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Herbert Smith Freehills in outstanding mental health initiative

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08 March 2017 09:54
Over the years the big law firms have come up with countless attempts to address the same problems – promoting wider diversity in or greater access to the profession; addressing the insufficient representation of women, or those from ethnic minorities, or those who are LGBT; tackling stress and ill health.  All of these projects are, doubtless, launched with the most laudable of intentions. Many of them end up as largely ineffective and, at worst, little more than window dressing. So I tip my hat to Herbies for coming up with something that is genuinely effective.


I recently had lunch with Ian Cox, the firm’s London Managing Partner, and he discussed his firm’s mental health programme with the zeal of a convert. I went in to talk to the firm about it in greater detail and it is a model which should be adopted across the profession.

HSF launched the programme about two years ago, encouraging staff to become mental health mentors. 76 of them from across the firm – partners, those in business services, associates – have signed up and been trained. Their status is advertised internally, and anyone with mental health issues can approach any mentor entirely confidentially. Sometimes it’s just a question of a chat and a sympathetic ear. Sometimes the situation is more serious and may lead to a referral. The chief aims are to destigmatise mental health issues and proactively to spot individuals who are in distress and need help before their situation worsens.

It has been supported by a number of events. Ruby Wax launched the programme and recent speakers have included:

  • Alastair Campbell, who spoke about how he functioned in a highly stressful environment with a mental illness, his trigger points and how he avoided them;
  • Clarke Carlisle, who focussed on the difficulties in encouraging men to accept that they had mental health issues; and
  • Jonny Benjamin, who stood on Waterloo Bridge at rush hour with the intention of jumping off it, and Neil Laybourn, the stranger who was walking past and stopped to talk him out of it.

The firm’s senior management is foursquare behind the programme. Two partners, Chris Parsons and Samantha Brown, have spoken at length both internally and externally about their personal battles with mental illness. Brown (below) was interviewed about her experiences on the BBC earlier this week.

     

HSF does lots of things that other firms do - it actively participates in the City-wide “This Is Me” campaign to reduce the stigma of mental health in the workplace. And lots of things that other firms don’t – it recently changed its healthcare provider specifically to offer its staff a better mental health offering.

The programme has so far been run in London and Belfast and there has been interest in expanding it across the firm’s global network. I hope that interest turns into action. I also hope that other firms are encouraged by the success of this programme and adopt something similar. David Shields, HSF’s Head of Diversity and Inclusion, told me that Brown and Parsons would be happy to address other partnerships on this issue. Please contact him on david.shields@hsf.com.

  

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anonymous user
08/03/2017 15:29
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I think this is incredible.
anonymous user
09/03/2017 00:38
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Laudable and may really make a difference. I hope more firms follow suit.
anonymous user
09/03/2017 10:23
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This is spot on. Good job Herbies. All other big firms should do the same.
anonymous user
10/03/2017 02:32
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As a lawyer at Herbies who has had mental health issues, can attest that the firm has an excellent attitude and a very genuine concern. Great culture. Matthew - great job pushing this effort into the legal press. It would be a great thing if other firms followed suit.
anonymous user
10/03/2017 10:59
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Well done, Herbies. Extremely enlightened.
Roscoe P. Coltrane
19/03/2017 11:42
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I was encouraged to see that there are 76 mentors.

Hopefully this means that if one wanted to speak to a mentor, one could find one in an unrelated department at or below one's own level of seniority. This would, I think, stop people from being put off from seeking help by anxiety about discussing such issues with superiors and/or people they work with directly.