Interview with Vanessa Whitman
Partner, Solicitor Advocate CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP

As we follow on from Mental Health Awareness Week and our pledge to support better mental health and wellbeing amongst not just our team but also the wider industry, we, at Ardent, wanted to get a better understanding from another in the industry of just what their thoughts are about this topic.

We sat down with Vanessa Whitman, Partner and Solicitor Advocate from the Finance and FinTech Disputes team at CMS to find out her thoughts.


Q: Vanessa, lovely to speak to you and thank you for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, please tell us a bit about yourself and how long you have been in the legal profession?

A: Thank you for the invitation to interview, this is a really important subject matter and one that is very close to my heart. I have been with CMS from the very beginning of my career. I joined as a fresh-faced trainee in 2006 and I have been qualified for 13 years. I joined the partnership in 2020 (slightly less fresh-faced!).

Q: The legal profession can be particularly stressful; how would you describe your experiences over the years i.e., stress levels/mental health/wellbeing?

A: I consider myself really lucky as I have stayed generally well throughout my career. I am quite a resilient person, but I am very conscious about mental health as there is a long history in my family of poor mental health and mental illness, in particular, bipolar disorder. Because of this, it’s a topic I’m passionate about and since I was a trainee, I have campaigned for better mental health and wellbeing awareness across CMS and the wider legal industry.  I believe it is important for me to practice what I preach (which is not always easy to do!) That means I am probably quicker than most to spot the signs of when my mental health might be declining. When I am not getting enough sleep, not taking enough breaks, these are the times that I start to feel stressed and I know I need to re-prioritise to make sure I stay well. I recognise that anyone can get ill at any time, however, with my family history I am conscious of my potential susceptibility to it. I am also very lucky that I have had good managers around me, and to work for a firm that has really led the way in terms of the support it offers for our people. We were one of the first firms to offer CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) on a completely confidential and free basis, which I have benefitted from and would recommend.

Q: What particular pressures do you think affect those at the junior end of the profession?

A: I would say probably pre pandemic the biggest pressure in the industry was competitiveness. Those coming into the legal sector have enormous pressure to find work experience and training contracts, and then NQ roles. Once they are in these roles there can be a lack of autonomy and control in that juniors can feel a pressure to work long hours and rarely take breaks in order to meet client demands and to ‘prove themselves.’

During the pandemic and lockdowns, I believe the difficulty has been a lack of structure and face-to-face supervision. Juniors are receiving far less of the informal feedback and reassurance than they would if they were in the same physical space as supervisors. I am hearing lots of reports about juniors losing self-confidence and self-esteem. They receive emails from managers that just say, ‘thanks.’ They are not getting much in the way of informal feedback, and this can lead to aa sense of paranoia or anxiety about performance as well as a feeling of isolation.

Q: Do you think the stigma around openly discussing mental health and wellbeing is still prevalent in the legal sector?

A: I believe it is improving but there is still a way to go. I think there has been a huge shift in the industry’s ability to deal with the topic in the last 5 years. The Legal sector is seen as being quite conservative, it is not known for being at the forefront of forward thinking for topics like this, but there has been a lot of change, and the younger generation are much more literate and aware of the importance of mental health and wellbeing, so the industry has had to keep up.

It is still considered surprising and unusual to hear more senior colleagues talk about their mental health. Again, this is down to the generational gap and demographic differences, as older colleagues are predominantly male, white, middle class, whereas the younger generation coming into the sector thankfully come from a wider range of backgrounds and are (generally speaking) more comfortable with talking about their mental health.

Q: Taking the past year’s pandemic situation into account, do you think this will have impacted the mental health of legal professionals? What struggles do you think they will have faced?

A: Definitely, I think it has impacted everyone. Working from home, however, has been a good thing in some cases, as for some it has allowed for a better work life balance, for example zero commuting time and spending more time as a family, so it’s important we don’t focus only on the negatives. For those that have young children though, we have definitely struggled with homeschooling and how parents manage their days. Not forgetting as well there are those families or those individuals that house/flat share who don’t have enough quiet workspace or not enough WIFI bandwidth to accommodate everyone, all of these struggles have been felt across the sector. At the other end of the spectrum is those that live alone, some of whom have suffered with loneliness and isolation as the ‘social’ aspect of the working week has been removed.

Q: Do you have any suggestions for those that perhaps are struggling with poor mental health?

A: A point that is said a lot but is worth repeating, is that you should treat your mental health the same as you would for your physical health. For example, if you were suffering from headaches or you had a persistent pain somewhere in your body, you would go to see the doctor; you wouldn’t feel embarrassed, you would want to make it better. Ignoring anything to do with mental health is not going to make it go away. We also need to remember that we are not alone. 1 in 4 people suffer with poor mental health, so it is ok not to feel ok. I also highly recommend getting outside as much as possible, (as per Mental Health Awareness Week’s focus on nature). Exercise, take notice, connect with people where you can and be aware of what you consume, not just what you are eating and drinking but also what you watch and read, including social media.

Q: Do you think there has been any improvement in how mental health is addressed? What realistic change would you like to see happen?

A: There has been a lot of change and positive improvement, for example, ‘This is Me,’ a business led campaign supported by The Lord Mayor’s Appeal which supports organisations and their employees to talk about mental health in order to de-stigmatise it. It encourages people to share their stories whether it be their own experience or an experience of a friend, family member or loved one. At CMS, we joined this campaign and in 2018 we created our own ‘This is Me’ video, whereby some of our colleagues opened up about the challenges they have faced or are still facing with their mental health. Their courage has contributed to normalising the conversation around mental health in the workplace and enabled many other colleagues to share their stories and seek help. There are other organisations too, that have improved the way mental health is addressed such as the Mindful Business Charter and Mindfulness in Law by LawCare.

In terms of what changes I would like to see happen, I think it would be a positive step forward if more of our senior colleagues or leaders spoke about their mental health and wellbeing. I would also like to see people not being afraid to admit when they need to attend therapy/counselling sessions. It should be ok for someone to say, “oh I can’t make that meeting next week as I have an appointment with my therapist”, in the same we would say, “oh I can’t make that meeting next week as I have a physio appointment.” We need to get in the habit of ensuring our mental health is treated in the same way as our physical health.

Q: Are you familiar with LawCare and/or any other organisations dedicated to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of industry professionals?

A: Yes, I am familiar with LawCare but that might be because I am a wellbeing ambassador, so I make it my business to be aware of it and to let colleagues know about it. Most larger law firms will have employee assistance programmes (EAPs) where they offer counselling or advice.
LawCare is open to the wider industry, but I am certain there are a lot of people in our industry that don’t know about it. As an industry we need to support them more, because as a charity, they do not have the budget to constantly advertise.

We thank Vanessa for her time and if you would like further information about the organisations that were mentioned then please visit the websites listed below.

https://www.lawcare.org.uk/

Initiatives | A Healthy City | The Lord Mayor's Appeal 2020/2021 (thelordmayorsappeal.org)

https://www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk/resource/this-is-me/

https://www.mindfulbusinesscharter.com/