Legal draughts

December 9, 2011

Who’s there to help when lawyers go too far?

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You’re a lawyer, and therefore ambitious to the point of perfectionism.

Chances are you started your career by excelling academically. (It’s difficult to get into law without straight As, of course.) You probably only ever use the word ‘failure’ when absolutely forced, and even then when it fits onto a triple word score.

No wonder then, that when serious stress hits at times such as this, you might find it tough to seek help.

With recent statistics suggesting up to a quarter of lawyers will suffer from alcoholism at some stage in their career, it seems that the bottle has become the stress relief of choice for our profession.

But help is available. Help, in fact, specifically geared to the needs of the 21st century lawyer.

The problems lawyers face

Hilary Tilby

LawCare is an advisory and support service set up to help lawyers, their staff and immediate family deal with all issues related to stress, depression, alcohol and drug addiction.

It was founded in 1997 by a lawyer who was also a recovering alcoholic. And from small beginnings – LawCare started life in a kitchen – it has grown to include over 100 lawyer volunteers. These volunteers staff the LawCare helplines, supporting lawyers on the path to recovery.

“There is no such thing as a typical call,” says Hilary Tilby, a lawyer and barrister who gave up legal practice to become chief executive of LawCare just over ten years ago. “In 2009, people were very worried about redundancy. You get used to a certain way of living, including huge financial commitments, and some who went to the wall could see no way of getting over it.”

Future imperfect?

With warnings of a double-dip recession in the new year, Tilby warns that it could get harder still for the legal community. In particular, sole practitioners can struggle in times of economic uncertainty.

“When I started out in law, solicitors with their own practice would have an asset to sell when they retired. For many, that would be their retirement fund. But with successor practice rules, few firms want to buy a practice any more. It’s a liability.”

With some practitioners not being able to sell their practices, they instead need to buy run-off insurance that will protect clients for several years after the firm closes. But when such cover can cost as much as 225% of an annual premium, or around £100,000, it’s easy to see how sole practitioners can end up feeling desperately trapped. Especially when recession hits, and there’s no spare cash anyway.

And right at the other end of the spectrum are newly qualified lawyers who are realising that law isn’t right for them, but continue struggling through because they don’t want to ‘waste’ all those hard years of training.

Getting support

The first port of call for a lawyer seeking help is LawCare’s helpline, through which a caller will be connected with one of LawCare’s volunteers. This will be a lawyer who has personally experienced, and dealt with, a similar problem in the past.

While LawCare deals with many cases of depression and workplace stress, volunteers are often looking out for signs of alcoholism or drug abuse. “If we think they need treatment for an addiction, we’ll suggest they see their GP, or we’ll source a treatment centre for them,” says Tilby. “We may talk to a lawyer on the Thursday and, assuming they agree, have them in treatment by the Monday. But if you don’t move quickly, they can easily change their minds.”

LawCare can also provide support to immediate family members. In one case, they helped the family of an alcoholic lawyer who refused help for himself.

Leaflets and information packs sent out to firms detailing LawCare services often result in concerned employees calling the helpline about struggling colleagues. LawCare provides support to them, for example, in approaching a lawyer who they think might be an alcoholic.

Reasonable expectations

Tilby thinks that the legal profession should tread a line between rightly expecting lawyers to be self-sufficient and resilient, and also understanding that they are only human and may sometimes need additional support.

“If firms do not look after their staff then they are foolish, because they lay themselves open to all sorts of problems,” she says.

That LawCare has grown so quickly shows just how much such a service is needed in the legal profession.

But its key message is not a negative one focused on the emotional downsides of practising law. On the contrary, Tilby makes it clear that LawCare is all about helping lawyers deal with their problems, supporting recovery and getting them back to excelling in their career as quickly as possible.

Lawyers are not renowned for admitting their struggles. But this is the kind of sensible, reassuring message that might even get the proudest lawyer on the phone. CP

LawCare can be contacted on 0800 279 6888

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