Breathing space is crucial for in-house lawyers

By Jerome Doraisamy|18 February 2020

Creating distance between yourself and your job, in order to gain perspective and tap into your non-intellectual “non-lawyer” side, is fundamental to success, says one professional.

Society relies on its lawyers to be adept at solving complex problems, maintaining focus under pressure, and remaining objective and unemotional when those around them are experiencing high levels of stress, emotion and sometimes distress, muses Gabriel Edwards.

“If we up the stakes and the level of conflict and the pressure to meet deadlines for this type of work, we can easily lose sight of other dimensions of ourselves i.e. our health, the health of our relationships and our sense of self outside of our professional role. But the issue is that our health, our relationships and our sense of self are all factors that contribute to good mental health and wellbeing,” she told Lawyers Weekly.

Being a high achiever in such an environment can make someone more susceptible to range of anxieties like perfectionism, imposter syndrome and procrastination and many high achievers in our leadership ranks are operating with high-functioning anxiety, she said. 

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According to Ms Edwards – who is an associate partner at Fisher Leadership and principal counsellor of Breathing Space – this is where reflection becomes so important.

“To stop, observe and reflect upon how we feel; how we behave; how we relate to others is to gain perspective and reconnect our intellect with our emotional and physical selves. Reflection enables us to remove the armour we may sometimes wear in order to meet the expectations of our role,” she said.

Having such breathing space, she continued, allows in-house lawyers to create personal and professional distance and effectively detach from constant intellectual stimulation.

“High-performing, high-profile leaders can often become overly identified with their professional role to the detriment of other aspects of themselves. This can be dangerous when a role finishes unexpectedly, or when a lawyer retires or takes an extended break,” Ms Edwards said.

“When we lose our sense of self outside of our professional role, we’re putting our relationships and our mental health at risk.”

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When asked about the idiosyncrasies of in-house life, Ms Edwards said the factors that can and do drive mental health issues in law “can be compounded” for corporate counsel, “when a lawyer’s role and challenges aren’t as well understood and acknowledged as they might be in a firm environment. The experience can feel isolating”.

“In-house lawyers can also be met with contradictory expectations from a range of internal clients, resulting in a loss of ownership or control. In one organisation I worked for undergoing a ‘Growth through Acquisition’ strategy, one executive told the in-house team that their job was not to advise him on what he could or couldn’t do, it was to manage the risks he created in his commercial decisions, whilst the CEO expected the team to identify and mitigate all legal risks associated with the M&A activity,” she outlined.

“Also, the perception is often that in-house lawyers are always available, and in dynamic commercial environments there is often an expectation for immediate turnaround of advice. The intellectual effort required to provide advice is often unacknowledged or misunderstood.  Without an hourly fee, the work of an in-house team can also be less valued to that of a firm. If the leader of an in-house team doesn’t work hard to create a supportive environment, establish boundaries and advocate on behalf of the team, in-house lawyers end up working under unrelenting pressure.”

In order to better create breathing space, leaders of in-house teams should regularly take their lawyers out of the office to debrief projects in an informal setting, among other things, Ms Edwards suggested.

It could be scheduling opportunities for your team to share experiences and connect with each other and others across the organisation in a different context such as charity work. It might mean taking yourself out of the office everyday to walk in a nearby park. It might mean cycling or walking to work.  It might mean committing to at least one slow healthy lunchbreak a week either on your own or with colleagues,” she said.

Moreover, leaders must ensure they do the following, she said: “Promote the benefits of having a conversation about mental health; normalise and destigmatise mental illness, ensure your team are educated about mental health and wellbeing, create a working environment that supports good mental health, ensure stories of lived experience with mental illness and recovery are shared and reflected upon, and look at ways to tap into mental health resources available to leaders and high-performing professionals and look at what other in-house teams or firms are doing in this space.”

Breathing space is crucial for in-house lawyers
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