Realistic goals and boundaries: how IP lawyers maintain their wellbeing
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Realistic goals and boundaries: how IP lawyers maintain their wellbeing

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To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, lawyers explain how they manage their mental health, and how they pluck up the courage to ask themselves difficult questions

Law, including intellectual property, isn’t the easiest profession to work in.

Over the years, Managing IP has extensively covered why those in the IP sector have been dealing with unsustainable levels of anxiety and stress and what law firms can do to help.

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which runs from May 13 to 19, focuses more on what people can do at an individual level to take care of their mental wellbeing.

The theme for 2024 is “Movement: Moving more for our mental health”. It highlights the importance of physical activity in managing mental health.

Managing IP spoke to four IP practitioners in Europe and beyond to understand how they manage stress both at work and at home.

Sources say exercising, carving out time for oneself, setting boundaries at work, and simply asking for help can make a world of difference.

Stay active

Most sources Managing IP spoke to agree on the benefits of physical exercise.

Marianne Privett, partner at AA Thornton in London, says finding her love for running has helped her balance her personal and work life much better.

She says: “When I’m running, I'm counting the steps to myself or noticing the weather around me, but I'm not thinking about work or home stresses.

“It took me a while to realise that running is not just something I do for my physical health but also my mental health. Now, I even take my running stuff with me when I go on holiday.”

Privett notes that she is able to carve out time for running from her busy schedule every week because her firm allows staff to work flexibly.

“The hybrid working we have at AA Thornton is very helpful. I tend to go for runs on the days when I'm working from home and have flexible start times.”

Privett’s experience highlights that even if lawyers wanted to manage their mental health themselves, workplace policies can still, to an extent, dictate their ability to do so.

Amy Auger, senior patent attorney at Wynne-Jones IP in London, agrees on the benefits of flexible working.

She says working remotely full-time has meant she has got hours back every week by not commuting, which she uses to exercise and spend more time with her family. This, in turn, has helped her mental health.

“Flexible working is a huge benefit for me and lots of other people, and giving people the freedom to fit in their life outside of work around their job is important.”

Set boundaries

Beyond staying active, there’s much more lawyers can do to keep their professional and personal lives separate and not take their work stresses home.

But perhaps, that’s easier said than done.

The principal at an Australia-based IP firm notes that setting boundaries at work is important, but it can be hard to do that.

She notes that when a friend of hers had her manager call her post 8 pm for a trivial issue and dragged the call on for too long inappropriately, she didn’t realise that she had the option to end that conversation.

It’s important to sit down and think about what appropriate behaviour is, what is not, and how to enforce personal boundaries, according to the principal.

For instance, she notes that one of the things many people do is work on weekends because it removes some of the following week’s stressors, adding: “But sometimes you have to stop and ask yourself, is that really necessary or is there a different way of doing it?”

She suggests that sometimes a lawyer needs to have difficult conversations and push back, irrespective of who is on the opposite side – their boss or a client.

“There are real deadlines and there are fake deadlines. Of course, you want to keep your clients happy, but you must remember that no one will take care of you other than you.

“So you must set boundaries and have difficult conversations. You also need to have an action plan for emails that come in after hours – under what circumstances do you respond and work longer, and under what circumstances do you send a quick response saying you’ll deal with it tomorrow.”

Ask for help

It’s clear that setting boundaries is important, but lawyers may often still find themselves in situations where they feel overwhelmed. In those situations, they must learn to ask for help.

It’s a good idea to talk to colleagues rather than bottling it up and trying to work through those issues yourself, suggests Auger at Wynne-Jones IP.

“Communication is really important and acts as a nice reminder that the people you work with are human beings too.”

Asking for help works at two levels, notes Cyra Nargolwalla, owner of Plasseraud IP in Paris.

First, as a leader, it’s important to create an environment where people can ask for help, and second, leading by example.

“There are days when I’m not feeling great and I think that as a leader, if I can share how I feel with people and ask for help, maybe those in junior positions will realise that they can also do it.”

Lawyers must also not shy away from seeking professional help if needed.

Privett at AA Thornton says when she went through a difficult period in her life following the loss of a loved one, she sought counselling.

“We have an free of charge employee assistance program where people having a hard time can reach out anonymously and receive counselling.

“That’s certainly something that some people have benefited from at our firm, including me. It helped me with processing my grief while managing work stresses.”

Get real

Sources also recommend recognising one's own needs and tailoring their career accordingly rather than bowing to peer pressure and chasing the top.

Nargolwalla at Plasseraud IP says it’s important to realise that the pressure one feels is often internal and not external.

“When people are feeling stressed, we encourage them to talk to their colleagues, work together, and not feel like they are constantly in competition with one another.

“Helping each other is what is rewarded, not stepping on someone to get to the top.”

It’s also important to have difficult conversations with yourself to address your wellbeing, according to sources.

The principal at the Australia firm says she underwent treatment for cancer between 2020 and 2021. The side-effects left her in a difficult place mentally.

She says: “It took more than a year and a half to finally get to the point where I admitted to myself that I cannot work the way I used to because I'm just not prepared to pay the price anymore.”

She says she had worked hard and negotiated with other leaders in the business for months to become a shareholder. However, when it was time to sign the contract, she apologised to her colleagues and told them she didn’t want to do it and was happy for things to continue as they were.

“Becoming a shareholder would have meant my targets would have increased a bit, but I realised that I would prefer a decrease instead.”

She says she felt disappointed in herself because all legal professionals are used to being high performers, and everyone works towards the next promotion.

“So, when you finally admit to yourself that maybe you won’t be that kind of high performer anymore, it's a difficult pill to swallow. But if that’s what you need to do to address your wellbeing, you must do it.”

It’s clear that there’s much IP lawyers can do to manage their mental health.

Finding the courage to have difficult conversations with yourself and others is perhaps the best place to start.

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