“There must be some mistake! I’ve never failed an exam in my life!’ This was the common refrain used to describe our trainees’ discomfort and bewilderment with failure. I would have believed that too until, in January 2014, I switched roles within the Law School of the Law Society of Ireland and started to see students for counselling.
In hindsight it should hardly have come as a surprise that trainee lawyers - with their bright curious minds, and well-honed capacity for thinking and talking - would enjoy short-term counselling. However, nothing had prepared me for the extent of their interest and engagement. While trainees had always had access to counselling with a consultant student counsellor, this was the first time we took the plunge and established a stand-alone Law School Counselling Service on-site.
I feared that high-achieving students might be reluctant to admit they were struggling. Or that they would be too self-conscious to seek support in their training environment. After all, who would want to be seen as vulnerable among peers or senior colleagues, or even Law School staff? Nothing could have been further from the truth. We quickly learned that the stigma so often cited in relation to mental, or emotional, health has no currency among this bunch of progressive professionals. What began as a small service – ie, me! – began to grow rapidly in response to student demand.
We quickly outgrew our counselling room and were fortunate enough to be given a discrete professional space beside the Law Society’s beautiful playing fields. It is a welcome place for students to come and download whatever is causing them angst or anxiety. More importantly, it is a safe place, and is used by over a third of all trainee solicitors. We have seen 500% growth in three years, six times the national average of counselling uptake for this level of professional education. Our team has grown to fill the new rooms, and we are now a diverse group of five Student Counsellors.
What would I say was the single success factor of our Counselling Service? From the start we introduced educational modules on psychological and emotional wellbeing within the Professional Practice course. Our course, entitled ‘Shrink Me; psychology of a Lawyer’, resonated with students, unmasking and normalising common but hidden fears, while offering a new perspective on the role of counselling in professional development.
The journey does not stop on qualification: emotional health must be nurtured throughout our professional careers. We now also offer a range of programmes for qualified members of the profession. Our annual Professional Wellbeing conferences in Dublin and Cork, held in conjunction with LawCare, and our annual Executive Leadership Programmes, are a welcome way of including and supporting senior practitioners.
It continues to be an absolute pleasure, as well as a challenge, to lead this busy service. My team and I are energised as we watch our clients turn old perceptions about counselling and professional wellbeing firmly on their head. We can only guess at the ripple effect these forward-thinking lawyers will have on the future of the Irish legal profession. I for one am looking forward to seeing how it unfolds!
Antoinette Moriarty, Law School Counselling Service Manager