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Lawyers at risk of ‘burnout, breakdown, or leaving profession’

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More than 7 out of 10 legal workers claim their job negatively impacts mental health, new research finds

More than seven out of ten people working in the legal sector claim their job has had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

The Legal Sector Workers United (LSWU) survey reported that 71% of respondents agreed that their role had a negative impact on their mental health. Just 14% said it had a positive effect.

Nearly six out of ten legal workers (59%) revealed that work was the single greatest threat to their mental health.

More than half of respondents (55%) had been diagnosed with a specific condition and almost seven out of ten (69%) described themselves as suffering from poor mental health.

The LSWU surveyed approximately 300 workers, including paralegals, solicitors, barristers, clerks, caseworkers and admin staff. Almost two thirds of respondents (64%) worked in the legal aid sector and nearly a quarter (24%) worked in private practice.

According to the LSWU, the main cause of this work-related deterioration in mental health seems to be material conditions in the workplace. Some 219 people reported struggling to cope with long hours and overwork, 122 cited pay as a key issue, and 113 felt that the relentless pressure to bill and meet targets was a factor.

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The respondents were asked to discuss the effects of adverse mental health on the ability to do their job. Common answers given included: an inability to focus or “brain fog”; a lack of productivity and working longer hours as tasks take longer; and putting off tasks that involve speaking to others due to “phone phobia” or social anxiety.

The LSWU point out that one in four law firms had no mental health support on offer for staff and more than seven out of ten respondents (72%) saying that they would not feel comfortable asking for time off for mental health reasons and over half (54%) saying that disclosing mental health concerns would impede career progression.

Commenting on the findings, Isaac Ricca-Richardson, LSWU communications secretary, said:

“While we expected that the results wouldn’t be pretty, we were shocked by the extent and severity of the mental health crisis facing the legal sector. Unless bosses take real action, and soon, their staff will be at risk of burnout, breakdown, or leaving the sector altogether.”

The respondents to the trade union’s mental health survey backed an improvement to working conditions such as better hours and more realistic targets; counselling/therapy; efforts to reduce the “stigma” associated with mental health problems; and ‘no reason necessary’ mental health days.

In separate research on a similar theme, legal tech firm Exizent found that more than a third of legal professionals (37%) have considered quitting their jobs due to poor mental health.

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52 Comments

Apollo

Don’t like the heat – get out of the kitchen. People a century or two ago were doing back-breaking labour for peanuts and in 12+ hr days. Some people are suited to careers in law, finance blah blah blah others aren’t. Plus, there’s a reason salaries are high in some industries.

(21)(186)

Zeus

Uh huh, you’re well hard fresher.

Back to the textbooks you go. January exams are going to be real tough.

(181)(3)

Actual lawyer

3 PQE US litigator here. I agree with Apollo. That’s not what you want to hear though, so you accuse him (it will be a ‘him’, won’t it) of being a student.

We do people a disservice by suggesting that anyone can and should succeed in high-pressure careers such as law or consulting. Just as we might suggest that a ‘compassionate but not academic’ sixth former should perhaps look towards a ‘people-focused’ job rather than a Maths or Physics PhD, we do people a disservice if we pretend that anyone can handle stressful jobs.

Chris Hargreaves, an experienced lawyer who produces a podcast for junior lawyers starting their careers (https://tipsforlawyers.com), makes the point bluntly that legal careers aren’t for everyone:

“Law is Hard: Deal with It. If you’re not up for some of the realities of legal practice, then perhaps a career in law isn’t necessarily the way to go? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGn6qp2GfY8 and https://tipsforlawyers.com/legal-careers-are-awesome”

I was speaking to a magic circle departmental head several years ago, who made the same point. He complained that he had two trainees solicitors on long-term mental health leave, neither of whom in his view ought ever to have been considered for a training contract at the outset: they were very well-qualified (Oxford), but self-evidently not robust, and they both failed within months of starting work. There are many jobs in the world, and lawyer is one of the more stressful. If you have mental health issues (as both fashionable and over-diagnosed as that term is now), you should consider a different career. As a profession we have an obsession on solely selecting on academic performance, to the detriment of anything else. We are doing a disservice both to clients, and to prospective junior lawyers, some of whom we break. We wouldn’t advise people with claustrophobia to consider careers as submariners – this is the same.

The military analogy above can be taken further: the Royal Navy, British Army, and Royal Air Force operate the Admiralty Interview Board, Army Officer Selection Board, and Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre, respectively, to select their officer candidates. All three selection centres deliberately put candidates under physical and mental pressure, to see how they cope. The weak are weeded out. This isn’t for some brut@l, s@distic whim – it is simply because some people will not handle the pressure. No one is helped if those people are allowed in. This is common sense. Just as we cannot have ugly models, asthmatic athletes, blind lollipop ladies, or deaf air traffic controllers, we can’t have military personnel who, under pressure, ‘go wibble’. Ability to handle stress is a bona fide occupational requirement. The original Army Officer Selection Board, the so-called Regular Commissions Board, was created because of this very problem: lot of bright upper-class young men were drafted into the Army in the First World War, and broke under the pressure. It transpired that merely an Oxbridge education and “good breeding” wasn’t enough to lead soldiers and engage the enemy in dismounted close combat. There are parallels with highly-paid, highly-stressful legal jobs which we ignore at our peril. Perhaps we are doomed to suffer from polite, politically correct fantasies in the West. After all, they are cathartic, and we do feel morally virtuous asserting them. But, as Orwell warned:

“…we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

Fortunately, no one is stupid enough to suggest that the armed forces must ignore people’s resilience, or lack thereof, when selecting candidates. Perhaps that is because, ultimately, we know that such delusions will bump up against Orwell’s solid battlefield reality. Should we, perhaps, be a little more honest when selecting future lawyers and consultants, and put applicants under a lot more pressure, to see how they cope. Then weed out the weak.

Also, remember the commercial imperative (“commercial awareness”, kids – remember that?): partner profits rely on a constant turnover of hard working, high billing ‘grinders’, fewer senior associate ‘minders’, and a select few partner ‘finders’. Consequently, the firm doesn’t care if you burn out: it’s a pyramid anyway, so they need to eliminate you. If you don’t like it, don’t become a lawyer: no one will miss you. I’m not being rude, that’s simply the blunt reality.

(96)(26)

Anon

This is seriously one of the best comments ive ever read on this site.

(33)(6)

Yawn

How high are you? Only reason anyone would write such a lengthy missive.

(16)(27)

Anonymous

I couldn’t finish it

Not quite the right comparison

Agree with the sentiment but a lot of these people you think aren’t cut out for the job had no underlying mental health conditions. It is being in toxic work environments and constantly being overworked that brings it out. It’s a desk based job for the most part, nothing like the military comparisons you make that are life and death, and if firms just recruited more and allocated work better, their existing staff would be able to have some quality of life. Greedy partners are the problem, as is this pay battle. If all firms cut their pay a bit and used the budget for extra bums on seats, everyone would be happier.

(21)(2)

Archibald Pomp O'City

“Agree with the sentiment but a lot of these people you think aren’t cut out for the job had no underlying mental health conditions.”

You’ve missed the point. In both your case and the OP’s case, a snowflake will melt in the heat. Whether the snowflake has had experience of being melted in the past, or whether it is their first rodeo, bears no relevance.

Also a lawyer

Completely agree with everything that you have said, but the problem is that people aren’t realistic. Let’s face it, most law students are anything but modest, and if you tell them that they should really think carefully about whether a career in corporate law is for them, they will smile and nod but ignore everything you say and think it doesn’t apply to them, because most are wildly overconfident about their abilities.

Of course, some will be perfectly fine and adapt once they realise what they’re in for, but a large number won’t. I’ve noticed that my firm seems to have started to recruit slightly older trainees who have had previous careers. I’m absolutely convinced that them having a more mature perspective and work ethic is part of it.

(7)(0)

Archibald Pomp O'City

“they will smile and nod but ignore everything you say and think it doesn’t apply to them”

Very true. This applies to many people starting a fresh job. There are few other times in a typical life when one is so optimistic in one’s abilities.

Crimbo

Criminal bods are at burnout point doing work like prepping trials that are being adjourned for a year if they don’t get on. No concluded case = no dosh.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

The least enjoyable aspect of the legal industry is not the clients or the long hours, but rather toxic work colleagues, and won’t hesitate to back stab you to get ahead. And HR as well – they always take notes in meetings and appraisals but never do anything? The legal industry is in need of an overhaul.

(101)(1)

E

How exactly do colleagues stab you in the back? Surely everyone starts their TC on equal footing so how can anyone sabotage anyone else??

(2)(56)

HR Coffee Enthusiast

Bless you fresher 🌞

(71)(1)

Anonymous

Bless you, I can tell you’ve yet to start your TC. Doing your TC with trainee buddies is like hunger games. Never trust any trainee buddy. I alas did that and it became apparent come qualification time that they all saw me as competition, whereas I viewed them as friends.

(52)(2)

HR Coffee Enthusiast

There is a middle ground where you’re aware of the games but still get on with people. Too far one way you’re screwed over for seats / jobs / reputation, too far the other and your cohort will think you’re a prick. Law is tough, tougher if you’ve got nobody to confide in.

(39)(0)

Henry Hoover

What are these ‘games’ exactly? Can someone explain because it seems like everyone is talking in riddles in this comments section lmao

Just Saying

This is it!

The key thing you said is ‘someone to confide in’…

Being a trainee is stressful and sometimes you need people to rant to and you need to be cautious who you’re saying things to. You know that old saying don’t s*** where you sleep… well don’t tell your business or open up too much to people at the same firm, especially fellow trainees in your intake. They can and will use it against you. You’d be surprised how quickly info spreads around the other trainees and associates.

THEY👏🏻ARE👏🏻NOT👏🏻YOUR👏🏻FRIENDS

People don’t talk openly enough about the trainee horror stories.

And that’s not just horrible partners and supervisors, but the way your own trainee intake can throw you under the bus and sabotage you.

It’s funny because you never see it coming. During the trainee inductions and welcome talks and social events to start your TC, everyone seems to friendly and nice. It’s just an act to come across as genuine in front of grad Rec.

Be careful. You’d be better off making friends with trainees from other firms so you can rant to each other and have someone to talk to when you’re struggling. Don’t share too much about yourself to the other trainees. Keep it civil and friendly and move it along and don’t say too much else.

(51)(1)

Jeff

“It’s not enough that I should succeed, others should fail” – Sun Tzu, Art of War

Become the ultimate Σ male, brother ⚡🙏

Uncle Fester

#GenerationDrynites

K

What happened exactly during qualification that made you realise that? Did they do something underhand?

(14)(1)

Anonymous

Yes very much so. Can’t disclose details on here, but essentially betrayed by two trainees in my intake.

Ron Ibbotson

“Stabbing in the back” began when appraisers started using “Brownie Points” for an Apprasee’s annual appraisel.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Is this firm specific or is this an issue across firms as a whole?

(8)(0)

Joe

You think this is just a MC/US firm issue but it happens at pretty much all firms

(23)(0)

Ed

It’s always the oxbridge middle class trainees with the stiff upper lip who do underhand things to other trainees to get ahead

(30)(3)

Archibald Pomp O'City

“And HR as well – they always take notes in meetings and appraisals but never do anything?”

First you moan that they take notes, and then you contradict that by saying they don’t do anything. Your sort would moan if you found a tenner in the street.

(0)(2)

Nicola

Undergrads will read this and still apply to the likes of Kirkland and Latham. These articles have no effect until people experience these pressures themselves unfortunately.

Most undergrads probably think because they can hack an all nighter in the library, working lates at a law firm is the same (I definitely thought this). The are in for a big surprise.

(97)(1)

GDL student

How is studying an all nighter any different from doing an all nighter of work at a law firm?

I’ve heard there’s usually an ebb and flow of work. Peaks and troughs in intensity and workload…

(5)(60)

Nope

There has been zero ebb for the last 2 years.

(90)(0)

Anon

Because at work you have demanding seniors down your neck, a unrelenting pressure to perform at your VERY BEST (there isn’t a simple grade on the line anymore but client business, millions of pounds and your reputation in the team), a small mistake isn’t a few marks off but now a bollocking from your supervisor and client.

Then once a deal is closed the next one is right round the corner which needs preparation for, it’s never-ending even in the so called “trough”. If you’re in a finance seat like me you are often handling multiple matters all pushing you to your limit. If we consider the student example, It’s comparable to being told you have 1 day to complete 3 essays and that you must obtained a 90% in all of them by 9am and you already know your lecturer marks harshly.

It’s not the literal hours (which is why these legal cheek hour list comparisons as so silly) that are the hardest it’s the pressure that burns people out. Plus, unlike being a student you are now older and are likely to be in a relationship, have a close knit group of friends, ageing family, hobbies, a london flat you are renting way too much for – all these things that you want to see/experience and thus work becomes to feel much more like a burden. Your time is more precious than it once was, when before you could sit and watch Netflix all day hungover.

(207)(0)

Mark

This is the realest response I have ever read on this platform in a long time.

(72)(1)

Al

“How is studying an all nighter any different from doing an all nighter of work at a law firm?”

If you do sloppy work at Uni it’s embarrassing; but you don’t get a letter saying “Please notify your insurers.”

I don’t say that to be snarky; just to highlight one of the many differences between academia and practice. Doing all nighters for essays; and the amount of reading at law school, are all useful training for professional life. The pressures are however much different.

Your tutors want you to do well so will encourage you and help you. Clients (and instructing solicitors) can all be lovely people; but can be a bit more demanding. Fair enough; they are paying a lot of money; so they can expect to bounce a bit of their stresses onto you.

But please don’t let that put you off. There is a big problem with stress and burnout in the law; and a lot of that is embedded in the culture. It’s still the best job in the world though.

(33)(2)

Fresher and future trainee at Kikland

they*

(1)(20)

Finalist and future trainee at Boggs

LOL spat my lunch out

(1)(0)

anony

Don’t think it just applies to Kirkland and Latham… it applies, on some level, to any firm engaged in high-end corporate work.
My best friend works at Latham. I know a bunch of people in the MC. He has it consistently better than them every single year. From what he has told me, Latham has two or three teams which drag up the average leave time. Most people try to avoid these teams – including during their TC. The other departments really aren’t so different to UK firms. The problem with Kirkland is that they only practice in these bad areas.
Look at some ‘well known’ survey results – these firms which have an awful reputation usually rank a lot higher than other UK firms which are meant to be ‘nicer’.

(14)(2)

Hitch

Don’t take those chambers surveys seriously they are vetted by grad recruitment before publishing whom btw pay to be featured on chambers student website in the first place.

Your best friend sound like they were the few lucky ones to score a quiet seat like tax or TMT etc; but how many NQs do those areas take on- not many. The firms bread and butter is Banking, Corporate and PE and is where the majority of their qualification will take place. Hours in those departments are attrocious. Those teams that “drag up the average leave time” is where 85% of Latham’s lawyers will be working .

(26)(3)

chiming

This makes the MC seem even worse. They’ve got a wider variety of seats, more people qualifying into those advisory seats etc, but still have bad averages past 9pm.

Also, I don’t think the original poster was referring to chambers. He was referring to another well known website similar to LC. On that, Latham is usually rated in the top 10/20 firms on factors including pay, culture, work/life balance etc.

Honestly, working in any commercial law firm 90% of the time is a massive slog. This rhetoric on LC now that only Kirkland and Latham work their lawyers hard is laughable. Those two in particular are great at certain things and shouldn’t be pushed aside for another firm because you think you’ll have a much easier ride. If you’re in the Latham ‘recruitment pool’, the other firms you’ll likely be looking at will, by and large, work you similarly hard.

(9)(2)

3rd seat trainee

There are some peaks and troughs, but the peaks are high and the troughs are shallow. Most days are a stressful, long, hectic grind.

(23)(0)

Sadie

I like my work; however, the remote hearings/working has made it a miserable job – but that’s what they want. Shove folk into menial jobs.

(7)(0)

anon

Peak LegalCheek today.
On one article, we have everyone ripping into UK firms for ‘dishing out’ prestige and not being able to meet the bonuses of US firms.
On the other, we have everyone ripping into US firms saying how it’s not worth it and you should work at a UK firm instead.

(14)(0)

Ff

So many negatives, there must be some positives as to why corporate law is one of the most competitive industries? Why each year there are 1000+ clinching for a TC. Is mainly just for money?

If so, no money is worth my physical and mental health and social life.

(5)(3)

Bling Bling

Yes – it is for the money. They want to give their children the big house, private school fees and piano lessons they enjoyed.

Nothing wrong with wanting a job only for the money, but that mercenary streak definitely comes out in the way lawyers treat one another at work.

(20)(1)

Anonymous

Those people who are implying that this is just the way and that if you don’t like working hard you shouldn’t be a lawyer are completely wrong. Most people want to work hard and succeed. The long work hours are not a problem in themselves – what is a problem is that they never cease and it is relentless. Coupled with the fact that law firms are now seen and run as businesses and the fact that life is lived at a much faster pace now more so than ever. All this means you have completing demands of your clients, your supervisors, business development, as well as family and friends. And no warning of this before you start your career, no guidance as to how to cope, and no empathy or understanding from senior partners. Yes they work very hard too and have their own set of pressures but ask any of them – as juniors they did not have a work phone they were expected to pick up at all hours or a work laptop they were expected to log into at all hours and weekends. The pressure of their day to get out a piece of advice or contract ended when the post went out. They admit they worked hard and played hard (in the pub after work every Friday if not more). All that “play hard” has been lost now due to the pressures of the sector. Clients want more and you are always at risk of losing out to others. Which means you need to keep churning out high quality work incredibly, sometimes dangerously fast.

The profession needs to recognise the impact unrealistic deadlines and workloads have on all staff working in law. Bad, even bullying, behaviour (which in most cases is caused by high pressure which lawyers are never taught to handle better) is ignored in favour of retaining frankly awful people because they bill loads. And there is absolutely no time or respect for training of soft skill
Management which means you keep getting lawyers who are promoted off the back of doing good legal work and who have wider teams, but who have no clue about how to properly motivate and look after them as people.

I love my job but seeing the impact on others as well as myself makes it clear that this working style is unsustainable. Unless you want to be a partner (which is 100% no longer the cushy life it once was – partners are under an incredible amount of strain) selling your life to a firm is not worth it. And we are doing a complete disservice to all generally hardworking younger lawyers and trainees who come into this profession by not being upfront about the modern problems faced by the profession and by not properly addressing the fact that burnout is a very real and common consequence of working in law today, or talking about how to fix this. The profession needs to address this and soon for the good of the public, clients and lawyers – you only have to look at the SRA tribunal cases to see the real impact of working in such an environment!

(37)(0)

Plumber

I got out of law when I realised the only thing getting me through each day was the hope I might not wake up the following day. Sometimes you have to just accept you made a mistake, no matter how much time and energy you sank into making that mistake.

(27)(0)

Anon

Exactly this.

I’ve travelled to 40 countries since I stopped applying for pupillage.

My friends who made it at the Bar live off prescription medication, send nudes to Tinder losers and are too far gone to admit their lives would be much happier without the stress.

(11)(2)

Hexplain

And yet here you are…?

(0)(1)

Anonymous

I am two months in at a magic firm and have almost broke down twice already.

(8)(1)

Stop moaning snowflakes.

(0)(11)

Futuretrainee

Does anyone have any experience of reasonable adjustments for their disabilities at a magic circle firm, I’m interested to know how this is taken into account.

(1)(0)

US trainee

I do at a US firm. My “reasonable adjustments” are quite basic, I have as much time as I need to go to medical appointments, I have a standing desk, and I have access to a hot water bottle at work. That’s it really. One supervisor once told me to tell her if I was ever in too much pain to continue and I could leave early, but I never did that because of the stigma.

I will say in my firm’s defence that they provide excellent medical insurance which covers pre-existing conditions. I had surgery less than a year into my TC, which the firm paid for and then gave me a month of paid leave to recover.

(3)(0)

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