Tragic lessons to learn… about life, and a death, in law

Tragic Lessons to learn - stress and overwhelm in law


A week ago today, an inquest pieced together the final, tragic moments of a high flying law firm equity partner and mum (article here).

Her name was Vanessa Ford.

Under Pressure

The inquest heard how Vanessa had experienced a “number of stressors” at the time of her death, which occurred just a week after she, and a team of lawyers at her firm, Pinsent Masons, had overseen the completion of a high-profile sale of Everton Football Club. According to her husband’s statement, read to the inquest, she had been working up to an 18 hour day and had felt “intense guilt” over missing family time as a result. She had been unable to spend time in the evening with her children, and family holidays had been interrupted by lengthy phone calls.

Balancing Guilt

How many of us lawyers, whether practising or recovering, can relate to any one of these challenges around work/ life balance and working parent guilt?

I have been slow to comment publicly because I knew Vanessa and personally remain devastated about what I have now learned. My heartfelt condolences extend to her husband, children, extended family and friends.


I coach women lawyers around perfectionism, time ownership, healthy boundaries, learning to say no and general well-being.

These awful events demonstrate how solutions like these are nothing in isolation.

Culture Change

Without systematic culture change within law firms, little will improve for the individuals so invested in it.

I talk about this in my TEDx talk and share how, whilst still at the Criminal Bar, when my 8 month old daughter was seriously ill in hospital, hooked up to various machines and tubes to help her breathe, I continued with the jury trial in which I was defending because I didn’t want to let down my client, and thought that was what was expected of me, required even.

Lessons to be Learned

Please let’s not forget Vanessa’s name or face. (I even saw one commentator mis-quote her first name). Let’s not learn the lessons to be learned.

It is possible to wear a mask of professionalism yet be crumbling on the inside. It’s possible to know of mental health support like Lawcare ( and still not feel able to access it, for whatever reason.

And it’s also possible for law firms to sit up, take note then, most importantly, TAKE ACTION.

I’m all about retaining women within the legal profession. But these events are so, SO much more. The current culture can, frankly, be dangerous to health, whether mental or physical.

Organisational Action Taking

Please don’t let those of us concerned about the billable hours business model and “always on” culture keep banging our heads against the same brick walls.

What will your organisation do to shift the dial from money, status and power to collaboration, compassion and creating a psychologically safe environment where people can air concerns, without fear, and be heard?

Individual Action Taking

If that feels too big a question, what small thing can YOU do today to positively disrupt the status quo, find courage to say no to the toxic work cultures that exist, say yes to spending more time with your family or friends, and influence change via the ripple effect?

Remember Vanessa this International Women’s Day, and always

The truth of the matter is, no one is ever indispensable at work, however much we may try to convince ourselves otherwise. The only place we are ever irreplaceable is home.

This week, the week of International Women’s Day, I’ll continue to remember bright, exceptional Vanessa. And always.

I’m absolutely heartbroken.

Nikki Alderson Biography

Nikki Alderson, specialist coach, speaker and author, and former Criminal Barrister with 19 years’ experience:

  • supports organisations, law firms and barristers’ Chambers to retain female talent; and
  • empowers female lawyers to achieve career ambitions.

Nikki specialises in 3 areas:

  • Women leadership transition and change;
  • Enhanced career break returner support; and
  • Workplace resilience, mental toughness, confidence and wellness.

She is the author of Amazon No.1 Bestseller Raising the Bar: empowering female lawyers through coaching, ( nominee for the Inspirational Women Awards, Champion of the Year Category and finalist in the 2020 Women in Law Awards, Legal Services Innovator of the Year and 2019 International Coaching Awards, International Coach of the Year Category.