Lack of support coupled with poor work-life balance is creating a “perfect storm”, warns doctor turned trainee solicitor Gavriel Sapir
Friends, it is high time to speak about a real pandemic plaguing the legal profession: our Mental (ill) health. With your permission, I raise this topic out of care and respect for all my colleagues including you. Before becoming a trainee solicitor, I qualified as a medical doctor. I have been trained to care. Despite its prevalence, mental health is palpably, poorly addressed in legal circles, presumably due to stigma and reputational outcomes. We hear it from all sides. Regardless of a firm’s size, location, or prestige. No one appears to be immune.
A snapshot: In the general population (before COVID-19), amongst women, major depression is the leading cause of years lived with a disability, anxiety ranks 6th on the list. Amongst men, depression ranks 2nd, drug use disorders 7th, alcohol use disorders rank 8th and anxiety ranks 11th. In England, one in four will experience a mental health disorder during their lifetime. This is a staggering picture of an unhealthy society.
Now let’s pause for a second and look ourselves in the mirror: with the glamour, glitter and promises of financial return, legal employees are often pushed to work endless hours, typically supervised by poorly trained, mid-range management who almost thoughtlessly delegate tasks with little to no acknowledgement to personal or family life.
Too often we hear: ‘These are the sacrifices we make’. This carelessness is normally coupled with little to no employee autonomy, or the promotion of employee safety where there is no openness to feedback, criticism, and mutual respect, heavily regimented because of hierarchical structures. This is the picture described by the American Bar Association in 2021.
Add to that scant, poorly signalled, or insufficient resources available to prevent episodes of mental ill health or clinically treat it. The perfect storm arrives with the absence of a rigid separation between professional and personal spheres. After all, everyone is meant to be accessible all the time, right? We have adopted the above scenario as a sine qua non recipe on the road to legal success. Except that we are failing. And this is a collective failure.
It is all too farcical. That road has led us to failure, at the expense of our most precious resources — our people’s mental health, and their families who often bear the brunt. Let’s have an honest conversation: who are we trying to fool? What is the real trade-off we are dealing with here? And how can this occupational hazard or quagmire be undone?
It is high time we take mental health seriously. This comes to the heart of what being a lawyer is: to promote justice and to do what is right, in the words of the SRA’s Code of Conduct; and to act with integrity, “to maintain trust and act fairly”, always understanding the “ethical, regulatory, and legal implications” of our actions in the provision of service. But aside from learning the principles of business law and litigation, we are not thought to think about what these words truly mean to us. When was the last time you were invited to consider what these words mean?
The World Health Organisation defines good mental health as a state where: “every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. In the UK’s legal profession, the scale of mental (ill) health is pandemic: A 2021 report issued by wellbeing charity LawCare describes that amongst 1,700 consulted UK legal professionals:
• the average recorded burn-out score was 42.2 (a cut-off score of 34.8 denotes “high risk of burnout”). The “exhaustion” element of burnout considerably exceeded the recommended cut-off point, particularly when participants were asked to score “there are days when I feel tired before starting work” (score of 3.36 out of 4).
• 69% responded they had experienced mental ill health in the past 12 months. Either anxiety (60.7%), depression (28.9%), physical manifestations of stress (28.9%) low mood (48.4%), strain on relationships and family life, and feelings of being unable to cope due to stress (22%).
Dear colleagues, where have we gone wrong?
1. A cultural change is paramount for everyone. A legal profession with persistently low levels of poor mental well-being is neither sustainable nor healthy. How long will this continue until it ceases to attract the best talent in a generation already described as ‘anti-ambition’ because of its heightened concern for mental wellbeing? How long will it take until clients perceive their lawyer’s ability to protect their corporate interest cannot be properly discharged in unhealthy occupational environments? Or until this hurts the reputation and integrity of legal workplaces and the profession as a whole?
2. A cultural change will support equity, diversity, and inclusion. Structurally, issues abound thanks to poor or non-existent managerial training, particularly in the lack of psychological support, growth and development needs of staff and lack of basic mental health support. Culturally, the picture is all too common: bullying, harassment, sexism, racism, and the all-too-common passive-aggressive behaviour that seasons interpersonal, hierarchical relationships. For some, the sink-or-swim equation of ‘up or out’, encouraging unsustainable hours, and unrealistic billing targets, is all too common.
3. A cultural change will involve multiple stakeholders. Employers, regulators, and professional bodies have a moral and legal duty of care to protect and promote the health of their employees and members. That means recognising mental (ill) health is not a weakness and is neither unsuitable for legal practice. This will in turn generate positive outcomes, forcing professionals to discuss strategies and develop protocols to disclose difficulties without the fear of retaliation, penalty, or stigma. As employees, we all have a duty of care to initiate dialogue and look after our colleagues in equal measure. It is good for our interpersonal relationships, good for the office, and it is excellent for business.
Unfortunately, talent, especially young talent is too often wasted precisely because it is disproportionately affected by chronic anxiety disorder, depression, substance abuse (whether prescription, illegal or alcohol use) and many other forms of self-harm. We hear it all too often at law school and later from colleagues working everywhere in the legal career. It is indeed a pandemic.
Gavriel is a qualified medical doctor, turned trainee solicitor.
Struggling with the stress of work? Contact LawCare via its helpline or live chat