Litigation can be stressful and life-changing for litigants, but we seldom talk about the effect on litigators. Its multiple demands – from managing client expectations, negotiation and navigating court deadlines to day-to-day administration – can take an emotional and physical toll.
The good days, when court applications are successful or a settlement is agreed, pump adrenaline, provide job satisfaction and strengthen client relationships. The bad days, when opposing counsel undermines your argument or a key witness collapses under cross examination, can be nerve-racking and unsettling, even for outwardly unflappable litigators – and particularly after long days, poor sleep and irregular eating patterns. Without self-care strategies and rest to regain a work/life balance, mental health issues can all too easily emerge.
Until recently, professionals affected by mental illness routinely suffered in silence, hiding misunderstood conditions that were stigmatised and treated as potential weakness by opponents and competitive colleagues. Charities like Mind, events like World Mental Health Day 2021 and work by the Law Society (to name but a few) have helped reduce the stigma, increased understanding and encouraged law firms and chambers to prioritise wellbeing.
However, dispute resolution and litigation, in particular, remain a tough environment in which to work. We all work hard and employ tactics to achieve the best commercial outcome for our clients, but our delivery can sometimes have significant effects on others. Small shifts in approach can make a difference to the lives you touch and ensure we act rigorously and with integrity. Here are some examples.
Learn how to recognise mental health symptoms in colleagues – and how you can help. Make information readily available on how to access immediate and long-term support. Create opportunities to discuss openly what wellbeing means for your team. Invite experts to explain what stress does to body and mind. Make time for stress-busting measures (breaks, exercise, healthy eating, family time, socials etc). Explore alternative relaxation methods like meditation.
Mentor juniors and trainees from day one and share, honestly, how you deal with stress. Offer an open, confidential door to answer questions (however simple) and provide support. If you are uncomfortable doing this, seek training to develop your emotional intelligence.
In proceedings, adopt a robust, strategic approach as appropriate – but stop short of aggression and personal attacks. Be reasonable in responding to requests for procedural concessions. If you regularly have last-minute deadlines, take a time management course and find new ways to manage your diary so that preparation is not left to the last minute. Where possible, share work/seek support from colleagues. Take holidays and leave the phone at home!
Manage your tone in correspondence. Avoid rudeness and emotive language. Personal criticism of individuals is rarely justified and could be intimidating. Consider the effect of the timing of your emails on the recipient. Delay delivery of non-urgent emails to the next morning and Friday night emails to Monday morning.
Empathise with your client but do not adopt their negative attitude towards other parties. Courteous behaviour promotes mutual respect throughout the team (including the client) and across the parties and paves the way to achieving compromise.
Discuss ADR processes early, preferably before commencing proceedings, to avoid the inevitable hardening of attitude that comes with litigation. While still stressful, ADR enables parties to understand each other's perspective and reach compromises that can bolster health and spirit, as well as save face, money and businesses.