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‘I have this condition, and I’m owning it’: HSF’s Samantha Brown on managing mental ill health alongside a legal career

For Mental Health Awareness Week, Samantha Brown, partner and regional head of Herbert Smith Freehill’s employment, pensions, and incentives group, spoke to LB about her own experiences with anxiety and depression, lessons from returning to work after taking time off, and how attitudes and language around mental health have changed for the better

Can you tell me about your experience with mental ill health during your career?

I was very successful throughout my career; I was promoted to partnership relatively early and had a flying start to my partnership career.

After maybe two years, I started to feel under an extraordinary amount of pressure, and I instinctively put that down to a feeling of ‘well, this is just what it’s like being a junior partner.’ However, it started impacting my sleep. I stopped being able to concentrate and catastrophising about what might happen if I made a mistake and what the implications of that would be.

I just continued trying to cope, often crying behind my desk – that kind of thing. Eventually, I went to the GP to ask for some sleeping medication, and one thing led to another. They referred me to a psychiatrist, and I was signed off for a period of several months with anxiety and depression.

How much do you think your career contributed to these challenges?

Like a lot of us, I have an underlying predisposition to these conditions, so this likely would have happened to me whatever my career. But I’d say my experience was magnified in the workplace because one of the ways it manifested was not being able to concentrate, pay attention to detail. I’d turn through pages and pages of documents and not have a clue what I was reading, and that goes to the very heart of what we do. So it was quite terrifying.

What was your experience like returning to work after taking time off for your mental health?

When I came back, we were in uncharted territory. I threw my hands up and said I didn’t want to talk about it, and the firm sort of over-catered for me with an abundance of caution. They were anxious about exposing me to clients, and anxious about getting me involved in matters – but not because they thought I couldn’t do it, but because they thought the stress might be too much.

The identifying feature for me when I became unwell was thinking I could no longer do my job. So, when I returned to work and didn’t have an opportunity to do my job, it just exacerbated that feeling of failure. Then I had a material relapse and needed more time off.

Why didn’t you want to talk about it?

I’d say stigma and a lack of familiarity. When the GP referred me to a psychiatrist, I never had any conscious experience of mental ill health and thought I was going to be told I was ‘crazy’. We didn’t talk about this stuff, so coming back into the office and having colleagues ask if I’m okay, I never knew what to say. We didn’t have the language.

I remember somebody in HR saying, ‘You’ll be fine; this is quite normal.’ I wanted to scream at her and say, ‘This is not normal.’ Bearing in mind this was eight years ago, we’ve come a long way since then – we have much better language now.

After your relapse, how was your second return to work different from your first, and what strategies did you use to ensure a more successful reintegration?

When I returned to work the second time, I took much more ownership of it. I think to be successful; you have to take some responsibility for making it work again for you. I haven’t been off for any prolonged period of time since then.

How would you advise individuals to start taking care of their mental health, especially in demanding careers?

People talk about this all the time; there is a health continuum – physical and mental. Mental health is not just ill health; it’s also good mental health. Wherever you are on the continuum, you should be looking after your health like you look after your physical health.

If you have diabetes, for example, you learn how to manage it from a physical perspective, and for a lot of people, from an emotional perspective as well. We haven’t in the past given enough focus to our mental health.

The main things I’d advise in managing mental health are getting enough sleep, learning to recognise the difference between feeling under pressure and feeling distressed, and not hiding.

What specific strategies and practices have you adopted in your career to ensure you’re maintaining your mental health?

I have a much better perspective on priorities now. I think there can be a tendency among lawyers that when anybody says ‘jump’, they say ‘how high?’. It’s important to feel able to say ‘yes, of course – but let’s have a conversation about timing’.

It’s about taking a lot more control; that doesn’t mean taking my foot off the gas, but going about things in a different way with more perspective. As lawyers we can be frightened or reluctant to have those conversations because we’re so used to saying ‘yes’ and just getting the work done.

I don’t know how to change the deal culture, but one thing we can do is be brave about having open conversations with clients rather than assuming they will be upset – they’re human too.

What advice do you offer to individuals who are susceptible to mental ill health and are concerned about pursuing a legal career?

Look – this is not a warm, cuddly profession, particularly in the City. It’s hard work, high pressure, with high intellectual rigour. That said, we owe it to our talent to teach them how to work with that pressure. There are healthy levels of stress.

I wouldn’t advise anyone away from the profession; it’s about learning to manage how to deal with it. Some of the reasons why I speak extensively about my experience are about owning the situation – rather than saying ‘I’m a victim of’ or ‘I’m suffering from it’, I can say ‘I have this condition, I’m owning it, managing how I work, and showing people that it’s perfectly possible’.