Mental health and well-being in the legal sector: YLAL Midlands event, February 2020

On 10 February 2020, YLAL Midlands hosted an event on the challenges of working in the legal sector, with a focus on mental health and general wellbeing.

Our event began with contributions from the panel. This was chaired by YLAL Midlands and national committee member Malvika Jaganmohan, who has been vocal on Twitter about her own mental health struggles. She outlined the tension between having a frank discussion about mental health and also pursuing a career as a young legal aid lawyer.

We started our panel contributions with District Judge Helen Conway, who has become an advocate for breaking down taboos around mental health in the legal sector and writes a column around wellbeing for The Law Society Gazette. Helen spoke about the pressures of working in the legal sector and feeling obliged to wear a “mask”. She also explained her own journey to seek support for her mental health: of seeking counselling, taking time away from her work and making adjustments when she returned. After speaking publicly about her struggles, she was glad of supportive friends and colleagues, but stated her confusion at being called “brave”; for her, this cemented the taboo surrounding mental health within the sector and wider society.

Helen ended her contributions by making suggestions to the floor. She explained the importance of setting boundaries at work, whilst ensuring that you leave time to maintain your out-of-work passions. In relation to wider change, she explored the idea of a supervisory framework for psychological support which would ensure that those working in the sector – particularly young legal aid practitioners – are fully supported to maintain their wellbeing. She also reminded attendees not to wear a “mask” or to try to conform because we think there is a way a lawyer should be. She encouraged the audience to reveal who they are, what their passions are, but also what is happening in their lives.

This was followed by Franck Magennis, a barrister at Garden Court chambers and Head of Legal at Legal Sector Workers United (LSWU), a union attempting to bring together those who work in the legal sector – whether it be administrative staff, cleaning crew or legal practitioners – to obtain better working conditions.

Franck explained his own feelings of empowerment in establishing LSWU and in representing its members at the Employment Tribunal. In relation to mental health, Franck put forward a crucial perspective: that there is fundamental value in viewing the issue in the sector as not just an individual struggle, but also a collective endeavour. He spoke about how the current working conditions in the legal sector operated to cause extensive strain and stress on mental health. He went on to explain how the increasing “atomisation” of collective working class institutions, as an ongoing legacy of Thatcher, only served to compound these issues. By uniting around better working conditions and pay, a new infrastructure for legal sector workers can be established. Within this arena, workers in the sector can become a more cohesive grouping. They can begin to unravel taboos at work, call for structural change and start to transform the conditions of their employment.  

We then had conversations in smaller breakout groups about mental health and conditions in the workplace (with conversations protected under the Chatham House rule to encourage openness).

Finally, we were led in a group, seated yoga session by Manoj Koeri. He spoke about his own experiences of physical illness, a stressful career trajectory and the importance of focusing on self-care to build resilience.

YLAL Midlands was glad to host a space for discussions around mental health and to hear from our panel contributors. In 2020, let’s ensure that we support one another, build a collective response to the pressures of the legal sector and seek serious action on mental health.

If you are struggling with stress or your mental health, please reach out for support.

Follow our events and the wonderful speakers on the following:

  • Our wonderful chair on Twitter: @MalvikaJaganmo1
  • Our speakers:
    • Helen Conway has a wellbeing column in the Law Society Gazette and is on Twitter: @studioconway
    • Franck Magennis on Twitter: @FranckMagennis
  • Join Legal Sector Workers United:
  • If you’re interested in yoga sessions, Manoj can be found at:
    • @manojpoppadom on Instagram
    • Manoj Yoga on Facebook

Thank you to YLAL Midlands member Farheen Ahmed for this summary of the event.