For this year’s Time to Talk Day (1 February), which aims to encourage workplaces to start a conversation about mental health, we sat down with Vinson & Elkins energy and infrastructure partner Andrew Nealon (pictured) to discuss the impact of law firm culture on mental health and some of the positive industry changes he has witnessed over the course of his career so far.
LB: How prevalent are mental health issues in the legal profession?
Andrew Nealon: Mental health issues are prevalent in society, and the legal industry is no exception. A career in law is often very fast paced, service oriented, high performance and intense, both in terms of pressure and the workload itself. This pressure is often exacerbated by sustained periods of all those factors, and, at times, you can be going for weeks or even months with those pressures bearing down on you.
Are there aspects of workplace culture specifically in law firms that exacerbate mental health issues?
Law firms operate in an environment of high achievers who are all driving to excel. Given that environment, there can be a reluctance, especially by the people themselves, to recognise the warning signs when the stresses of life plus work are getting too much. It leaves potential for people to push themselves too far before seeking help.
One of the greatest parts of working in a law firm is the camaraderie around it. For instance, when you start as a trainee in a law firm, your fellow trainees become your allies and friends and working in a real team produces the most satisfying results. But at times, it can lead to team members not wanting to let down their colleagues, which is another thing that can push people past their limits. If you combine those factors with the high-pressure environment, with the high-value work that people are normally working on, it’s not surprising that some of these issues do arise. As managers of law firms and workers in law firms generally, it’s key for us to be looking out for our team members and be on the lookout for signs that people might be suffering in silence.
What mental health initiatives does V&E have in place?
V&E is invested in the well-being of its people and takes a very holistic approach to providing resources and benefits. We see physical health, mental health, social, personal, family health all as priorities for all of our people. We have employee assistance programme for mental health, whereby everyone in the firm gets eight complimentary sessions per year with a therapist or coach to deal with anything from everyday concerns to serious problems, including burnout, anxiety and dealing with stressful work situations.
We also take our lawyer development incredibly seriously. In my opinion, one of the triggers for people experiencing mental health issues within a law firm context is not feeling fully supported with their growth and feeling out of depth with what they’re doing, while being required to work very hard. We have a very robust development programme which equips our associates with mentorship, coaching, and the support they need to acquire the relevant skills and experiences.
The way I like to view it is that we have a swim policy, not a sink-or-swim policy at the firm. The long-term goal is to help our lawyers really become the best versions of them, both professionally and personally.
Do you think there is a stigma attached to talking about mental health and how does that apply to the legal profession?
People may think there is a stigma, but I feel I’ve never had someone come and talk to me about a mental health issue that they were having who left the discussion regretting raising it.
People are much more receptive to listening to their colleagues that have problems and trying to help them address those problems than perhaps people expect. Perhaps the stigma is still perceived, but people that reach out early often find that there’s no the reality behind it.
Throughout your legal career, have you observed any changes in the industry that have positively impacted mental well-being?
For me, the biggest thing that I’ve noticed is how much more prevalent the discussion about the topic is now than it used to be.
When I started as a junior lawyer it was an incredibly stressful, life-changing moment. Most juniors including myself seemed to suffer from stress and anxiety. At that time, there really was a perceived expectation that you would just push on and keep doing your job. Today it’s totally different. If I walk into our firm café here today, there’s a whiteboard up, saying: ‘Let’s talk’. There is always an initiative making people more cognisant of mental health. That didn’t exist when I started and it is a great development that people understand that we are humans, and humans suffer from mental health issues, which is potentially exacerbated by a high-pressure career.