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Back to Basics

Why going back to our basic human needs could help to change the legal industry from the inside out.

“How are you finding your training contract?” I asked.   

The trainee looked at me blankly. “You know, in the whole year I’ve been here, you’re the first person here to ask me that…”   

I sighed. That sounds about right.  

This was typical of most international firms in the UK, particularly in the “magic circle” top five where I worked. But this conversation has been happening for a long time – we know how unsupportive and unsustainable the legal industry is for lawyers and their wellbeing. Yet every time I find myself having this conversation, it always ends with the same response: “yeah, but it’ll never change”.  

If law firms continue to focus on defending their ways, they’re going to miss the fact that the industry is changing, as are the people in it.  This lesson has been learnt time and time again. Take the publishing industry, for example, where book publishers were too busy protecting and defending their industry to keep up with their readers’ needs. That is, until Amazon swooped in and created the Kindle.  

As a young lawyer myself, I have options – I’m not limited to law firms. When I left the ‘magic circle’, I was exhausted,  mentally and physically – the late nights, high cortisol levels and low fulfillment levels weren’t a trade I was willing to make for my health and sanity. One partner I worked for asked what he could do to make me stay. Another needed to be reminded who I was. My colleagues laughed it off saying it was  “typical”.  But it brought me a sense of vindication; I’d slaved away for this guy, and he didn’t know who I was… 

So what’s changing?   

Several global studies have revealed that younger people value their well being and fulfillment more than ever, particularly with depression, anxiety and burnout becoming the norm. A recent study by Mindshare highlights the importance of this, stating that 50% of the millennials surveyed and 75% of Gen Zers resigned because of their mental health. Being a lawyer is now just one of many ways to make money, but when it’s at the cost of our primal human needs – the need to feel connected, to be a part of something and feel fulfilled – how many are going to continue making this trade?   

Johann Hari, a journalist and author challenging what we know mental health, poses that depression and anxiety arise because your basic needs aren’t being met. Not because there’s a chemical imbalance inside your brain. He suggests that we need to listen to our bodies, because they’re signalling that there’s a problem. But in the legal industry particularly, very few are willing to listen to those signals.  I resonate with Johann’s argument. When I resigned, I escaped to the Austrian Alps for two months. Despite everyone telling me that I was “throwing my life away” or “committing career suicide”, I’d never felt more free.  I was happy skiing everyday. I took back control over my life. I connected with people.    

I made wonderful friends during my time as a lawyer and I learnt a lot from them too. It seemed like I attracted people who needed to share because I was always willing to listen. In a recent study surveying both employees and supervisors across US industries, nearly 70% of employees only felt comfortable talking about their mental health with a co-worker, with 20% willing to raise it with their boss and, alarmingly, just 10% would reach out to HR. This ties back into our need to connect, because generally people are looking for others who can empathize with their situation. But I agree with PayChex’s findings in that “the problem is that people would rather confide in those who are likely not equipped to help them beyond lending an ear.”

Why we need to start small.   

Rather than focusing on what feels like the insurmountable task of changing the industry, let’s start by helping the people in it. By providing them with an ear that’s equipped to listen and help. Ultimately, creating lawyers who are happier and more connected will have an ripple effect on the industry.   

My first step in moving towards this vision was to train in Rapid Transformational Therapy (RTT) with Marisa Peer, a world-leading psychotherapist to CEOs, celebrities and athletes. I came across Marisa’s work when I was struggling with social anxiety. I used RTT to identify how, where and why I got these anxious thoughts, interrupt them and replace them with positive ones, so that I no longer had that thought pattern. It didn’t take years and didn’t cost me thousands.   

I believe that if lawyers were encouraged to collaborate with an in-house or consulting therapist like me, it could transform any workplace. If team members are happier in the workplace, free from depression, anxiety or low confidence, they’d be more willing to connect with others. More willing to work together and make the environment a nicer place to be. More willing to look for other people emitting the same signals. Performing better. Leaders would begin to see that happier lawyers means higher employee retention, lower stress leave expenses more potential leaders for the long run.  

If you’d like to read more about my vision and how RTT works, check out my website www.dainahazel.com.  

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