In-depth

How do we tackle the legal profession’s mental health problem?

By on
23

Many lawyers appear to be ‘surviving but not thriving’, says Newcastle University’s Professor Richard Collier, ahead of his appearance at Legal Cheek‘s Future of Legal Education and Training Conference 2019

Recent years have witnessed a growing concern internationally in wellbeing and mental health in the legal community. Far from being the legal profession’s ‘hidden secret’ there is now an extensive and rapidly expanding literature on lawyer wellbeing, with the findings of the 2019 Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) Resilience and Wellbeing Survey painting a particularly troubling picture of the levels of negative stress and mental ill-health experienced by junior lawyers. At the same time there is increasing concern around the wellbeing and mental health of university law students and, indeed, law teachers, set against the backdrop of substantial evidence of poor mental health across the UK university sector.

Drawing on projects funded by a Leverhulme Trust and the mental health charity Anxiety UK (AUK) conducted at Newcastle University this short discussion seeks to look at these debates in a rather different way and consider some issues, themes and questions that, on closer examination, ‘connect up’ these conversations taking place in the UK about wellbeing in the law.

The importance of legal contexts: Some similarities … and differences

There is much evidence that significant problems exist around wellbeing for many lawyers who appear to be ‘surviving but not thriving’. The past three years or so, in particular, has seen extensive discussion and an array of policy developments and practical initiatives introduced across the legal profession seeking to better understand, and address, practices and cultures that exacerbate these problems.

Lawyer wellbeing is firmly on the agenda at the forthcoming Future of Legal Education and Training Conference 2019 and this is a debate I will raise important questions about a range of issues; for example, about

• Emotional competence in law practice, how best to ensure individuals are ‘fit For law’, with implications for UK regulators such as the Bar Standards Board and Solicitors Regulation Authority (here noting recent cases before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal);

• The place of emotion in the traditional university law degree, what it means to learn to ‘think like a lawyer’, and how wellbeing might be better embedded within legal education and training (the issue of ‘prehab’ as Angus Lyon has put it in his 2015 book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress — what happens before practice); and

• The nature of the transition from legal education and training to a career as a lawyer, with work by the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA) and Student Minds providing a good illustration of how wellbeing and mental health agendas can be central to ensuring lawyers ‘thrive from the start’.

In both legal practice and education and training we find a shared concern to “promote better mental health and wellbeing in the legal community” and, in the words of the 2018 Mindful Business Charter, address how “we have a responsibility to try and do things differently”.

Professor Richard Collier

It is not, however, possible to generalise about the causes and consequences of lawyer distress. There is no one ‘wellbeing problem’ within the legal community. The wellbeing concerns of the corporate lawyer, ‘high street’ and sole practitioner, barrister, law centre and legal aid solicitor, for example, are by no means the same; nor, importantly, are the resources and structures that are increasingly being put in place to support lawyer wellbeing, with marked differences between large and small organisations. Factors seen as contributing to poor lawyer wellbeing differ across areas of practice, law firms and at the bar, and do not easily translate to the experiences of law students or legal academics. The pressures associated with client demands, concerns around vicarious trauma and, in particular, the impact of the organisation and form of billing of much legal work, the focus of especial concern, are more acute in some areas of law than others.

Importantly, and an issue often overlooked, our experiences of ‘legal life’ are mediated by diverse factors such as age, life course and stage of career, with research suggesting particular problems are being faced by junior lawyers and paralegals navigating the often tortuous (and, the AUK study suggests, anxiety inducing) route to qualification; that questions of social class, gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, disability and health can each shape how wellbeing is understood at particular moments in a career and in specific workplace contexts. Research points to gendered differences in men’s and women’s experiences of — and willingness to speak about — poor mental health in the workplace; and that this is a wellbeing agenda in law driven to a significant, if by no means exclusive, degree by women lawyers in ways interlinked, 100 years on from the entry of women into the legal profession, to broader concerns about equality, diversity and inclusion.

Yet, digging deeper, core themes do tend to recur; the prevalence across the legal community of a pervasive cultural stigma around disclosure of mental health problems; concern about the highly competitive culture of law, poor work-life balance and, for many lawyers, long hours; the ‘personality attributes’ and characteristics of those who enter and teach law, involving ideas about a profession replete with ‘insecure overachievers’, widespread ‘imposter syndrome’ and tendencies towards perfectionism; concerns about a lack of line-manager training in dealing with mental health matters when they do arise; for some lawyers, the impact of corrosive and uncivil workplace cultures, bullying, discrimination and harassment; and, more generally, a broader sense of what Richard Martin describes in his 2018 book This Too Will Pass as the experience of living with “anxiety in a professional world”.

This and other autobiographical accounts, such as that by Lloyd Rees recently published on Legal Cheek, detail with openness diverse experiences of anxiety, exhaustion, unhappiness, overload, insomnia, shame, guilt, hurt, worthlessness yet also something else; at the same time, a recognition of the intrinsic joys, rewards, pleasures and challenges of a career as a lawyer and how high levels of job stress can coincide with high levels of job satisfaction. It is important that these ‘upsides’ of a career in law, the profession’s role as a route to social mobility and numerous instances of collegiality, support and kindness in practice, are not lost in discussing law’s wellbeing problem.

At the same time, however, there remains a view on the part of some that this is just ‘how things are’ and that the ‘bottom line’ of financialisation and client satisfaction will ensure there are limits to how far this wellbeing agenda can be pushed; a degree of acceptance that the ‘package deal’ of being a lawyer will itself involve working practices that can be harmful to health. And therein lies the problem.

What to do? Some questions on the problem of wellbeing in the legal profession

There is a need for caution and to reflect on what we mean by ‘wellbeing’ in the first place. Concerns have been raised by some in the legal community, for example, about how this is at times a discussion all too often focused on encouraging the individual lawyer, law student or law teacher to ‘do something’ about their own wellbeing; how this can then frame the responsibility to tackle these issues at the level of the individual and not, say, the structures, cultures and working practices productive of experiences of poor lawyer wellbeing in the first place.

This raises troubling questions about how the ‘good lawyer’ is often positioned as someone who will, or should, respond to seemingly ever greater work demands, to time-pressures, billing targets, the impact of new technologies and so on, by better attending to their own personal wellbeing — by becoming resilient. The problem is that this can easily mask the long-term consequences of working at a level of ‘peak performance’ that these cultures bring about in people (as these recent accounts of poor wellbeing testify); how far from seeing resilience as something called upon in exceptional circumstances, it can be seen as a ‘baseline’ requirement in ways that reinforce what are, at the end of the day, still viewed as highly desirable traits in the profession (the ability to work long hours, say, to work without apparent caring commitments, or to be ‘careless’, to see oneself, and be seen by others, as a competitive individual).

What we are seeing in both legal practice, notably but not exclusively the larger corporate commercial firms, and university law schools alike, is a debate often focused on the introduction of, say, online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) provision, ‘wellbeing weeks’ and days, ‘wellbeing rooms’, yoga and tai chi, self-knowledge, spirituality and mindfulness taster sessions; ‘digital detox’ periods; the provision of five-minute massages and so forth. Each can be important, welcome and positive interventions in and of themselves. The danger, however, is that if wellbeing is seen as a matter best be solved by ‘changing the self’ this can slide troublingly into self-blame and, with it, a furthering of distress. It can also serve to legitimate in the legal profession a focus on cosmetic and superficial answers, on ‘ticking the box’, rather than bringing about more substantive change; ‘how is your law firm doing on wellbeing? See our new league table’.

Finally, it is important to note the deeper significance of this debate. Underscoring these discussions are questions about how the legal community responds to evidence of a far greater awareness of the complex interactions between mental health and the workplace; of the need to work in more effective, efficient and safer ways; and, looking to generational shifts in attitudes, of the greater willingness of millennials to be open about mental health issues, a theme reflected in the recent JLD surveys and the discussions taking place amongst many younger members of the legal community, in legal practice and in law schools.

Central to this wellbeing debate are ultimately questions about the future of the profession itself, recruitment, retention, the nature of a career in law and understanding what it means to be a lawyer. It is a discussion taking place against the backdrop of wider public conversations about mental health and the emergence of an entire wellbeing industry. In the context of an evolving global marketplace for legal services in which the very idea of ‘wellbeing’ has become an increasingly important part of what it now means to be a good employer and provide a first-class service to clients, this suggests wellbeing is an issue that will not ‘go away’ any time soon.

Much has changed. No so very long ago, wellbeing and mental health in the law was a topic all too often silenced from the formal spaces of discussion. The profession has moved on in many positive ways, as the growth of training as a mental health first aider (MHFA), use of role models and ‘wellbeing champions’, the expanded provision of advice and support via ‘wellbeing portals’ and the wellbeing work of the JLD, LawCare, Bar Council, SRA, the Taskforce and many others bodies and initiatives illustrate. The danger remains, however, that for all recent welcome interventions the perception ‘on the ground’ may be of a disconnect between a genuine and well-meaning commitment to improving lawyer wellbeing and the systemic causes of their distress; and that the very welcome initiatives introduced within the law’s wellbeing turn will be seen by many lawyers, at the end of the day, as little more than sticking plasters.

Richard Collier is a professor of law and social theory at Newcastle University. He will be speaking during the afternoon session, ‘Mental health, wellbeing and resilience’ at the Future of Legal Education and Training Conference 2019 on Wednesday 22 May. General release tickets are available to purchase.

Feeling stressed? You can contact LawCare by calling 0800 279 6888 in the UK.

23 Comments

Anonymous

How about partners being less greedy and taking a paycut and employing more people??

Oh, and I’m not paying for a ticket to this event

Anonymous

What event?

Anonymous

What!?! Are you crazy? It’s only £366. Fool.

Anonymous

Fuck your Alex, you little comment deleting prick.

Anonymous

Stop the patronising HR driven virtue signalling, with those ridiculous surveys and lip service emails about support hotlines. Stop working people to death.

When the hours get tough, say on closings, give people a day or two off afterwards to recover. This is a standard in other industries.

Kronos

There is no place for the weak at Greenberg Glusker LLP.

Anonymous

Flush yourself.

Anonymous

TOP

Jon

A lot of the stress I believe comes from the fact that we still largely provide services on a time basis rather than a product basis. Fee earners are the profit centers for the firm, in the same way a factory owner sees their machinery, and the simple equation is the more time the fee earner is behind their desk, the more profit they generate. Most other industries don’t have this, they are not selling their time but a product. If an insurance company for example decides to take their workforce on an “away day”, the business is still making money, the policies are still being paid for by customers. If a law firm takes the entire work force on an “away day”, the partners just see an equation of the number of fee earners multiplied by the number of chargeable hours in a day lost off the profit of the firm.

I am not saying the lack of “away days” is what is causing the mental health problem but if the sector moved away form the time model to a product model, it would help towards reducing the flogging that fee earners receive to be behind their desks like a piece of machinery churning out chargeable hours.

Anonymous

The Winter is coming

Anonymous

Not really, it’s April…!

Anonymous

The first step is recognising that mental health problems are completely normal, to be expected in this type of work and there is no shame in seeking help when needed. Keeping quiet and slogging through it may seem admirable but in the end it’s nothing more than pointless chest thumping. In the long run, everyone would be better served if you came forward and sought help as early as possible. Too many people- especially partners- don’t see this, so a lot of lawyers just try to push through and hope it goes away. All that usually happens is that the stress builds up, the lawyers work suffers, stress rises again until the lawyer finally seeks help for a problem that has grown much worse than it should have been, or just breaks down

Julian Summerhayes

The legal profession is not prepared to address this issue which has been known about for a long time. If they were, then you wouldn’t (still) see the obsession with PEP, growth and talking up the profession as a great place to work — which it isn’t for a significant number of people. To be clear, the study of law is replete with opportunity to do good, to right the wrongs of society and to make a real difference but private practice, understandably, isn’t set up that way. It’s set up to make money for a few number of people who sometimes are paid beyond their contribution or worth to the business. More to the point, all lawyers need to take a long hard look in the mirror and ask themselves what is enough? I’m not ignoring the fact that law is not an easy profession (by comparison to what?) but then again, all partners need to do much more to resolve and abate the issue. Julian

Anonymous

I’m sorry but I just can’t agree with that. How many lawyers really study law to “do good” in society and make the world a better place? Are you kidding me? The reasons why 85% of the people I know study law are:

1) They want to make tonnes of money with relative comfort and safety, and
2) They’re too stupid at math to make tonnes of money with relative comfort and safety on anything other than being a lawyer.

That’s why most law students choose law, that’s why they want to go to a city law firm. The rest opt for HR or some similar shit, and complain later on about corporate greed. Lol you snooze you lose, you knew what you were going into.

Law is a difficult and unforgiving profession, and that has to cause mental distress. But I’m fully willing to accept that when I know my future earnings potential will virtually exponentially outclass the national median, and even most other highly-paid professions for that matter.

Anonymous

1. Buy tissues.

2. Er…

3. That’s it!

Solja Boi of Counsel

Tell them all to MAN UP!

Anonymous

My two pence, from a client’s perspective…

Firms need to stop promising so much when trying to bring you in as a client; all the time (especially with the City based firms) we are offered round the clock services on a global scale, with the promise of time critical delivery.

The problem with such promises is that some clients will take you at your word, and will constantly expect those services, especially when paying the higher hourly rates some firms charge. Unfortunately, it isn’t the guy doing the BD that is responsible for the work so you’re left with some poor trainee or Associate who has to back up the promises made, sometimes to their own mental detriment.

Interestingly, we don’t get the same kind of promise from counsel employed throughout mainland Europe, which may suggest that this is more of a UK issue – Although I have no substantial evidence to support this.

Anonymous

In my 7 or so years of legal experience and speaking as a senior associate I in city and US firms I think I have only ever come across a single partner who was willing to say no to a client.

I’ve seen urgent requests come in on a Friday morning to a partner who, knowing his team is maxed out, still says yes. If somebody asks you if you have capacity as a junior/mid level lawyer it’s very difficult to say no. Exactly what does capacity mean? If you are able to leave the office at 8:30pm each day does that mean you still another hours of potential capacity each day?

If you chose to work in corporate or finance law in the city with global clients across different time zones and on billion pound euros then it’s expected (and very much a part of the job I love) to be on call at the last minute and expected to pull all nighters to turn documents.

What isn’t acceptable and very annoying is when requests come to you which are not genuinely urgent or which have been sat on a clients desk for a week and it’s now suddenly the lawyers who are under pressure to work all weekend because the principals have spent a few weeks discussing between themselves.

Anonymous

Completely agree.

Anonymous

Firms and HR can hold all the CBT and yoga tasters all they like, but they aren’t fooling anyone (expect from the truly naive). If firms are serious about mental health, they’d actually solve of the root of the problem- which nine out of ten times is employees being severely overworked- instead of paying mere lip service.

But hiring some extra employees to lessen the workload on individuals is too much for greedy khunt partners. Instead we’ll pay for crap like meditation and mindfulness sessions to help stressed and overworked employees to “cope” with their miserable situation.

Anonymous

Well while admiring the idea of “legal cheek” I’m of the sincere desire that
there should be some kind of arrangement for the financial anxiety and insecurity of young lawyers. The responsibilities as HR Development should be shouldered by their governments by advancing regular financial help. There should be an ethical bound wilh JLD with reference to there enormous earnings of successful lawyers.

Dr Caroline Marlow, C.Psychol., Director L&M Consulting Ltd

This is an informed and heartfelt piece that requires serious consideration.
Last year, the Law Society published my blog that I had titled – Resilience Training: A Need, An Excuse, Ethical?
https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/news/blog/is-employee-resilience-training-needed-in-the-workplace/
Here I argued that resilience should be for the exceptional day, and not the everyday, and that the constant draining of the resilience tank can only lead to reduced performance and poor physical and mental health.

As Prof Collier states, many of the root causes of stress within Law are within the control of the organisation or, on collective effort, able to be influenced by the wider law community. With limited blog space, the central point of my article was that organisations need to take responsibility for the health and performance outcomes of the culture that their systems and practices help to create. Further, that the typical approach taken by organisations to promote resilience (read more broadly individually-based approaches to stress-management) is victim-blaming, and a sticking plaster (disguised as a concern for staff wellbeing) that encourages acceptance of the ‘this is the way it must be’ poor management practice within organisations.

If Law and organisations are to thrive, lawyers need to be helped to thrive – nothing can win if everyone is just surviving or going over the edge. Practice in law has clear opportunities to promote the attributes of psychological wellbeing, whilst good organisational procedure and practice should promote psychological wellbeing and not drain it. In simple terms, psychological wellbeing at work is where people feel; competent, autonomous, valued, listened to, supported, part of a community, and that they are contributing to something worthwhile. Culturally embedded practices that promote psychological wellbeing are supported by research to promote performance and many positive business outcomes – it is because of this that they are deemed as good practice by organisations such as the HSE, Acas, CIPD, etc. Further, the cultural promotion of psychological wellbeing is far more in-keeping with diversity and equality, and helps buffer against stress should an individual experience a difficult life event.

The focus of organisational practice and support clearly needs to change so that the development of psychological wellbeing across staff is not just completed within the exceptional training day, the yoga day, the fresh fruit day, BUT embedded within every instant of everyday. It would be interesting to see what would happen if organisations assessed psychological wellbeing and published their scores. The HSE Management Standards are limited in their scope for what effects stress and psychological wellbeing in the workplace, but provide an across-industry comparison, i.e., for the sub-scales; demands, control, managers’ support, peer support, relationships, role and change. My guess is that it would soon; change recruitment capability, lead to considered movement of quality staff between companies (and industries!), and greatly influence organisational performance. Those companies who culturally embed psychological wellbeing with thrive into the long-term.

Join the conversation

Related Stories