fivehundred magazine > M&A Yearbook 2024 > Stress test – partners on how they deal with a life under pressure

Stress test – partners on how they deal with a life under pressure

Long and unpredictable hours can make transactional work hard to reconcile with mental health considerations. Elisha Juttla and Holly McKechnie spoke to City partners about how they keep things in check – and why the industry still needs to change

‘The personality types attracted to law often highly value accuracy and delivering the “perfect” answer, but that single-minded goal can be almost impossible in our business – it’s something that can be detrimental to your health and your relationships with your team and family.’

As Hogan Lovells’ UK managing partner Penny Angell explains, the challenge of reconciling Type A personalities with work/life balance is a puzzle that most top law firms have not yet solved.

And it is an issue that has come to the fore again in the wake of the death of Pinsent Masons banking partner Vanessa Ford in September last year. Ford’s death was the latest in a number of tragedies involving partners at leading commercial firms, highlighting both the pressure that lawyers are under and the fact that support for those struggling is still not as available as it should be.

For those working on high-stakes M&A deals, like Ford – who was known professionally as Vanessa Heap – the pressure can be particularly immense, given the long hours and unpredictable nature of the work.

Ford, who was 47, had been working 18-hour days on the high-profile acquisition of Everton Football Club, and was struck by a train in east London after consuming a significant amount of alcohol in the midst of an ‘acute mental health crisis’.

Despite increasing discussion around mental health in law over recent years and efforts by firms to put support such as advice lines in place, figures from industry mental health charity LawCare highlight the growing scale of the problem.

The charity saw a 24% increase in the number of legal professionals contacting it for support between January and August 2023 compared with the previous year, reinforcing the impression that firms’ efforts so far are not enough, even though there has been a marked increase in the openness of many partners to share stories about how stress and mental health issues have affected them personally in a bid to reduce stigma.

It is notable that during research for this feature many leveraged finance and M&A partners declined to speak to us; here though, we share the experiences and tips for dealing with stress from some of the deal lawyers who were happy to speak.

Stress testing
With long hours, demanding clients and exacting expectations par for the course, high stress levels are an inevitable part of the job for any lawyer, but even more so transactional lawyers. Indeed, for many deal lawyers the adrenaline rush that comes with operating in these environments is one of the key attractions.

‘If you’re not comfortable doing the big M&A deals, then it’s the wrong job for you. You need to be able to handle the intensity, help your associates through that intensity and help your clients as best you can, so they don’t feel stressed,’ says Lisa O’Neill, co-head of Milbank’s London corporate team.

‘For some people stress is not by definition bad – it’s a spectrum,’ adds Gavin Davies, head of Herbert Smith Freehills’ (HSF) global M&A practice, who points out that for some it is definitely a motivating factor.

‘Without it, I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning, and with the right amount I am at my most energised. It’s just when there’s a bit too much that I need to check myself,’ he adds.

But continuously elevated stress levels can take a toll on even the most resilient partners, particularly if combined with stress outside the office. Simpson Thacher private equity partner Clare Gaskell, for example, once had to take nearly two months off work as a result of a combination of personal and professional stress. Recounting her experience, she says: ‘I took seven weeks off work. It was not something I initially wanted to do, but it was important. The team stepped up to make sure everything was handled. When I came back, I made some adjustments, and now I feel much better equipped to manage stress.’

As a result of her own experiences, making sure the rest of her team has access to support has become particularly important to Gaskell. ‘We’ve had others in the team who struggled with managing stress. It’s really important to acknowledge if you’re not able to carry on and need a break, then as a team we need to be there for one another,’ she adds.

This dual pressure of professional and personal issues hitting at the same time is cited as a key stress point by many spoken to for this feature. Ford, for example, was trying to balance her heavy workload with life as a mother of two children and had also lost her father the previous year.

Angell recounts an incident during a deal closing as a seven-months-pregnant junior partner. When her team turned up at the offices of the law firm acting for a borrower in the middle of the night to sign off documents, the other side refused to provide a redline showing changes from previous versions of the documents, or to tell them which provisions had been amended over the course of the last 24 hours.

Forced to speed re-read the documents, with frequent interruptions from the other side’s senior partner, Angell took a stand. ‘The senior partner advising the borrower was breathing down my neck every five minutes, saying “Why haven’t you signed it off yet? My clients want to sign and go home to get some sleep”.’

‘I just took a deep breath, and pointed out that it would have been a lot quicker if they had provided the redline comparison, and that given it was 3am and I was seven months pregnant, I was also very keen to go home and get some sleep,’ Angell explains.

‘Dealing with stressful situations like this is about knowing when you need to be pragmatic but also when you need to hold your ground and not be intimidated by an overly pushy partner on the other side,’ she adds.

Taking control

If a lawyer is working as many as 18 hours a day or pulling all-nighters, there’s no way that their job isn’t impacting their personal life. Even when it isn’t as intense as that, it can be hard to switch off.

When asked whether he has ever noticed work impacting his mental health, Latham & Watkins London private equity partner Paul Dolman replies: ‘I would say no, my wife would probably say yes. She knows me well enough to recognise when I go into a tunnel and become completely focused on work. Even when I’m in the room, sometimes I’m not present.

‘To cope with this, I try to avoid looking at my phone in the evening when I’m with my wife and children so that I am truly present with them, rather than just physically there but mentally elsewhere.’

But while it is never going to be possible to avoid stress as a deal lawyer, it is possible to take steps to cope with it better.

Top of the list is making sure family, friends and colleagues are aware if you are feeling the pressure. As McDermott’s new London managing partner and co-head of London transactions Aymen Mahmoud highlights: ‘I have tried to surround myself with people who prioritise empathy, among my friends, my colleagues and my clients – and I have been incredibly fortunate in being able to speak with deeply kind and empathetic people during my greatest moments of stress.’

Gaskell also encourages talking about problems with friends and family, but points out that this can be hard to achieve if your anxiety is greatest at night, in which case it’s important to have an alternative way to calm yourself down. ‘It’s really critical to talk to people about things. My worst stress is in the middle of the night when I can’t talk to other people, so I put on a podcast as a distraction.’

Transactional work is by its nature less predictable, but there are still some areas that are within your control and this is where many partners suggest focusing.

Angell explains: ‘I’m not saying I don’t get stressed: I do – but I am better at focusing on what I can actually control. There are always things you can’t control, and stressing about them isn’t going to help because you can’t change them. So, focus on the things you can change.’

Nallini Puri, M&A partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, echoes this sentiment, adding that releasing your emotions can help manage stress, but it is important to balance it with a practical mindset if possible. ‘I am not embarrassed to admit that I’ve had a bit of a cry at times – it can be quite therapeutic!’ However, she adds: ‘I am quite a practical person and I think that’s helpful when you’re dealing with stressful situations because then you can try and think logically about the best way to handle it, rather than letting your emotions take charge.’

Freshfields partner Victoria Sigeti agrees, adding that it’s important to take a proactive rather than reactive approach to potential problems. ‘The first thing to do is to try to anticipate when deals might become stressful and put measures in place to reduce the impact of potentially stressful situations,’ she says.

Over at Latham, Dolman, somewhat counter-intuitively advocates for starting a long working day earlier, to clear the decks before the rest of the office gets in. ‘I get up at about 5am and am at my desk by 6 or 6.30. That works for me because it gives me at least two hours before anybody else comes online, so I can clear any work I wasn’t able to do the night before. By 9am, I’m starting with a clean sheet of paper, I’m up to date, and that helps my stress levels go down because suddenly I’m back in control.’

It’s also important to take time for yourself – no matter how busy you may be and no matter what you choose to do with this time. As Sigeti comments: ‘Key for me has been working out what makes me happy and helps me relax. That is a combination of family and friends, proper downtime on weekends and holidays and good diet, exercise and fresh air. I try to find ways to build all of those things into my regular routine and, to the extent I end up not getting enough of any of them for a period, am proactive in making a plan to rebalance things.’

Angell, meanwhile, takes much of the summer off to be with her family. ‘I take off the whole month of August, which has always been a way of giving back to my family. I always try to make every important school or family event but inevitably with my role, there are certain times when I can’t. But August is my time. I turn off my laptop and my work phone, and I do not check emails.’

Former Morrison Foerster leveraged finance partner Chris Kandel favours more immediately accessible methods – relaxing at the end of a stressful day through film and music: ‘I actually enjoy the stress of deals. I think the fact I enjoy it makes it easier to deal with. However, sometimes I come home after fighting the good fight all day long and it’s hard to then relax. I have a wide range of tastes. Unfortunately, one of them is violent films, and watching violent films helps me unwind. I also like listening to a wide range of music. When stressed I have to confess I come home and listen to heavy metal.’

Protective measures

While many firms, including Pinsents, have 24/7 mental health support lines, this alone is not enough of a safety net. For partners it means that it isn’t just about managing their own stress, it’s also important for them to monitor their teams and help more junior lawyers develop their own strategies to cope.

Even then, identifying all of those who are struggling, can be difficult. ‘Most people conceal their stress to a degree,’ says Kandel. ‘There’s a desire to look professional. To the outside world the delivery of legal services is like a smooth, unemotional machine. The reality is everyone is scrambling behind the scenes, but the goal of law firms is to look absolutely on top of it.’

‘It’s tricky,’ admits Gaskell. ‘We’ve all been conditioned to have such high expectations of ourselves and there’s a fear of failure or fear of not being able to keep up. So, it can be quite tricky to identify it in other people. There have been times I’ve only realised after the event that people have been struggling. I always try and say please speak up earlier and I try to check in with people and make myself accessible.’

There are sometimes telltale signs that an individual is having difficulty managing their stress levels though, says Dolman, who trained as a mental health first aider while at Travers Smith. ‘There are different ways you can tell when people are feeling real stress. One is a change in personal behaviour; for example, someone who is usually very available you can’t get hold of, or mood swings, irrational behaviour.’

It is also about making sure that the office environment is open enough for employees to feel comfortable speaking up when they are struggling.

‘Active listening is something to think about, particularly when everyone is working at full pace,’ HSF’s Davies explains. ‘It’s very easy to ask someone how they are, to get the reflex response of “fine thanks”, and plough on. Pausing to check that they really mean it can be important in those moments.’

Partners should also be mindful of how stressors shift throughout life and be aware that what might trigger a minor stress response in one employee may have an outsized effect on another. ‘It may be that a thing that might not cause stress at one moment causes huge stress at another,’ Mahmoud explains. ‘This makes empathy incredibly important – to be able to first of all listen, and then to look at someone else’s situation or experience, to reflect on it and to think how they might feel about it,’ he adds.

Talking openly about their own stress is one way partners can help foster a more open working environment that encourages associates or others with a firm to speak up.

As Sigeti comments: ‘As with many of the things that go into making our firms places that people want to work in and feel able to be themselves, it is up to partners to be as open as they are able to be themselves when they are feeling stressed or when their balance is not right, so as to role model to others that they are not alone in finding things tough.’

Puri adds: ‘Having a culture where people feel comfortable talking openly about such issues is important. You need to be aware of what your own triggers are, and also watch out for your colleagues. I would hope that if someone here was feeling stressed about something then they would feel comfortable talking about it.’

Crucially though, as Ford’s death highlights, someone needs to be looking out for partners’ mental health too. Her death, like those of former global chair of Baker McKenzie, Paul Rawlinson in 2019 and legacy SJ Berwin partner Catherine Bailey in 2009, underline the need for better mental health support within the legal profession, where the long hours and pressure are still accepted by many as part and parcel of the job, despite shifting attitudes towards mental health.

Pinsents confirmed that it has started engaging with lawyers, clients, peer firms and external organisations to help identify ways to improve working life and mental health support but a spokesperson admitted: ‘Impactful and lasting change within a complex global profession will take time.’

Whatever solution the firm comes up with it’s imperative that it includes partners as well as associates.

‘There’s a lot of focus on associate well-being, and there’s probably less focus on partner well-being – if I’m being honest,’ concludes Dolman. ‘I think partners are seen as having more ability to determine the amount of work they are doing, and sometimes that is certainly not the case.

‘Obviously, there have been some cases of partners who haven’t managed to handle the stress, so I think there should be a focus on partners as well across the profession.’