Junior lawyers open up about stress

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By Katie King on

Challenges of the job becoming less of a taboo


Stats from charity LawCare reveal that young lawyers and trainees are feeling the stresses and strains of the profession at an early stage of their careers — but at least they are talking about it.

Last year, of the 496 callers who reached out to LawCare — a charity set up in 1997 to help lawyers curb their stress-related problems — 39% were trainees or had been qualified five years or less.

The most common topic of discussion was workplace stress, which accounted for 30% of the calls made in 2015. Second to that was depression, totting up 20% of calls. Disciplinary issues came in at third (12%), financial problems fourth (5%), and alcohol fifth (4%).

Stress in the profession is a niggling problem that just won’t seem to go away — and even seems to be getting worse. A 2012 survey by LawCare — which is staffed by volunteers, themselves lawyers — found that 50% of the 1,000 lawyers questioned felt stressed. When the Law Society interviewed 2,226 solicitors in 2013, this figure almost doubled to 95%.

The problem spans the entire profession. Just last week, Legal Cheek reported that the pressure even gets to judges, no doubt at the very top ranks of the profession

But it’s the young lawyers that seem to be taking a disproportionate hit. You might think it’d take a few years for the stress to really kick in. But behind the façade of long lunches, power and prestige, the stress of working in a law firm can really take its toll on unsuspecting trainees and NQs.

Even the City hotshots aren’t immune. Indeed, they are arguably among the most exposed.

In the era of the ‘billable hour’, City lawyers are under constant pressure to reach their yearly targets, set at around 1,600 hours. Add in all the time spent doing non-billable tasks — admin, for example — you’re looking at about 10-11 hours a day in the office. In busier periods, 10-11 hour days seem a distant luxury.

Speaking to the Guardian back in 2011, one former magic circle lawyer sums up how bad it can get:

One Sunday morning as I was eating breakfast I got a call from my boss asking me to come in immediately. I worked that day until 1am, then went home for some sleep. I was back in at 7am on Monday, working through until 6am on Tuesday. At that point I got three hours’ sleep at the office, before starting work again at midday and continuing right through until 7am on Wednesday — when, thank God, the deal closed.

The demanding nature of the job has been well documented by corporate firm RPC on its very honest Twitter account @LifeinaLawFirm.

This sort of openness — which is far from the norm — is helping the issue of long hours and stress become less of a taboo at law firms. At the bar, however, the self-employed nature of practice can leave barristers burdened.

Though the majority (57%) of LawCare callers in 2015 were solicitors, barristers made up a disproportionate number at 19%.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. One barrister succinctly summed up the profession’s innate difficulties when he told us:

Many jobs today involve information overload or unrealistic deadlines but few entail the performative difficulties of being on your feet in a highly pressured court environment often grappling with profoundly distressing situations or heavy expectations.

Last year, the Bar Council published its first ever ‘Wellbeing at the Bar’ report — and it makes predictably gloomy reading.

Of the 2,456 barristers surveyed, 86% admit to feeling nervous, anxious or on edge at least sometimes. 97% tend to be very critical of themselves sometimes or more, 22% answering “all the time”. Yet 63% agree or strongly agree that if they do show signs of stress at work, it indicates weakness.

So it seems that LawCare — as a completely confidential service — provides a safehaven for long suffering stressed out advocates that don’t know who else to turn to.

These sentiments are echoed by a number of practising barristers. One told us:

The dichotomy of the bar is that, while there’s a great collegiate spirit, there are also many practitioners who carry heavy burdens in silence, and don’t feel there is anyone they can turn to. The LawCare helpline sounds eminently sensible to me.

Another commented:

LawCare is not a charity that any barrister expects or wants to call upon but for those that do it is an essential service.

Leanne Maund, a solicitor at Eversheds‘ Nottingham office and chair of the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD), also gives a big thumbs up to the work done by LawCare. She told Legal Cheek about the positive impact that the charity has had on young lawyers. She explained:

The JLD has received positive reports from our members about the support they have received from LawCare. Junior members of the profession can sometimes lack the confidence to raise issues of stress with their employer for fear of repercussion and therefore the services provided by LawCare are particularly useful to those in the early stages of their career.

The work done by LawCare should no doubt be applauded. The fear is, of course, that the calls received by the helpline may well only be the tip of the iceberg.

You can contact LawCare here.