Case study

Creating a culture of support and understanding at Lewis Silkin

Karen Baxter
Karen Baxter

Lewis Silkin

8 mins

Legal professionals are there for people during some of the most stressful moments in their lives – negotiating major life changes such as divorces, advocating for you during court cases, or helping manage your business matters. But, when it comes to their mental health, too many of those in the legal profession are struggling to cope with the intense pressure of their role Mental health in the legal profession The legal profession has specific challenges for workplace mental health. With advice and ideas from LawCare, we outline the issues and get you started improving things. View toolkit.

Lawcare LawCare LawCare promotes and supports good mental health and wellbeing in the legal community. View organisation, a support organisation with an advice hotline for legal professionals, have reported a surge in the levels of mental health concerns in the industry, having seen an 8% increase in people using their service in 2019 compared to 2018. The number one reason for calls was stress​Stress and anxiety at work: personal or cultural? PDF This report from Acas looks at the impact of work on anxiety, and can be used to help you identify areas in your own organisation that may be causing more pressure than they should be.Free By: Acas View resource (26%), with 12% focused on depression​Symptoms of depression and their effects on employment PDF At least one in six workers is experiencing common mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. This report addresses some key questions about how depression can affect work. Free By: The Work Foundation View resource – highlighting the rising levels of poor wellbeing in the sector.

We knew having senior partners champion a mental wellbeing programme would be a good idea.

Determined to take action, law firm Lewis Silkin arranged a round table with some of their clients, where concerned employees could discuss where the key pressures they face arise, and what they could do to help.

They identified several hotspots, including fierce competition for jobs, a reluctance to ‘switch off’ or take holiday, and difficulties in raising concerns during a crisis. “We discussed how lawyers at between 5-15 years PQE (post qualified experience) appear to have higher levels of poor wellbeing,” Karen Baxter, partner at the firm says. “And we also found it can be harder to get senior lawyers or partners to attend counselling.”

When considering solutions, they realised the tone needs to be set from the top. Many junior employees take their cues from their superiors, so ensuring everyone on board was essential. “We knew having senior partners champion a mental wellbeing programme would be a good idea,” Karen says. “And we knew senior figures within the firm speaking about their direct experience of mental ill-health​Start the conversation Video One of the first, and easiest, things you can do to start improving mental health at work is simply to start a conversation. In this video, people from various industries talk about the importance of talking to someone.Free By: Dorset Mind View resource would also be helpful.”

Senior partners discuss their wellbeing strategy.

One of the first steps Lewis Silkin took in improving its culture was the introduction of the ‘ThisPlaceMinds’ campaign. “It had a principal objective of ensuring we have a culture where anyone can share their mental health concerns, safely in the knowledge that they will be met with support and understanding,” Karen explains.  Since it was essential to show that there was buy-in from senior members of staff, the campaign was led by two partners including one board member – Karen herself.

It included a week of wellbeing activities during Mental Health Awareness week – including a dedicated mindfulness room, free gym visits, and a session on how to improve sleep​Sleep and recovery: a toolkit for employers PDF Sleep is essential for good health and wellbeing: better sleep is the biggest single contributor to living better. This toolkit has insight and advice for employers to address the increasingly damaging sleep-loss epidemic.Free By: Business in the Community View resource. “We want to ensure everyone who works at Lewis Silkin knows the importance of taking care of their mental wellbeing, how to do so, and how this can impact on them and their colleagues,” Karen says.

Guardians respect and maintain absolute confidentiality over issues raised with them.

Lewis Silkin also introduced a Guardians programme, developed in conjunction with The Old Vic theatre. The two firms had previously worked together following the sexual assault allegations made against actor Kevin Spacey, who was accused of sexual misconduct while working as the theatre’s artistic director.

“A Guardian is a member of staff who volunteers to help ensure a consistent understanding of culture throughout the organisation,” explains Karen. “After undergoing training, they act as a sounding board for colleagues who have something that they might want to share but are unsure about the best way of doing so.”

The role of a Guardian is to listen and give neutral support on issues and offer advice on where to get further help. “This could relate to something serious, or a more everyday matter,” Karen adds. “Guardians respect and maintain absolute confidentiality over issues raised with them except in cases in which the issues might amount to a criminal offence.”

The scheme has now been adopted by more than one hundred organisations, across multiple sectors, and continues to grow.

A manager mentors a junior colleague.

These two programmes have been extremely successful. “With both campaigns we wanted to encourage people to talk about their experiences and not feel afraid to come forward,” Karen says. “We have had overwhelming feedback from employees who now feel that any issue they have can be raised and that they will be listened to compassionately.”

Karen adds that ignoring the mental wellbeing of staff doesn’t just cause problems for that person– it can affect the whole business too. “In the legal profession, we sell our minds,” she says. “If a law firm does not look after the minds of its partners and staff, it is like owning a book shop and leaving the books out in the rain.

“The human cost to the affected individuals is clear, but there are further emotional and financial costs, including increased pressure on colleagues and reduced efficiency and productivity. Accessing the right support or treatment at the right time can significantly improve the return to work experience for both the individual and their team.”

We all need to treat our mental wellbeing as seriously as our physical wellbeing.

She suggests that there are some simple first steps any law firm could take to help their staff to cope better. “Many of us are juggling family and work life – so consider if you can offer flexible working or other solutions to ease this burden,” she explains. “Also, be aware of presenteeism​Presenteeism and the hidden costs of staff who are glued to their seats Web page This news article from the Institute of Directors (IoD), in collaboration with Raconteur, discusses the issue of presenteeism and how it can be managed within an organisation. Free By: Institute of Directors View resource, or the perception that you must work additional hours.”

Allowing staff to work from home can also help, as it may allow them to avoid distracting workplace conditions or a stressful commute. However, Karen warns it is important to include staff who are working remotely in your wellbeing programmes, and ensure they do not feel isolated from the rest of their teams.

“The key thing to remember is that mental illness does not discriminate; it can affect any one of us at any time,” Karen adds. “We all need to treat our mental wellbeing as seriously as our physical wellbeing, and accept that both can fluctuate throughout our lives.”

Karen Baxter

Karen Baxter
Lewis Silkin

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