Cortado Q&A: Elizabeth Rimmer

15-12-2020


Cortado Q&A is a series of short interviews taking you on a caffeine-fuelled tour of some of the most interesting folks in law.

Elizabeth Rimmer is the Chief Executive of LawCare, an independent charity offering information, training and support to the legal industry on mental health and wellbeing. Amongst many other things, Elizabeth is one of the guiding minds behind Life in the Law (more on that shortly) and a recent recipient of a Law Society Excellence Award for her outstanding contribution to the legal community during the pandemic (although she was far too modest to bring that up during our discussion!)

In some unfortunate timing on my part, I arranged to speak with Elizabeth the week before lockdown was due to end. We caught up online for a coffee and (sadly, virtual) slice of cake.

What is your career highlight?

That’s a really difficult question for me to answer, but I would have to say Life in the Law, a research project that will help us to understand how legal practice and workplace culture affect wellbeing. I came up with the idea around six years ago, after I sat next to the author of a similar study at a pre-conference dinner in the US. I was so enthused by it and when I got back to the UK I started to explore whether LawCare could do something similar.

It has taken years, but we have finally launched it. The research committee working on the project is excellent and the legal profession has really got behind it. When the results come out next year, we will have a fantastic opportunity to seize the momentum that has been growing behind mental health and wellbeing in the workplace and look at these issues in more depth. We can start a real conversation about how to build more mentally healthy workplaces and take a hard look at the role we all play in that – firms, educators, regulators and everyone else.

About 1,300 people have completed the Life in the Law survey so far, but we need as many people as possible to participate! It’s open to all current members of the legal profession (including support staff) in the UK and Ireland.

What is the biggest mental health issue that people aren’t talking about but should be?

To me, it’s just mental health full stop. There is still so much stigma around it and it just silences people. A lot of progress has been made, but in my view we are still scratching the surface. My sense is that the vast majority of people who are struggling don’t talk about it or bring it up in the workplace – they don’t feel empowered to do so or feel they work in the kind of culture where they can. Even in firms with fantastic mental health programmes, people need to feel that if they do speak up, they will be supported.

Lawyers are real perfectionists; their job is to solve other people’s problems. Sometimes, it’s easier to see when someone else is struggling than it is to see the same thing in ourselves. It’s much simpler to put the way we are feeling down to other things, because if we admit that there is a problem we will have to do something about it. All of this can be really challenging.

What topic or issue always makes you read deeper?

It isn’t related to what I do, but I am generally very interested in the shifting of global dynamics and the changing geopolitical view of the world. I’m reading a great book called The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan – it’s all about those relationships and the role that Europe has played in shaping the global agenda. I’m British, but I grew up overseas and have lived all over the place, so the global perspective is a really deep seated interest of mine. I also have a 15 year old son, who is studying the League of Nations as part of his History GCSE – the ambition behind that was huge and it is all so interesting. In a way, nothing really changes and history can put so much of the world today into context, but a lot of the detail gets lost in the mists of time. I also think about what things will be like for my son when he emerges into the world of work. I suppose all generations probably had similar thoughts, but I do think we are on the cusp of some very big changes.

Which leader in your field inspires you and why?

There isn’t one person as such, but I find the people who volunteer in the mental health sector really inspiring. Every day, I work with people who volunteer their time and energy to LawCare and I’m always amazed by their commitment.

I’m also inspired by the people who have the courage to tell their stories. In these times, it is so easy to just see the negative aspects of human nature; part of the reason why I like working in the voluntary sector is that you are constantly surrounded by people who are positive and engaged. I’m incredulous about how much people give – our champions, our volunteers, our board – it’s phenomenal. Everyone is pulling in the same direction and it’s just so motivating.

What drew you to a career in the mental health sector?

Actually, it all happened by chance. I used to be a clinical negligence solicitor, but after a few years in the role I began to question whether it was right for me. I found it really difficult that the people I acted for, who had been through terrible things, really just wanted someone to say sorry, but the system isn’t designed to deliver an apology. I decided to take a year out to study for an MA in Medical Law and Ethics at Kings College London. At the end of that year, I decided not to go back to law and started to work for Alzheimer’s Disease International in an administrative role. Through a series of events, I ended up staying on there and taking on more responsibility. It was great for me – I got to spend most of my 30s travelling. Because of my international upbringing I like to live in an international world, so that really appealed. It was at Alzheimer’s Disease International that I built up my experience in mental health and wellbeing. Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological condition but it can have a real impact on the wellbeing of those who are affected by it and their families.

After a few years, I took a career break for family reasons. When the time was right for me to return to work, I saw that LawCare had a vacancy and decided to apply. When I got the job, I just thought “this is the role for me”. I get to work with a huge variety of people doing work related to something that is absolutely fundamental to everyone.

As I said earlier, I really came to the role by chance and I do think it’s important that everyone keeps an open mind throughout their career about where the wind can blow them. I also think there is such an urgency to law: first there’s the training contract, then you qualify and after that you might start working towards partnership. Everyone has always got an eye on the next step, but sometimes it is nice to just step back and enjoy what you already have.

Where should I go for Bath’s best coffee?

Right now, it would have to be my house as nowhere is open! We do make a great coffee, though. We have various contraptions and grind our own beans – my husband even weighs them out! But when we aren’t in lockdown, I would recommend Mokoko in the Abbey Churchyard. You can get a great cup of coffee and the cake is fantastic!


Katie Dyson

Senior Associate
Commercial Disputes

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