“Keeping a stiff upper lip” may be a thing of the past. The stereotype of the British remaining emotionless in times of adversity is fading as leading figures in corporations and professional service firms in London are opening up about their battles with depression, anxiety and exhaustion.
As the legal profession navigates what increasingly looks like a mental health crisis, this emerging culture of candor might have lessons on the other side of the Atlantic. Law firms in both the U.S. and the U.K. have adopted programs recently focused on attorney wellness. But the U.S. is missing a ledger of professional leaders willing to reveal their own mental heath struggles—a step that makes it easier for individuals in their own organizations and others to seek help.
Former Deloitte equity partner John Binns was at the vanguard, talking openly at the beginning of the decade about a 2007 bout of depression. Virgin Money CEO Jayne-Anne Gadhia shared in April 2017 that she’d struggled with depression her whole life. Lloyds Bank CEO António Horta-Osório said later that year that stress nearly “broke” him. Even Prince Harry has acknowledged seeking counselling.
“Five to 10 years ago, we wouldn’t be seeing articles of this sort,” said London attorney Sarah Gregory, the inclusion and diversity partner at Baker McKenzie. “Now we’re seeing a lot more in the press, which I think is fantastic.”
Gregory’s own firm is part of the story. Earlier this fall, Baker McKenzie global chair Paul Rawlinson, also based in London, announced he was taking leave to combat health issues resulting from exhaustion.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Baker McKenzie has been involved for several years in This is Me, a program launched by Barclays and the Lord Mayor of London, aimed at promoting openness about mental health issues.
Gregory noted that in an earlier round of the program, 19 people in the firm wrote blog posts sharing their mental health experiences, and in 2017 a group of figures circulated a video of their stories, not just around the London office but globally across the firm. Such steps might have made it easier for Rawlinson to come forward about his own exhaustion.
“I would absolutely hope that anyone in our firm who was suffering from exhaustion or any health concern would be able to step forward,” Gregory said. “To see that from leadership is very important. It encourages others to think about being more honest as well.”
Baker McKenzie and a number of other firms with strong London presences in October also signed onto the Mindful Business Charter, developed again by Barclays and law firms Addleshaw Goddard and Pinsent Masons. The signers, who also include Hogan Lovells, Clifford Chance, Ashurst, Eversheds Sutherland, Simmons & Simmons and several other banks, commit to abiding by a set of principles centered on improved communication, respect for working hours and considerate delegation of tasks.
“There’s strength in firms coming together, sharing those stories and pooling resources,” said Julie Thomas, the London-based global head of diversity, inclusion and well-being at Hogan Lovells. “It’s sending a really strong message to the market.”
Her firm also provides an example of mental health initiatives migrating from the U.K. to the U.S. Hogan Lovells first installed a psychologist in its London office before introducing the idea to the U.S. in 2016. After being piloted in New York and Washington, D.C., counsellors are now also on-site in Denver, Baltimore and the firm’s business services center in Louisville, Kentucky.
The on-site psychologists are in addition to the standard employee assistance program, where after calling in and talking to a counselor for six sessions, employees are referred elsewhere. The sessions are confidential, with no line to benefits or human resources.
“We wanted to remove the stigma of someone saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to a counselor,’” said Alaiki Harris, the firm’s U.S. director of benefits and well-being. “We were very successful in doing that.”
Kevan Skelton, Reed Smith’s chief human resources officer, is based in London, and he’s not persuaded that his home country is at any advantage in addressing mental health issues. As an example, the mental health first aid training program that Reed Smith has rolled out as a pilot in London was first implemented in the U.S.
“It’s more down to the leadership of an organization and the culture of an organization than geography,” he said. “There’s firms that get it right in London and the U.S. and firms that don’t.”
But he agrees that creating an atmosphere of openness is critical.
“It’s about making these conversations part of the everyday language, so that people feel able to reach out when they are facing some challenges,” Skelton added. “Unfortunately, that is not always the case.”
He also voices the opinion that valuable ideas can emerge from anywhere, noting that with the leadership of his team scattered across the world, strategies can be shared across the network.
Fixing the System
Attorney and mental health advocate Patrick Krill, meanwhile, cautions against the idea that an approach developed in one country will automatically succeed elsewhere.
“Copy and paste doesn’t usually work on a cross-cultural basis,” he said.
He acknowledged that the legal and corporate culture in the U.K. appears to be fostering greater candor and openness about mental health, but emphasized there was more to the picture, pointing to a doubling in prescriptions for anxiety and depression in the country over the last decade.
“Attitudes are different, and likely more conducive to people seeking help, but it would be a mistake to overstate that aspect of the bigger equation or to suggest they have magically cracked the code on solving mental health problems or eradicating stigma,” Krill said.
Just as important as acknowledgment, he asserts, is getting to the root cause of the mental health crisis. And there are reasons to think that the legal industry in the U.S. deserves some credit on this subject.
“One thing I firmly believe we are doing right is viewing and treating the issues as profession-wide challenges, which implicate stakeholders from all domains or verticals,” Krill concluded. “From law schools to law firms to corporate legal departments, bar associations, legal malpractice carriers and the judiciary, there is a growing recognition that we all have a role to play and that we must tackle these problems at the systems level.”