An Insider’s View on Mental Health in the Legal Profession
Law is a high-stress profession; there’s almost no doubt about it. Having been deemed the second most stressed profession with a ‘toxic, cut-throat’ work environment, it doesn’t take long before one starts to wonder why this is, and wonder what the driving forces behind it are. A survey conducted by the Junior Lawyers Division of The Law Society of England and Wales found that 14% of junior lawyers having experienced suicidal thoughts, and 48% of respondents reported mental ill-health.
As someone who is considering going into the profession, it’s hard for me not to feel anxious about how I will fit in with my existing mental health issues that I’ve talked about in a previous blog. Although I am still at the study stage and undertaking a law degree at university, I am already starting to feel the pressures taking hold. Between balancing deadlines, expectations, and trying to sufficiently take care of myself, the different aspects sometimes feel incompatible. I often wonder if the working world will provide more support — but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
The issues and shocking statistics are particularly pertinent for workers entering the profession right now. Speaking to a practising lawyer, they mentioned that one of the main barriers for those who take on law as a first job, is the transition into working in a new sector — an issue faced by many new employees, not just within the legal profession.
Successful transition involves having sufficient supervision and creating a workplace environment conducive to asking questions and learning. Such an environment is crucial for someone who has just started out, as it permits rapport-building, understanding the methods and behaviours in which people work, and seeing the inner workings of the organisation.
Bringing in some personal experience, a lawyer mentioned how they ‘learned so much from being sat in the same room as the partner I was working for, just listening to how they spoke to clients on phone calls, how they manage their day, how they behaved in the office…you can see everything that’s going on’.
Besides the barriers posed by the working environment for newly qualified lawyers, another major source of stress comes from the profession’s demands to bill clients by the hour. When a price tag is placed upon the seconds and hours that you are working, it inevitably creates pressure to work more hours and can generate an environment where people feel trapped within the work cycle.
Despite best intentions and motivations to generate a healthy work-balance for oneself, the reality is difficult to ignore and there will always be the temptation to forsake your own wellbeing for a bit of extra time in the office, and thereby extra income. This is particularly acute for those entering the profession, who are yet to feel completely secure within their positions and may feel a need to ‘prove’ themselves — only to create prime conditions for burning out and perpetuating the stress cycle that currently dominates the legal world.
A further issue arises in the pressurised environment created from the nature of the work and client expectations. The work being done by lawyers can often have impacts beyond the client themselves, such as when the businessman Simon Dolan brought a case challenging the legality of lockdown restrictions. On the face of it, the client is Mr Dolan, but the outcomes of the case had an effect extending far beyond the singular individual and could have impacted the whole nation.
There are always stakes at play in a legal case, and frequently with outcomes that may not be favourable for clients, despite best efforts. This creates unspoken expectations that can easily push the more junior end of the profession into a perfectionist mindset, as they try to mitigate some of the inevitable disappointments that will arise. In the words of a lawyer that I spoke to, lawyers are generally expected to be problem-solvers.
Dealing with such pressure is never easy, and when it becomes integrated with the work that you are doing, it can lead to work-induced stress about circumstances beyond any individual’s control. Compounded by the expectations being pushed by clients, it can create an illusion for more inexperienced lawyers to feel that they are responsible for things beyond their control, and for them to then feel like they’re ‘failing’ when, in reality, it is impossible for them to act in the way envisioned.
Understandably, all of these challenges were exacerbated in recent times by the advent of remote working in the age of COVID-19. The structural support that would otherwise be there to help new workers transition ended up collapsing on itself, and an already stressed-out profession came under greater strain with an increasing fear of burnout.
However, it wasn’t all bad; it did create an opening for legal professionals to begin talking more about wellbeing concerns and empathise with the difficulties that employees may be personally going through. It also appeared to fall in line with wider governmental recognition of the mental health problems that could arise from the pandemic, and ways that we could mitigate this impact.
For a profession that traditionally holds a stigma of having a ‘stiff upper lip’ and never talking about the stress induced by billable hours and client expectations, it was a welcome shift as more workplaces became receptive to the idea of running webinars and events addressing such issues. One lawyer told me that when she first started working, stress management and self-support was never discussed and people were just expected to hit the ground running when they entered the profession. Contrasting that to the support that is being established now in the form of having mental health champions in workplaces, and non-profit support organisations such as LawCare, it’s a welcome move away from the previous lack of discourse.
The aim of these initiatives is to help create a more welcoming environment in which people feel comfortable to discuss their issues and to challenge pre-existing stigma, which has been perpetuated by the idea that lawyers should be helping others with their issues instead of bringing their own. Being able to see more authoritative figures address mental health and wellbeing, including Simon Davis, the President of the Law Society of England and Wales, appears to grant permission for employees to bring their own issues to light, instead of struggling with it alone and continuing the cycle of silence. Furthermore, such mental health advocates often have personal experience, and so can empathise beyond a superficial manner and also provide practical advice for coping with difficult times.
While this work is great, it remains clear that there are still structural issues as noted by respondents in the Junior Lawyers Division 2019 Survey, who commented that many of the actions being taken felt more performative as opposed to helpful. However, by gaining a better sense of the underlying issues, we can begin addressing root causes to hopefully make some changes for the better.
The momentum has been kicked off now, and it feels like there is a new generation of lawyers trickling in who are bringing the topic of mental health and wellbeing to the agenda, to drive more change as we head towards the future.