Becoming a mental health lawyer: the view from Sasha Miles-Bunch, Law Society Mental Health Accreditation Scheme member and solicitor at GN Law.
We’re talking more and more about mental health within the law – but what about the lawyers who build their practice around the mental health of others? We spoke to Sasha Miles-Bunch to learn more about a crucial, but not so well-known area of the legal profession.
Chambers Student: What is the Mental Health Tribunal?
Sasha Miles-Bunch: The Mental Health Tribunal is a branch of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service; its purpose is to review people who are detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act 1983 (as amended). There are three people on the panel: a legal member (a judge), medical member (an independent psychiatrist) and a specialist lay member who will have had previous professional experience working in mental health (a social worker, for example).
CS: Could you outline a few typical cases you might handle day-to-day?
SM: My typical cases concern people detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act 1983 (as amended). The job requires a lot of travelling to various hospitals where my clients are detained in order to take their instructions, consider medical records, and generally help them prepare for their tribunals. Once you’ve completed the Mental Health Accreditation Scheme, you are able to conduct your own advocacy at tribunals which typically take place inside the hospital.
“You obviously don’t need to have a medical degree, but as you practice you do pick up a lot of knowledge.”
CS: How much medical knowledge do you have to get to grips with?
SM: You obviously don’t need to have a medical degree, but as you practice you do pick up a lot of knowledge about different conditions and medications, and the treatments available for them. Ultimately, you need to know the symptoms and treatments for your client’s diagnosis because you’re going to be arguing that their mental health condition doesn’t warrant or justify them being detained.
CS: What’s the most interesting case you have worked on?
SM: I’ve worked on some interesting cases with people detained in high-security hospitals who have committed some serious crimes including those who have been convicted of rape, murder and paedophilia. I’ve also experienced working with people whose mental health conditions are compounded by deafness whose cases involve additional complexities. In this field you’re dealing with your own cases from the get-go, even at a paralegal level. That could include forensic clients and civil cases – a bit of anything really.
CS: What is involved in the Law Society Mental Health Accreditation Scheme?
SM: The accreditation scheme is something you need to have completed to represent legally-aided clients at tribunals – about 70% of the clients I deal with. It’s a two-day course followed by an interview at the Law Society where you have to answer questions on case-studies, law and procedure. It’s something you have to renew every two years; it’s tough and a lot of people will have a year or so experience under their belt before the firm will put them forward for it. You can fund it yourself, but many firms will fund it for you.
CS: What inspired you to become a mental health lawyer?
SM: My initial interest was piqued at university when I completed a module in mental health law while studying. However, it wasn’t something I realised you could build a career in – there was definitely a massive corporate bias at university. If you’re interested in becoming a mental health lawyer, I would advise going on the Mental Health Lawyers Association and The Law Society Gazette website which both advertise paralegal jobs.
CS: Who are some of the main players and parties you interact with day-to-day?
SM: Most hospitals will have Mental Health Act Administrators who are responsible for organising tribunals, and act as the port-of-call for solicitors. You also you have contact with clients’ doctors, social workers, and quite often, with their relatives. The one thing you don’t get much contact with other solicitors – it’s very one-sided.
CS: Does that make the days quite lonely?
SM: At GN Law, you work as a team within the firm, so you always have the support of your colleagues and a supervisor looking after you – everyone supports each other with their caseloads. Out on the road, you’re obviously alone but you’re also able to build relationships with administrators and other professionals in hospitals. Being able to network effectively is a very valuable skill to have in mental health law.
“...potentially witness harrowing things, such as people having to be restrained in your presence.”
CS: What are some of the main challenges you face as a mental health lawyer and what qualities are needed to overcome them?
SM: It’s very fast paced, a lot more so than people expect, and you have to a have a high level of organisation. A lot of people have find it challenging to come to terms with that. You’re also going to have to work for people who are extremely unwell or have done things you don’t agree with; deal with highly sensitive information; and potentially witness harrowing things, such as people having to be restrained in your presence. You must have an awareness of how to keep yourself safe and a resilient disposition.
CS: Does GN Law provide any extra training to help with these issues?
SM: There is a comprehensive risk management structure in our firm, as well as a true and actionable open door policy. If something happens on a visit and you’re not sure what to do or have any concerns, there is a supervisor to talk to. As part of our induction training we also receive instruction on how to handle difficult situations. It’s essential that anyone coming into this field has good interpersonal skills and sound situational judgement.
CS: What is your work/life balance like?
SM: My contracted hours are 8.30am until 6pm but you do often have to put in extra time on top of that. However, when somebody’s liberty or well-being is at stake and you’re their life-line it makes you want to put in the extra effort to help them. It’s not like you’re staying in the office until midnight trying to close a boring corporate deal.
CS: How many days are you in the office?
SM: On average, as a paralegal or trainee I would say you spend two days in the office and three days out. I think those who can drive might make more desirable candidates – it certainly makes the job easier. However, a lot of my colleagues in London don’t drive as using public transport is probably quicker.
“The idea that working in this field is somehow easier or ‘softer’ than working in a corporate firm is grossly misconceived.”
CS: What does your career trajectory look like? How will the nature of the cases change as you progress?
SM: The logical step from getting qualified is you can become a Legal Aid Agency Supervisor which means working with a team of trainees and paralegals under you. I am just starting to do this now, having qualified in March 2019. I would say that there is a much faster scope for progression compared to practicing corporate law in the City if you have what it takes. In terms of the nature of cases, as your knowledge and experience develops you will be able to handle more complex matters like forensics cases or pursuing appeals to the Upper Tribunal.
CS: What advice would you give to someone wanting to become a mental health lawyer?
SM: The idea that working in this field is somehow easier or ‘softer’ than working in a corporate firm is grossly misconceived – you have to be prepared to work really hard. If you’re looking for an actual job in mental health law, go to open days and talk to firms and find out what it’s all about. Mental health law is not criminal law and it’s not human rights law, it’s its own niche area. Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to find a firm who will pay for your LPC so you have to be prepared to shoulder that cost yourself. The best way to do it is getting in on the ground as a paralegal and working your way up. I did my LPC and training contract part-time at the same time so I graduated just a few months after finishing my contract. Doing that means people are often able to qualify sooner than at firms who recruit two years in advance.