Pinsent Masons partner’s tragic death triggers debate on work/life balance

Pinsent Masons partner’s tragic death triggers debate on work/life balance

Vanessa Ford.

The death of a Pinsent Masons partner has ignited a debate on stress and work/life balance in private practice.

Vanessa Ford, known professionally as Vanessa Heap, had been working 18-hour days and through her holidays to complete the sale of Everton FC to a private equity firm.

On 23 September 2023, just over a week after the deal completed, she “consumed a significant amount of alcohol while undergoing an acute mental health crisis”, concluded coroner Ian Potter, before going onto the tracks by Dalston Lane road bridge where she was struck by a train.

The inquest heard that the Pinsents equity partner had attended a celebratory lunch in Manchester the day before her death to mark the completion of the transaction, and spent the night at the home of her friend, Katie Charles, Everton’s legal services director, before catching an early train back to London on the 23rd.

Ford returned home that morning while her husband and children were out and left a note before leaving with a bottle of gin.

The coroner said there was “no doubt” that Ford had taken her own life, but said there was “insufficient evidence” to conclude that she fully intended to do so.

A toxicology report showed that Ford’s blood alcohol level at the time of her death was “incredibly high”, and she also contacted a private health care provider in the hour before her death to seek help for alcohol consumption.

The coroner said that in the months prior to her death there were “a number of stressors” in Ford’s life, but she appeared to have “found it difficult” to discuss them.

Her husband, wine educator Oliver Ford, provided a statement to the inquest which described his wife as “the perfect person to be around” who was “good at everything”, including being a lawyer, a mother and a friend.

He said that she “worked very hard to satisfy all her responsibilities” and that he had “never known Vanessa to work so intensely” as she had on the Everton matter, which he described as “all-consuming”.

Ford felt “intense guilt” as the deal entered the crunch period, he said, because it prevented her from being able to spend time with her children, while holidays were interrupted by long work calls.

Ford’s father’s death the year before had also “upset her deeply” and she had not had a proper opportunity to grieve, he said.

Pinsent Masons’ finance and restructuring group head, Matthew Morgan, told the inquest that Ford had not raised concerns about stress or work/life balance at work, and “Nobody had any concerns around the pressure that Vanessa was under” as a result of the Everton deal.

“She was very positive”, he said, and she had referred to the Everton deal as “the best work she’d ever done” when speaking to a colleague.

Morgan said he did not spot a change in Ford in the period preceding her death, and although some colleagues noticed she was thinner, the coroner said her weight loss could have been attributed to the partner deciding to walk more to increase her daily step count.

Morgan described the Everton deal as a “once-in-a-few-years transaction” and said that while the long hours Ford worked were not “unheard of”, it would be unusual for people to work under such pressure “non-stop”.

In a statement, Pinsent Masons Managing Partner Laura Cameron said, “Vanessa was a much-loved and respected member of our firm, and we remain deeply saddened by her death. The inquest proceedings and conclusions were distressing to hear for all that knew her, and of course especially for her family and friends still grieving her loss”.

Addressing the focus on work/life balance at the firm, she said, “We work in a profession where balancing work and family life can be difficult and presents challenges – particularly for working parents. We want this to be an ongoing conversation with colleagues to ensure we are doing everything we can to support our people”.

“Across the legal industry – and more generally in society – a stigma around mental health persists and this is challenging to address. With vigilance, refreshed support measures and ongoing dialogue, both internally and externally, we will seek to make positive and lasting change”, said Cameron.

A spokesperson for Pinsent Masons told RollOnFriday, “We think it’s important to engage with our people to make sure the changes we make are appropriate and genuinely serve to make a difference. Thinking beyond the firm, we have, for example, client forums and membership organisations that we have reached out to with a view to starting important conversations”.

Pinsent Masons’ work/life balance is fairly typical for a large firm, according to its lawyers, who gave their opinions on the subject as part of RollOnFriday’s Best Law Firms to Work At 2024.

“The hours aren’t US-level, but when the pressure is on you’re expected to put in the hours”, said a male senior associate. “However, when it’s quieter you can enjoy the downtime”. 

A female partner said her work/life balance was “As good as it can be when you work in M&A, so not great, but that is basically [an] occupational hazard”.

A junior solicitor said a typical work day at Pinsent Masons “is 0830 to 1900”, while a senior female solicitor said the work/life balance was “the best thing” about the firm. “I rarely work past 19:30 and have never worked a weekend in 5 years there. It’s probably as good as you can get in private practice”, she said. 

However, another female senior solicitor said “[I] regularly work until the small hours trying to juggle a family”.  

The impact of long hours and work pressures as factors in Ford’s death has brought renewed attention to work/life balance across private practice and prompted both an outpouring of sympathy for Ford and frustration around a lack of real engagement with the issue.

Browne Jacobson partner Anja Beriro warned that, “if we don’t sit up and take notice, the legal profession will fall off a cliff. Not only are more senior lawyers burning out, Gen Z, and for sure Gen A, just won’t do it in the first place”.

One of many solicitors commenting on LinkedIn, she said it was “scary that these issues aren’t more visible” and said “it’s incumbent on the profession to put more safety nets in place”.

Haynes Boone partner Emma Russell agreed that the tragedy was an “example of how no-one really knows what is going on for someone both personally and professionally”. 

She also highlighted the stress and guilt that parents feel. “The pressures of being a parent and the pressure of this job in several sectors are almost impossible to manage”, said Russell. ”I see it as real issue for my generation both male and female in senior roles in this industry.”

“This absolutely breaks my heart”, said a senior litigation associate at Clifford Chance. “As a mother and a lawyer I completely get the guilt and the pressure of trying to do it all.”

“For my part I think I’ve seen a real shift post-Covid/ working from home becoming a normality”, she said. “There’s obviously huge positives from a flexibility standpoint but we are also all so much more ‘on’ and available than I had seen previously in my career.”

“So many of us have been there before working ridiculous hours, lack of sleep, constant stress and not eating properly”, said Jessica Cumming, a senior NHS lawyer, on LinkedIn, adding that she was “So glad I got out of private practice.”

Matthew Buckle, an arbitration and litigation lawyer at Osborne Clarke, said it was “an all too common story, that law firms do too little to address in any kind of meaningful way. The guilt of which you speak is an issue affecting, and impacting the careers of, plenty of men too”.

DLA Piper partner Robert Purton agreed. “This is really sad, especially as it is still all too common – no matter what your gender – and highlights that it is high time that as a culture we adopt a far more Scandinavia approach to the work life balance”, he said.

“Wellbeing/mental health initiatives/EAP schemes will not prevent further tragedies like this”, argued Michelmores’ marketing director Louise Edwards. “We need organisational change and a seismic shift in approach from leaders in our sector.”

“If anyone is working 18 hour days over a sustained period, concerns should be raised over their welfare. We must do better to care for our colleagues and stop expecting unsustainable ways of working”, said Freeths partner Alison Ogley. 

“I know how much I’ve struggled in the past working horrendous hours, 16 hour days (minimum) 7 days a week for months on end”, said Ogley. “Not one of my colleagues at the time asked if I was OK. Instead I felt like I still wasn’t giving enough and wasn’t good enough.”

“There is always someone at the top too removed from the reality and practicality of what it takes to get a deal done in short order pushing the deadlines (usually someone getting a bonus or promotion off the back of it)”, said Browne Jacobson partner Kay Chand. “The only way to change it is to say no. If enough of us say no, then surely it will change?”

“This is enormously sad”, said Shakespeare Martineau solicitor Heledd Wyn. “My training partner used to say that if you couldn’t do your job in 9-5 allocated work hours you were doing something wrong. Now, the reality is that to ‘get ahead’, working daft hours and never being ‘off’ has [become] part of the narrative – there is a real pressure to succeed and to succeed you need to hit metrics that mean there is no way a 37 hour week cuts it. Where’s the balance?”

Others who knew Ford expressed their grief alongside a desire for change. “This is not acceptable”, said Tim Brookes, legal director at Field Seymour Parkes. “I had the privilege to work with Vanessa at Osborne Clarke, and she was the shining light of her generation (with apologies to her cohort!)”

“This is so sad. I knew Vanessa a couple of firms back – she was wonderful”, said Patrick McCann, director of learning at Linklaters. “We as a legal industry need to do more to prevent this ever happening again.”

The profession may have a way to go. Other lawyers recalled wishing for an accident so they could escape the relentless pressure.  “Oh my gosh I have had that fantasy!!!” said a Watson Farley Williams partner. 

“I remember clearly when working on a very stressful case (almost 20 years ago now), fantasising about being hit by a car/bus – not enough to kill me but to take me ‘out of play’ for a while”, she said. 

“I was working all hours and the partner definitely wasn’t (!). I felt without direction, support and was dealing with a very difficult client. The stress was so intense I could not see a way out”.

If any readers are struggling, please consider calling LawCare, the mental health charity for the legal sector, on 0800 279 6888. 


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