Mental health and post-pandemic work culture was high on the agenda at the Chartered Institute of Trademark Attorneys’ Spring Conference last week – the first time the London-based group had met for an in-person gathering since 2019.
Delegates gathered at Savoy Place on the Thames Embankment in London on Thursday, March 17 to talk about the usual updates of case law and trademark strategy and, more strikingly when compared to past events, the human aspect of the intellectual property profession.
The final session before the lunch break delved into how lawyers and law firms could promote equality, diversity, and inclusion in a post-pandemic world, and focused on the impact of these issues on legal professionals’ mental wellbeing.
The past two years should open firms’ eyes to the importance of flexible working arrangements, said Megan Rannard, attorney at Marks & Clerk in Birmingham, who added that she’d been working from home before the pandemic for mobility reasons.
“Maintaining that post-pandemic flexibility will be really important, not just for people like myself, but also people with caring responsibilities,” she said.
Alicia Chantrey, associate general counsel at Associated British Foods in London, said she hoped that employers had learned to be more responsive to individual needs during the pandemic.
“I really hope we don’t lose that human touch and just go back to being faces that sit behind a desk,” she said.
Younger lawyers are especially mindful of these issues and expect firms to reflect their values, Rannard added.
“I hope it’ll eventually be part of every company’s DNA. Hopefully that’s somewhere we can get to, if we keep talking about it at venues like this,” she said.
Words into action
If CITMA’s conference is anything to go by, more attention is being paid to mental health and wellbeing in the UK IP profession than ever before.
Once delegates went to the exhibit hall for their break, they could find representatives from Jonathan’s Voice and LawCare waiting, two organisations focused on mental wellbeing in the legal profession.
The big challenge for organisations such as those is translating the greater attention on mental health into concrete action, Penelope Aspinall of Jonathan’s Voice told Managing IP at the event.
The organisation was founded in 2017 in memory of Jonathan McCartney, a Bristol-based patent attorney who took his own life at the age of 35.
The purpose of the charity is to help firms implement policies and best practices that will help lawyers cope with a job that is inherently stressful, Huddersfield-based Aspinall said.
“We need to go beyond add-ons, like lunchtime yoga and free fruit. We should be looking at policies and thinking about how they will impact people’s mental health and wellbeing,” she said.
Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive at LawCare in Bath, also stressed the need to create a fundamentally different working culture in the legal profession.
“Law operates on quite a lot of fear and blame, rather than being open,” Rimmer told Managing IP.
A LawCare report published last September found that more than one in five legal professionals surveyed had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination.
More generally, it found a high risk of burnout in the profession, as well as frequent instances of anxiety, depression and low mood.
“There is a lot coming at you as a lawyer and it can be really hard for people to admit they’re struggling because they’re worried about the impact it will have on their career,” Rimmer said.
The most important place to start, Aspinall said, is making sure people have meaningful time off.
“The best thing we can do is prioritise the importance of breaks. Otherwise, you’re never coming down from that level of stress or getting that time to recalibrate,” Aspinall said.
It’s crucial that when people take time off, firms don’t expect that time back later on, she added.
“Often people feel they have to take their work away with them on holiday because it will be piling up for when they get back, or they can’t take time off sick because they’ll be working twice as hard when they return,” Aspinall said.
Readers won’t need reminding that the legal profession is characterised by long, unsociable hours and the encouragement of counsel to always be switched on.
Those factors are fuelled by a model that measures success according to targets such billable hours, said Rimmer, who added that the profession needed to move away from them if it really valued its members’ mental health and wellbeing.
“We measure success by how much we bill and we see individuals mainly as fee earners. But my sense is that for most people, the money isn’t enough. They want to be valued and respected,” Rimmer said.
The problem is that there isn’t much incentive to make that culture shift under the partnership model, because the decision makers wouldn’t necessarily benefit from it, she added.
There is a risk that a younger generation of lawyers who prize a healthier work-life balance may find the profession unable to meet their needs.
That means a mental health crisis not just for individual lawyers who are struggling, but the profession as a whole.
As Rannard of Marks & Clerk told CITMA delegates, the first step is talking about the problems. As was indicated at the conference, people are much more willing to discuss those openly than they were before.
Hopefully there will be a similar appetite from law firms to try and find some solutions.
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