Any profession will have its own trials and tribulations, and the legal profession is certainly no exception, posing its own set of challenges that can cause strain upon the mental health of all those involved. Given the increasing societal awareness and the importance it plays in our day-to-day functioning, maintaining a good wellbeing is key to flourishing not only as a lawyer, but as a human more generally. One way to learn how to keep mentally well is by learning from those who have overcome their own adversities, seeking lessons from the experience of others.
Philippa Richardson previously worked as a lawyer, before departing the legal profession to start The Circle Line, a company providing psychological support for individuals and businesses. This interview explores her experiences and perspective on mental health, and how she thinks it can be better incorporated for a healthier future.
How did your previous experience in the legal profession lead to you founding The Circle Line?
It led me there indirectly. A grounding in law has been useful for many aspects of business, and personally, my career as a lawyer was the start of my own professional and personal evolution. It taught me about the work I liked, the work I didn’t, my talents and the sort of life I wanted to lead… all part of the journey.
What inspired you to found The Circle Line?
My own experiences with therapy and the positive impact it was having on me, and my feeling that as a society we have severely misunderstood much about mental health and the solutions – and that this was the field that will unlock the next phase in human evolution. Psychology, the mind, underpins everything.
Do you think that the legal profession disproportionately affects mental health? What can we do to tackle it?
It can do depending on the culture of the firm you work for, and your own boundaries. Generally speaking, law is a very hierarchical industry, which takes personal power away from employees. That’s tough. Singing to a client’s song sheet all the time is also tough – again it takes away our personal choice and freedom of when, and how, we work. I’d say the legal profession attracts certain personality types, which is a factor. I found people in law often tend to be “thinkers” – less focussed on the whole human, and nearly always far too hard on themselves – all of which allows less room for empathy, self-compassion and creativity. I certainly experienced all of these during my time in City law.
Some positive initiatives like the Mindful Business Charter are appearing. They are helping to illustrate alternative, healthier day-to-day work practices and ways of interacting with colleagues. And at The Circle Line, we have talked to various law firms about introducing coaching and psychological insight and support. There’s still a long way to go though.
Can you share your own experiences of mental health?
I’ve had my ups and downs. When I was a lawyer I was often tense, uptight, worried… overly responsible and hard on myself. That came from my childhood rather than my career, as happens with us all, given our first years 0-7 years old are the formative ones – the legal profession just allowed me to carry on like that. As I’ve evolved and gone through therapy, I’ve become far more relaxed, more productive, enjoying my work immensely and creating the kind of life I really want. That was worth the ups and downs.
What advice would you give to your younger self in regards to mental health?
Learn more. Educate yourself. Read, talk and most importantly – work with a professional therapist, preferably a Transactional Analyst!
What is the most stressful part of your job, and how do you deal with it?
Being spread thin. I like to focus and get into a ‘flow’. I regularly struggle to make time for that to happen.
Would you say the expectations you experience are external or self-imposed, and how do you keep a healthy balance?
Because we own our own company with no external shareholders, the pressures are self-created. We have goals, but no punishing or unrealistic targets or deadlines. We are all working as productively and thoughtfully as we can – and that is plenty good enough.
How do you think the emphasis and focus on mental health and wellbeing is changing?
There’s definitely a shift. Up until perhaps 7 or 8 years ago, ‘mental health’ was almost unheard of. Now there are whole businesses and Instagram accounts dedicated to it. Awareness and education is definitely a good thing. I just wish more people knew and understood the benefits of therapy. It’s life-changing.
How can firms make their working environment more inclusive and mental-health friendly?
It always comes down to the people, and usually those at the top. People make up the rules. I believe it takes an exceptional and open-minded leadership in any firm to make the necessary changes to allow people to flourish. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and there are many ways – educational webinars, embracing a Teal approach, mental health sick-days, embedding and normalising therapy and coaching – but first there has to be the will.
Are there any legislative reforms that you think should be made, with regards to mental health?
It’s important that there is no discrimination on mental health grounds (or any other basis) but I don’t think you can legislate for wellbeing. Ultimately it’s something we find within ourselves.
Many thanks to Athena Kam for this first interview in the new Mental Health and Wellbeing interview series. Athena is a first year law student at the University of Oxford, with a view of becoming a barrister one day. She is the forthcoming Secretary for the Oxford University Bar Society, having previously held the position of Mooting Officer. She hopes to help push for a more inclusive and mental-health legal profession.