Legal Business Blogs

‘I was scared that my ability to do my job would be questioned if I revealed any weakness’

Sidley Austin private equity partner Lyndsey Laverack on changing attitudes towards mental health in the legal profession and how women are making inroads into practice areas traditionally dominated by men

Why did you want to become a lawyer?

It actually wasn’t a long-term ambition of mine, at least not in any serious way. I come from a working-class background in Liverpool and studied History at Oxford. No one in my family had been to university or had any kind of professional career. I hadn’t really given much thought to what I was going to do beyond graduation. Shortly before I graduated, my mum told me very bluntly that I had better get myself an income because she couldn’t continue funding me! I scrambled to apply and somehow managed to secure a training contract with Slaughter and May. To be honest I didn’t love it at first – I trained during the global financial crisis and deal experience was thinner on the ground.

After I qualified, I had resolved to leave law and do something else, but needed to repay my (sizeable!) student debt. Working in Dubai for a couple of years tax-free seemed a good way to achieve this, and so I accepted a role there with Clifford Chance. I was privileged to work with some truly great partners there and began to love my job, private equity/M&A deals in particular.

Since you began your career, have there been any significant developments for female lawyers?

Views and attitudes as to what is deemed acceptable behaviour in the workplace have shifted tremendously over the last 20 years. There has also been a clear recognition that diversity in our ranks is not just ethically correct but makes business sense. As a result, there are various initiatives designed to increase diversity across lots of different measures, including gender diversity. However, the biggest change I’ve noticed, is that there are simply more women in senior positions, which is a really positive thing for junior women simply because there more role models and potential mentors in the industry.

Do you think women need to develop thicker skin or exert twice as much effort compared to men in the industry?

No, although I do understand why women may be tempted to do this. It’s hard to be the only person who looks or sounds like you in a room – human nature is often to fit in, or assimilate, and sometimes that results in mimicking the behaviour of others. In my view, it is a mistake for women to try to act like men. Having the confidence to be yourself is key. Your views are equally as valid as those of the men in the room. Do I think women are less confident than men? Based on my experiences and what I have observed, I probably do.

What practice areas are still male dominated?

That’s a hard question to answer and it will vary depending on the firm and the jurisdiction. Historically, transactional practices have been male dominated. The hours are long, it’s pretty gruelling and unpredictable. Balancing that alongside a family is incredibly challenging, especially because we still live in a society where women still very often take the lion’s share of the responsibility of childcare and running the home.

What advice do you have for aspiring young female lawyers who want to enter the profession?

Don’t limit yourself with your own beliefs. It’s quite possible to progress in this career as a woman alongside having a family, whilst enjoying both. There’s a lot of fear that I see limiting female development and ambition, and changing that mindset has a dramatic impact on a person’s career.

Do you think the personality types attracted to the legal profession are predisposed to addiction issues than the general population?

From what I’ve seen, the legal profession often attracts perfectionists who drive themselves very hard. Our inclination is to say yes and deliver and we beat ourselves up if we fail to meet our own very high – sometimes unrealistic – expectations. These personality traits combined with the high pressure of the job often means people turn to coping mechanisms or crutches – that can be alcohol and drugs of course, but it can also be things like food, extreme exercise or shopping. Perhaps we are just a group of people dealing with a challenging set of circumstances in the ways we have learnt how to, which might not always be the most helpful or sustainable approach.

Is there still a stigma surrounding mental health issues in the legal sector?

Increasingly less so. I started suffering with anxiety when I was 27. I would have frequent, extreme panic attacks which would come from nowhere – I could be asleep and wake up unable to breathe. It was completely debilitating, but the idea of talking to people at work about it at the time was unthinkable to me. I was very scared that my ability to do my job would be questioned if I revealed any ‘weakness’ in my mind, and therefore I suffered in silence. Things are very different now. I started talking openly about my mental health challenges a number of years ago and found that when I did, colleagues were encouraged to be open about their own challenges. It turns out mental health difficulties are extremely common in the legal profession, and we had all been suffering alone, fearful about what others would think if we revealed that part of ourselves. That climate of fear only fuelled the difficulty of the experience, so it makes me very happy to see that the conversation has been normalised and the stigma has subsided.

 What initiatives does Sidley Austin have in place?

A few years ago, during Mental Health Week we decided to hold a panel discussion with five partners and talk to the whole London office about our own personal mental health struggles. The reception was fantastic, we were flooded with emails telling us how refreshing it was to see the leadership of an organisation speaking so openly about what has traditionally been a taboo subject.

Since then, that discussion has developed at Sidley’s London office into a two-part programme called Mind Gym. This is a series of talks and workshops which have the dual aims of ensuring  that the mental health of our partners and employees is as robust as it can be, to assist us all in weathering the demands of our jobs, and communicating clearly that we recognise this profession has a high prevalence of mental health difficulties, and that we have support systems in place to help during challenging periods and for individual circumstances. The first of these aims focuses on normalising the discussion around mental health and recognising that it is important for all of us to maintain good mental health. The overriding message under the second aim is that people should not suffer in silence – mental illness is an illness like any other, and we want to provide our people with the support they need to get better, and crucially an environment that does not stigmatise them as they are doing so. Both aspects of the programme aim to provide practical and accessible tools for people.

Sidley has also partnered with an in-house counselling service called The Carvalho Consultancy. We encourage our lawyers to speak to these in-house counsellors who are ex-lawyers and the firm funds these sessions. A lot of firms offer a general session with a psychiatrist, which is great, but having people who understand the type of work and the particular pressures of our job is particularly valuable.