YLAL South West: Taking Care of Your Wellbeing During COVID-19

On Wednesday 27 May 2020, YLAL South West hosted a virtual meeting on wellbeing during COVID-19. The meeting was chaired by Emma Trevett (YLAL committee member, paralegal at Irwin Mitchell LLP and volunteer at Bristol Law Centre). The meeting began by discussing the key findings from YLAL’s second COVID-19 report.

The first speaker was Joanna Fleck, Co-director of Claiming Space, a social enterprise which offers monthly peer support for lawyers up to 10 years PQE and workplace training across the profession. She articulated that mindfulness helps to create a step back when it can be difficult to find space between difficult tasks or between work and home life, and encouraged us to focus on self-care during the Coronavirus pandemic. We were then taken through a five minute mindfulness/meditation exercise. She defined vicarious trauma as a mode of exposure to trauma which can have terrible, neutral or even positive effects. She detailed that,  as legal aid lawyers, we are exposed to traumatic material very regularly and do not often receive satisfactory training, supervision and counselling to deal with this. In reference to COVID-19, she used the metaphor that even though we are all perceived to be in the same boat during lockdown and are weathering the same storm, some of us have larger ships, and some are in the sea unable to swim. She quoted Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery: ‘[a]ll the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.’

The next speaker was Siân Pearce, a practising solicitor specialising in child immigration work from Bristol Law Centre. She opened by citing an IBA news survey which outlined that junior lawyers are disproportionately affected by bullying. She stated that ‘we need to be talking as senior-ish lawyers about the fact that this happens and we need to tell junior lawyers that this is not okay… silence is the best weapon a bully has’, whilst referring to occasions where she had been exposed to bullying as a junior lawyer. Siân referred to Supervision in the Helping Professions, Hawkins, P and McMahon, P, Open University Press, 5th ed 2020. She considers that this is essential reading for those supervising anyone dealing with distressing material. She also noted that other professions find it absurd that the legal sector does not routinely encourage clinical supervision. She believes in working in a trauma-informed way, as it reduces the trauma for clients which ultimately reduces the secondary harm to the practitioner. Siân advocated for explicit conversations about mental health and secondary trauma, and that it is the duty of senior lawyers to speak to junior lawyers about mental health and to encourage an active and open conversation. She detailed that everyone has a ‘thing’ which gets to you, and that part of ‘walking the walk’ as a supervisor is sharing that: ‘I cannot expect other people to be vulnerable if I am not prepared to give a little vulnerability myself’. She ended by providing us with a simple clowning exercise to explore uncertainty in a safe way. She suggested that we should tell ourselves quietly: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, but it’s okay’ before proceeding with tasks, as a way of accepting that it is okay to not be sure of everything that you are doing. She referred our members to the Solicitors Assistance Scheme and Law Care for further help.

The third speaker was Malvika Jaganmohan of St Ives Chambers, who spoke about the effects of lockdown on mental health, and mentioned her wellbeing blog. She spoke candidly about her past negative experiences with her mental health and urged those who are suffering from mental ill-health to speak out and seek help. She noted that mental ill-health can be exacerbated by the lockdown, adding that job uncertainty has been fuel for this fire, especially for pupils and trainees. She referred to the most difficult parts of lockdown for her, namely having too much time to worry and dwell on unhelpful thoughts; increased social media use; isolation; the difficulty of remote working; and uncertainty of next paid work.

Malvika detailed some things that would help solve these problems during lockdown: Skype/remote therapy; reaching out amongst colleagues; limiting social media use; being kind to yourself; exercising and eating well; doing non-legal things. She acknowledged that therapy can be expensive and waiting lists on the NHS can be long, but there are other options. Members of Anxiety UK, for instance, are able to access discounted therapy and a year’s free subscription to the Headspace app. She advocated that we should not simply focus on mental health when at breaking point but that we should build up emotional resilience and coping mechanisms when our mental health is good. She also expressed a way to boost self-esteem during lockdown: creating a file of things that you have accomplished and are proud of which you can look at when you feel down or disheartened. Chair, Emma Trevett, added that she had an email folder titled ‘Nice Things’ for precisely this reason.

The event ended with a Q&A with questions being put to the panel on wellbeing issues that audience members have been grappling with during COVID-19. Emma brought the event to a close with the poem from her forthcoming anthology ‘Lockdown Lawyers’, co-authored with Jon Whitfield QC and published by the Legal Action Group. You can order your copy here! All proceeds will go towards the Law Centres Network to continue their work for the most  vulnerable people in society.

We are very grateful to YLAL member Lucie Betts for this write-up. If you’d like to volunteer to write up a future YLAL event, email ylalinfo@gmail.com.