Mental Health in the Legal Profession: In Conversation with Ashurst


At Ardent Legal Recruitment, we are continuing our pledge to support better mental health and wellbeing across the legal profession. Recently, we had the pleasure to speak to Ashurst, a leading global law firm, who employ around 3.5 thousand people, across 26 offices globally, to find out how they are building upon a better mental health and wellbeing environment across the entire organization.

Emmi Makiharju – Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging Manager (IDB) focuses on IDB as well as disability and wellbeing from a broader perspective looking at how Ashurst operates as a business, how they look after their people, and how they provide education on these topics whether that’s through educational events or specific training.

Russ Martin – Practice Resource Manager looks after 3 teams, managing their workflows, handing out work to all lawyers as it comes in across the teams fairly, to remove any unconscious bias making sure partners are not picking the same associates to work on the same deals.

Together, Emmi and Russ have been leading on the mental health and wellbeing agenda at Ashurst for the past few years. They spread the word not just internally but also externally to clients by providing mental health and wellbeing training.

What programs do you have in place at Ashurst to support mental health?

Emmi: We have a global Employee Assistance Program that is completely confidential and free for all partners and staff. This gives them access to a 24-hour help line as well as various counselling guidance services. These services are also available to people in their immediate household whether it be family members or a house mate.  It is important that the provision is the same across our regions but handled differently. If you called the helpline in Asia, you would be looked after by someone in the region who understands the culture and the support that is available.

We also have our global Wellbeing Ally Program. Any employee within the organization can become a Wellbeing Ally.  All Allies receive training in mental health first aid as well as being provided with the skills and resources to tackle the effects of mental health around topics such as domestic abuse and menopause. An Ally is there to listen to someone who might be struggling with poor mental health. However they would not give any medical advice. They can use the tools and resources from their training to guide anyone in the right direction, for example to go and see a GP.  Having a Wellbeing Ally in a team gives that extra bit of support. They are someone you can turn to if you don’t feel comfortable speaking to a manager.

What sort of levels of engagement do you have in those programmes?

Emmi: There has been a high level of interest across the teams, so far, but we are always looking for more people to get engaged as you can never have enough support.  We need to reach those people that perhaps haven’t got mental health and wellbeing on their radar just yet.

Russ: Everything that has happened surrounding mental health and wellbeing at Ashurst has been happening organically.  We haven’t had to push the mental health and wellbeing agenda too much as there is so much of an interest.  I have been a qualified Mental Health First Aider Trainer for 3 years now and although pick up on the training started slowly, we haven’t had to do much of a hard sell. Our associates and partners have approached us, asking how to get involved and how to get trained in mental health first aid.

Also, having things like the Mindful Business Charter that has been around for about two and half years, has ensured that wellbeing is put at the forefront of a lot of our partners’ minds. Therefore what we are doing with our clients on mental health and wellbeing as well as what we are doing for our clients with the mindful business charter, the two combined have become a big thing and a big topic at Ashurst.

It does keep Emmi and I extremely busy though as this isn’t our full-time job! But it is our passion for the topic which allows us to carry out the work and run it from the corner of our desks even if it is added pressure. We would rather have the messages and the work out there than not. We are more than happy to deliver training wherever we see fit and when we are asked to do so.

Have you seen a big change in people’s reactions to looking after their mental health and wellbeing this last year?

Emmi: I think there is definitely more of an emphasis on wellbeing. It seems to be more front of mind for people. Some already have the skills to keep well and know how to make themselves feel better if they are feeling low.  However, there are people who haven’t experienced any mental health problems before and this may have come as a bit of a shock to them. So we have had to be proactive to get our wellbeing messages out there within the organization. In some cases, we might already be at crisis point so it would have been better to get to get those messages of support out earlier, but we just didn’t see this coming.

Russ: I completely agree with Emmi. A lot of people in the past year have suffered poor mental health for the first time, especially those that live on their own who have felt quite isolated. Then there have also been the parents, juggling with not just their own work but with childcare and homeschooling. It hasn’t been easy for anyone. Speaking from experience, suffering with poor mental health for the first time can be extremely terrifying as you have no idea on what coping mechanisms to use. Realizing there might be a problem is scary. We have tried to provide a platform, alongside the tagline of, “Its ok to not be ok.” That’s a hard message to put across in the legal industry because everything is very high performing.

Has the pandemic changed the way you approach mental health and wellbeing within the organization?

Russ: One thing we have been trying to advise our partners on is that its all well and good to say we are a high performing culture but what goes hand in hand with a high performing culture is the need to also give people that rest period. I always use the analogy in my mental health first aid training, of a Formula one team. You have a high performing driver and a high performing car going round a track, but they can’t win the race without the pit stop and without the team in the pit stop. Generally, formula one races are won by the team, not just the driver and the car. The speediness of somebody recovering in that pit stop enables them to then go out and continue to highly perform. This analogy shows that wellbeing isn’t just an individual responsibility, it is on everybody in the team. Recognizing this as a culture within the firm, enables us to continue to be a high performing law firm.

What is your opinion on resilience, how does that help the conversation?

Russ: Resilience is one of the biggest subjects in the wellbeing world. Resilience has its place, but it isn’t the answer. A lot of firms have spent money on resilience training, but that puts the onus firmly on the individual. The real answer is that everybody within the organization must take responsibility not just for their own wellbeing but for each other’s. That comes from the top right down to the bottom. We need to provide a culture that enables people to get that R&R which will, in turn, make them a more successful team. From a commercial perspective it makes much more sense, rather than running our people so far into the ground that they break or leave the firm.

Emmi: Exactly right, and it comes from the top but the person at the top has to make sure they are looking after themselves as well. We put a lot on our partners and line managers to look after their teams, but we can’t forget how much we need to look after everyone. That’s why we offer mental health first aid training to all so that support isn’t always coming from the top.

Do you think mental health has been creeping up as a topic of conversation over the past five years? Or has only been because of the pandemic that people are really talking about it now?

Russ: It’s one of those age old questions, are more people suffering now more than ever before? I think no, perhaps in the Covid year, I would say yes, as it has been a very unique situation. However looking back over the past 5 – 10 years I think the same number of people have been suffering. The difference now is that people are able to talk about it more freely.

The mental health first aid training we provide, encourages people to be able to have these conversations more openly. This is not just about their own mental health but it also gives them the skills to approach someone that they might be worried about. They can use these skills in their everyday lives, with loved ones, family and friends.

I think the same amount of people are suffering but people are suffering less in silence. Not talking about your mental health can be extremely dangerous. The sooner you talk about your struggles (even a brief struggle) the more chance you have of recovery. As mental health first aiders, the sooner we can advise on coping mechanisms, the sooner that person can get back to performing at a high level, in work and in life.

Emmi: I completely agree.  The pandemic has given that openness a bit of a boost. It has created a culture of talking about mental health, asking people ‘how are you,’ and caring about the answers. We need to keep promoting this culture and not let it slip.

Do you have individual team retreats/away days within your organization?

Russ: It depends on the team, but as an HR team, during the pandemic, we have been trying to find unique ways of having meetings. We are trying to encourage more away days and some smaller teams have been trying to do picnic lunches. One thing we have also encouraged managers to do is to schedule walking meetings with individuals. It is a well-known fact, if you are worried about somebody, they are more likely to open up walking side by side rather than you sitting across a table eyeballing them!

It was recently reported that the dating app Bumble, gave all their employees the week off to combat stress. In terms of mental health, what do you think will change in the future?

Emmi: I was on a call with some work experience students recently, talking about diversity, inclusion and wellbeing. They asked challenging questions around mental health. It was great that they were asking us what practices we have in place. They wanted to know how would we support them if they came to work for Ashurst.

I think we have workforces coming in who are going to be increasingly more demanding – in the most positive way. A new type of workforce who expect to get something back from working really hard. Everyone in the legal industry expects to work hard but I think there is a shift. Money isn’t the only thing that matters any more. They want to be rewarded in other ways. What that looks like I am not quite sure yet.

Russ: I completely agree, what that looks like we still don’t know, not just at Ashurst but throughout the industry. However, I think we are making the right moves with the Mindful Business Charter and Mental Health First Aid Training. From an Ashurst perspective, I think