagues working with me full time on providing professional support to our teams across Scotland and the role has expanded to take on aspects of risk and compliance.
I hope that sharing my experience will encourage others to see that mental health problems do not need to be a barrier to having a successful and rewarding legal career, although I recognise that the right support and encouragement is vital. Because of my own experience, I have a long-standing interest in mental health and wellbeing, particularly in the legal profession, and I am part of the Steering Group of LawScot Wellbeing, the LSS’s initiative to support emotional wellbeing across the legal community. In 2019, I was privileged to be asked to take on the role of Lawcare Champion for Scotland to promote the valuable work of the charity which provides support to anyone in the legal community experiencing mental health and wellbeing problems. The legal profession tends to attract people who, because of some of their personality traits such as perfectionism and self-sufficiency, are often prone to mental health issues, and this is something I feel strongly that, as a profession, we need to address.
Catherine Hart, Partner, Professional Support Lawyer
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