I’m a mid-level associate at Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) in the Technology, Media, Telecoms and Data team (TMT&D). I previously spent 3 years as an Assistant Manager in the Commercial Data and Technology team at KPMG Law. I’ve been a qualified solicitor for 3 years, and prior to qualifying I trained at Baker McKenzie.
Throughout my career, my life, and my school days I have suffered with a variety of bouts of mental ill health. These have stemmed from a mixture of having an anxiety disorder and a panic disorder where I am unable to process seemingly innocuous instances or changes to ‘the plan’ or sudden differences in circumstance. This is as a result of some childhood experiences which means that I have grown up and developed a bit of a fight or flight situation where, if things become a bit too much, my brain shuts down.
The knock-on effect of those symptoms is that I am more attuned to having depressive episodes, a feeling of not being able to act or process information and circumstances in the way I should be able to (or how I perceive other people can). In addition, when suffering from a period of mental ill health I will feel panicky and nervous or become stressed to the point my emotional response shows itself as anger, which leaves me feeling very low in myself, in my abilities and my self-awareness.
1.Asking for help is a positive thing.
The first piece of advice I would give is that it is ok to not quite understand what additional help you might need, or to be a bit confused about how you might ask for it. It is very important that you are honest in any application if you feel comfortable to do so, because it allows the firms that you are applying to the opportunity to put in place any measures to make the application process easier (e.g. extra time at the interview stage or additional support if you are doing a test). Have confidence that firms may have the experience you feel you might not have to make the process easier for you. I was very open in my application process, and employers were very willing to accommodate me, and even suggested additional measures that would make the process easier.
Asking for additional help and support is a positive thing that is not going to be used against you or have a black mark against your name. It is purely a fact that you need different circumstances or different assistance to those around you. Firms will do all they can to make the process easier and to allow you to be your best self in any application or interview process. Remember that firms want you and want you to be able to be yourself. A healthy team is a happy team.
One of the great things about HSF is that support has always been led from the top; the clear message is that it is ok to ask for help. A key question that was asked from day one was: “is there anything you need us to do make the process as easy as possible for you?” That was immediately a big tick from me because it indicates that the firm is already aware that not everyone is the same, and that they therefore can’t have a one size fits all approach to recruitment and applications.
2.Research firms that champion disability inclusion
The way firms are externally visible about the support they give is a very good indication of the culture at that firm. When researching places to apply to or finding out where you feel you’ll be most comfortable, look for firms that have a very clear message on its website or takes a very obvious and proactive stance on disability and mental health initiatives on platforms such as LinkedIn. This indicates that they really believe in that focus, and it isn’t just a tick box exercise but instead it is at the forefront of what they think and believe. In turn the people who work there will be there to support you throughout your career, including senior leaders.
3.A transparent and open culture.
It is important that the culture of the firm is very open, transparent, and supportive. It needs to be a safe environment where you can be open and honest. This is evident in various ways:
Constant positive engagement;
Senior role models being very visible;
Having a mental health champion and / or mental health first aiders;
A safe environment where you can approach someone if you need assistance, such as your manager or your head of department;
Adjustments and support are willingly and freely offered; and
Having the assurance that the firm will provide what you need to support you, even if you are unsure of what you may need.
4.Solid community of support.
It is important that the firm nurtures a solid community of support that you can lean upon especially for those times when things may get a bit tough. A cohesive, collaborative and supportive community will support you to thrive; it means that you are not siloed, and it can help you to be the best you can be. This can come through in the following ways:
A disability network;
A mentoring programme;
A champions programme;
Reassurance that there are various levels of support across the firm and indeed in your team – that you are not the only one and you can reach out to other team members or senior leaders; and
Having the ability to network throughout the firm including with those at different levels or seniority.
5.Senior Role Models
The partners at HSF are very open about their own mental health struggles. The firm provides awareness courses and seminars that also include client contacts. For example, we had a managing anxiety seminar that included associates from the firm and also senior counsel from clients. This helps to make the topic less taboo and more commonplace especially when others share their stories and their story ties in with yours. It reminds you that although they are very senior and may seem a bit intimidating, everyone starts somewhere, and everyone has experienced similar things.
Events such as these reduce any fear or stigma that I might have felt because I know that I can approach someone and say that I am struggling. The focus is on everyone’s wellbeing. The way that mental ill health is a focus and pervades through the structure of the firm is important. Once you remove the nervousness around discussing mental health the more people have conversations about it.
6.Being allowed the time to focus on your own mental health and wellbeing.
Time spent focussing on your own mental health and wellbeing is encouraged and taken into consideration for your daily targets. If you need to take time off, or some time away, or if you just need an hour here or there, you’re free to do so. Processes are in place to remove any barriers as to why you may feel you can’t ask for help or assistance.
HSF provide a small fund that you can spend on wellbeing tasks that you may want to do during an afternoon off when you are taking some time for yourself. HSF is a really wholesome and supportive place to work, and the partners in my team have fostered a very inclusive environment for everyone to speak up and to ask for help if they need to.
The legal profession is not as scary a world as perhaps stereotypically perceived. There is a lot of support and help out there. You are never the only one and you are not suffering alone; mental ill health is a lot more widespread and common especially with students and young adults starting their careers than you could ever imagine.