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.
Annmarie Carvalho is the founder of The Carvalho Consultancy, having qualified and practised as a family solicitor at Farrer & Co for over decade. She now works as a therapist, with a particular focus on providing divorce support and support for lawyers. In this interview, we spoke with Annmarie about her own experiences of mental health, how she overcame them, and how we can begin to tackle the unhelpful sides of perfectionism that often manifests itself in the legal world.
How does your experience as a solicitor help you in your work as a therapist?
About 90% of my clients are solicitors so my past experience helps a lot as they know that I understand what they’re talking about! The pressures and demands of the profession are quite specific and it helps my clients that I have ‘been there and got the t-shirt’. So any suggestions I make are ones I’ve tried myself when I was in practice – it’s not just theory.
I also find that having a background at a firm (Farrer & Co, aka the Queen’s solicitors) where it was imperative that we provided the highest standards of customer service is something that I’ve taken with me into my therapy practice. In particular, it helped me know how to give excellent customer service, how to speak to clients about tricky areas such as costs, managing their expectations etc.
When did you first become interested in mental health and wellbeing?
I’ve been interested in mental health since my late teens. When I was at Oxford University, I struggled a bit with depression, anxiety, and drinking a bit too much; all of this was basically about low self esteem and not feeling good enough to be there. I became a solicitor in family law in my late 20s, which is basically law mixed with psychology, so it wasn’t a big leap to then decide to train to become a therapist while I was still practising as a solicitor. I then qualified as a mediator before making the decision to become a therapist full time.
What would you say are the main similarities and differences in your different work environments?
Both being a lawyer and a therapist is about good customer service and helping people to achieve tangible results; improvements in their situation. Most of all, I practised both law and therapy in a similar way – my overriding intention is to have humanity in how I deal with people; not be a robot and to demonstrate who I am, my values and principles in my work.
In terms of differences, the therapeutic world has a lot more boundaries than the legal one. Practising as a lawyer, you are often expected to work really late, answer your emails and phone calls at all hours. Also, sometimes clients can treat you quite disrespectfully and, depending on the firm that you’re at, you may be expected to tolerate that. As a therapist, I live a much more boundaried existence. My hours are contained and, as I run my own business, I work the hours I want to, rather than being dictated by others. My working hours are much more predictable as a therapist.
Are there any particular mental health issues that are more prominent in the legal sector?
Absolutely! Perfectionism is tricky for lots of people but particularly for lawyers. Unrecognised addiction is also rife in the legal profession, particularly work addiction, addiction to being available and being productive. The main issue I see in lawyers is that we’re like hamsters on a wheel, constantly seeking the next bit of praise or the next promotion, rather than finding peace of mind and contentment just in ourselves, without looking to achievements to fill us up.
Would you be comfortable and willing to share your own experiences of mental health?
I’ve been through issues myself with depression and anxiety and then working in a high pressured world like law can be a bit of a double edged sword. I now feel that I have the perfect balance in being able to help lawyers with their own mental health struggles.
What advice would you give to your younger self in regards to mental health?
I would repeat Michelle Obama’s advice not to assume that the people around the table are as smart as you think they are! I always assumed that everyone else at Oxford, and then in the legal profession, was cleverer than me and it wasn’t true! I would say the most important thing is finding people who can support you with your mental health – a good therapist, or friends who understand mental health. And never assume that you’re the only one going through it.
What is the most stressful part of your job, and how do you deal with it?
The most stressful part of my job now as a therapist is managing clients’ anger, which comes up from time to time. That was particularly an issue in law where some clients seem to feel that, because lawyers are expensive, that means they are entitled to treat you as someone who is their to do their bidding at all times of day or night. Trying to work out your own boundaries in terms of how far you’re prepared to let that sort of thing go before you address it with the client is a tricky one for lawyers, especially juniors. Inevitably, our level of comfort with setting boundaries depends largely upon what example our bosses and superiors set us around that sort of thing.
How do you manage high pressure and expectations?
It’s very difficult to manage in law. The expectations are both external and self imposed. Lawyer-types want to be the best and we’re attracted into a profession that is inherently competitive, where there’s a huge amount to learn, and in which you are considered to be learning or a ‘junior’ for many, many years. There’s a sense of continual striving so it’s difficult to find contentment.
I talk a lot with my lawyer clients about how to develop their own personal ideas about what ‘success’ means for them, rather than clinging to external accolades. Everyone has their own personal challenges; for some, it might be about improving confidence or client handling skills; for others ‘success’ might be developing stronger boundaries with others. ‘Success’ means something different to everyone – for me, for example, it didn’t turn out to mean becoming a partner in a law firm, it became having a career where I was the boss and had total independence and flexibility.
How do you think the emphasis and focus on mental health and wellbeing is changing?
I think it’s changing in positive ways but people need to be careful not just to say all the right things and then keep doing the same old things. Some employers talk about wellbeing but actually still place huge demands on their lawyers. We need to be honest about the difficulty of integrating wellbeing into a profession as driven as law, and to be innovative in how we achieve it. We need to take inspiration and ideas from other professions and not stay with our very narrow ways of doing things.
What would you say is the biggest challenge to mental health in the legal profession? How can firms make their working environment more inclusive and mental-health friendly?
The driven and perfectionistic nature of the profession. Sometimes, it’s not even the clients insisting on the impossible standards; its the lawyers themselves. Like I said above, we need to be more innovative in our thinking about how to change things. The reporting of (what seem to be) the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal’s excessively punitive decisions against junior lawyers who make mistakes also don’t help. To create a culture of compassion and having appropriate standards for ourselves instead of impossible perfectionism is going to take a lot of work.
Many thanks to Athena Kam for this interview in the new Mental Health and Wellbeing interview series. Athena is a second 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.