How The US Legal Profession Is Addressing Mental Health Better Than the UK

This month was World Mental Health Day. Here, Richard Martin, former city employment lawyer, discusses how legal firms can address mental health in the workplace.


The American Bar Association has recently published a ground-breaking report on the importance of mental health, and awareness of it, among the US legal profession.  The report, available here – followed on from research into mental illness and substance abuse across the legal profession in the US.  It sets out in very simple, undeniable terms, the need for action and seeks to build a consensus for that action across every part of the legal community, lawyers, law firms, lawyer assistance programmes, law schools, the judiciary, legal insurers and regulators, highlighting to each their interest, and the role they can play, in supporting lawyer wellbeing.  Finally, it makes the case that being well is essential to being able to perform the role of lawyer, that it is part of a lawyer’s ethical duty of competence.

To quote from the introduction to the report:

“This report makes a compelling case that the legal profession is at a crossroads. Our current course, one involving widespread disregard for lawyer well-being and its effects, is not sustainable…. Our members suffer at alarming rates from conditions that impair our ability to function at levels compatible with high ethical standards and public expectations.  Depression, anxiety, chronic stress, burnout, and substance use disorders exceed those of many other professions.  We have ignored this state of affairs long enough….As a profession, we have the capacity to face these challenges and create a better future for our lawyers that is sustainable.  We can do so – not in spite of- but in pursuit of the highest professional standards, business practices and ethical ideals.”

This is of course the US.  The only likely difference between there and the UK, however, is that the US is acknowledging the issue and doing something about it, with several state bars now making mental health awareness training a compulsory part of a lawyer’s CPD.

In the UK, there is a developing awareness of the importance of this issue, but we are yet to go anywhere near as far as the US.  Mental illness is probably the greatest health and safety risk to lawyers.  Were we any other profession, our firms would not be allowed to operate without mandatory training and appropriate measures to address and reduce this risk.  So, what could firms be doing?

The starting point needs to be giving everyone the information, language and permission to talk about this issue, to talk about how we are.  This involves awareness raising training for everyone.  Managers – partners and others with people responsibility – should then be given additional training to be able to engage with their teams and talk about how people are coping and what can be done for those struggling.  Stress is the key risk.  Stress is the perception that the demands upon us exceed our resources – stress is something that exists in our brains, it is not necessarily the truth of a situation.  As we become more pressured, more stressed, we lose perspective and the demands start seeming ever weightier, time critical, time consuming and threatening in terms of the consequences of failure.  At the same time, we lose confidence in our own ability (resources) to meet these demands and, often critically, we lose sight of the others around us who could help too.

Managers are best placed to help people address those perceptions and training should be designed to equip then to do so, as well as support and signpost people who need more help.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is an important part of the resources any organisation should have in place to support those in difficulty – all workplaces will have physical first aiders, this is about equipping a network of people throughout the organisation to play the same role for our mental health. For this year’s World Mental Health Day, to help enable employers to take a whole organisation approach to mental health, Mental Health First Aid England launched a ‘Workplace Wellbeing Toolkit’. It illustrates a strategic step-by-step process to achieve a mentally healthy workplace, providing a suite of resources to facilitate this.

Critically though, the conversation needs to go further.  How do our organisations run?  What are we doing to promote positive mental health, and to reduce the risks of our workplaces making people ill?  It is all very well providing support to pick up the pieces.  We would be making much more of a difference if we sought to avoid causing issues in the first place.  This is a conversation which may well go to the heart of our cultures, systems, working practices and assumptions.  It may not be an easy conversation, but it is one whose time has well and truly come.


Richard Martin works for byrne·dean, workplace facilitators and trainers whose mission is to create kinder, fairer, more productive workplaces.  Richard spent 20 years as a city employment lawyer, serving as a partner at Jones Day and then Speechly Bircham, where he led the employment team and sat on the firm’s management committee.  In 2011 he suffered a catastrophic mental breakdown, spent time in hospital and several years in recovery.  As well as helping resolve conflict in the workplace Richard works with a range of clients to raise awareness around mental health and to develop cultures in which conversations about mental health can take place.  He sits on the steering committee of the Lord Mayor of London’s This is Me in the City campaign to reduce the stigma around mental illness through personal story telling.  He leads byrne∙dean’s work in this area, is an accredited Mental Health First Aid instructor and is also training with Meyler Campbell to be an executive coach.

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