The process of unfreezing, moving and freezing is disruptive. 

We met Isabel Menzies Lyth when we were thinking about nurses’ experience of vicarious trauma [1].

Writing after several decades working as a consultant advising on organisational change in the health service, she made a number of observations about the managing process of change in institutions [2].

(The wisdom below is Isabel’s; the alliteration is mine).


(1) Coping styles

Whether change is wholesale or iterative, change in a social institution “inevitably involves re-structuring the social defence system and this implies freeing underlying anxieties until new defences or, better, adaptations and sublimations are developed” [2].

We have seen that as individuals we instinctively defend ourselves against anxiety by adopting our own coping styles. Altering attitudes and practices about wellbeing can involve anxieties about weakness, stigma, shame and avoidance.

Lawyers can be more vulnerable than others in certain areas. We saw that the law can attract people with certain personality traits- perfectionism, generally risk averse, cautious, who find it difficult to be seen as failing. And perceived social status and a need to be needed by our clients may prevent many of us from acknowledging some deep anxieties.


(2) Catastrophe

“There is a sense in which all change is felt as catastrophic even when it is rationally recognised as for the better, since it threatens the established and familiar order and requires new attitudes and behaviour, changes in relationships and a move into a comparatively unknown future.” [2]

We saw that the experience of loss is a particularly uncomfortable and fluctuating process. As lawyers we can be more comfortable with a traditional, self-contained and reserved way of working.


(3) Contact

“Some of the changes that institutions make actually bring their members into more direct and overt contact with difficult tasks and stressful situations than before.” [2] 

The process of learning to be assertive with an overbearing supervisor can be uncomfortable.

Thinking about unseen mental illness carries an implication that it could happen to anyone, including myself.


(4) Confrontation

“This is a potentially maturational experience for the members who “learn” to confront reality and deal with it more effectively.” [2]

Individuals become more resilient; institutions also.

Much is being done at present to make workforces more resilient and law firms are also beginning to catch on: awareness training for staff and managers, links with local counselling and psychotherapy providers, development and implementation of mental health and wellbeing policies, employment assistance programs and mentoring, self-help resources, the practice of mindfulness, flexible working practices and more open cultures within workplaces, a reduction in unnecessary out of hours emails and the expectation that they will always be answered promptly, mental health first aiders, the creation of mental health champions, and, probably at the top of the list, enthusiastic buy in from senior management.

Tackling the challenges to wellbeing will lead to a more mature profession.


(5) Containment

“While change is taking place the problem of containment is central: the presence of someone who can give strength and support, help manage the anxiety, continue the process of developing insight and help define the exact nature of the desirable changes.” [2] 

Menzies Lyth was concerned that business consultants should not simply confine themselves to analysis of individuals’ roles in the business and corporate structure, but that they should be thoroughly observant of the psychological processes working within an organisation.

“Consultants who lack a psychoanalytic orientation may well confine themselves to role and structure without sufficient understanding of the contribution to them of unconscious content and dynamics. They may suggest changes in role and structure without the backing of the requisite changes in work culture.” [2]


(6) Culture shifts 

“Work culture analysis … considers such things as attitudes and beliefs, patterns of relationships, traditions, (and) the psycho-social context in which the work is done.” [2]

A recent survey carried out by UK firm gunnercooke revealed that ingrained aspects of work culture were factors leading to lawyer burnout. The aspects include lawyers’ obligation to record time and make every single minute count, inflexible working patterns, lack of control over workload, poor work-life balance, and long working hours [3].

This experience is reflected in the financial sector, where similar expectations are institutionalised. There is a clear tension between the demands of this culture and life outside work.

For some it pays off; for others, they drop off.

Fuel to the fire or burnout.

A banker’s wife … had worked in the financial sector and understood the pressures and the pay-backs (for her husband): “… I know what it’s like for him. I used to work at a ‘magic circle’ law firm myself. I have pulled all-nighters, worked till one at night for weeks on end. I remember exactly how it works, how you become one with the team, this feeling of: we’re going to do this, and we are going to win because we are the best.” [4]

Clearly in a global practice, being in the middle of Far East and US time zones stretches the day at both ends.

Some lawyers have broken the mould and have created a new culture. Clearly those in smaller firms or chambers have more flexibility to pivot and change direction, sometimes diametrically.

Australian lawyer Michael Bradley left a large Sydney firm to help set up his own practice Marque Lawyers. His opinion is simple, namely that nothing will change until the business model changes. He is polemically critical of legacy firms whose model is based on strict adherence to the timesheet and “the mindless pursuit of profit is an end in itself”. [5]

The firm is growing and Bradley is clear in his direction: “the truth is that having fun has been one of (our) values since we started, and we remain violently committed to it”. [6]

Bradley has expanded on his ideas of doing law in new ways in a recent book, in which he notes that in Australia private practice lawyers suffer depression and anxiety at about four times the rate of the general population.


(7) Collaboration

“Work culture analysis … considers … the psycho-social context in which the work is done and how people collaborate in doing it.” [2]

We noted above that there is the possibility of significant advance in addressing wellbeing issues in the legal profession if there is greater cooperation and collaboration between professional bodies.

We may be different branches of the tree but we share the same trunk and roots.

We are dependent on and nourished by the same source …




[1] Menzies Lyth, I. (1960) Social systems as a defence against anxiety. Human Relations, 13, 95-121.

[2] Menzies Lyth, I. (1989) A psychoanalytical perspective on social institutions. In The Dynamics of the Social. Selected Essays, Vol. 2 (pp. 26-44) London: Free Association Books.

[3] Manglani, M. (2015) Two in three UK lawyers are facing burnout Managing Partner, 18, 9-10.

[4] Chapman, L. (2012) Stress in the City. Therapy Today, 23.

[5] Bradley, M. (2015) Marque Lawyers – The development of law firm innovation. Case study 2 in Law Firm Innovation: Insights and Practice (pp.53-56). London: ARK Group.

[6] Bradley, M. (2012) Kill All the Lawyers: The Decline and Fall of the Legal Profession. Hampress.


(This is an edited excerpt from my book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)

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