What will come from this? Wellbeing and mental health in the legal profession after COVID-19

Professor Richard Collier reflects on the impact of the pandemic and how the coronavirus (COVID-19) may be reshaping the discussion around wellbeing in the legal profession.

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In recent years, lawyer wellbeing and mental health has become the focus of a rich body of research, and the subject of many books, articles, reports and data sets.

An array of initiatives – encompassing law societies, law firms and legal regulators – are seeking to enhance the understanding of wellbeing in the law, and drive cultural change across the industry, to ensure that individual lawyers feel supported and valued.

The International Bar Association’s (IBA) global survey of mental wellbeing in the legal profession and the Life in the Law project by UK charity LawCare (both of which took data during the COVID-19 pandemic) indicate how fast this agenda is developing.

Meanwhile, at the interface of legal education and practice, the Advancing Wellness in Law network (formed in 2020) seeks to bring together lawyers and law teachers to promote wellness across the diverse ‘silos’ of the legal community.

A central narrative

There is no one ‘wellbeing problem’ in law. A substantial research base suggests significant problems exist around wellbeing and mental health for many lawyers.

For all the concerns shared across the legal community – such as tackling mental health stigma – it is not possible to extrapolate across diverse areas of legal practice or specific jurisdictions with regard to responses to COVID-19.

Nonetheless, within the numerous webinars, blogs and online discussions exploring the impact of the pandemic on the legal profession since the first lockdown in March 2020, a central narrative has emerged.

COVID-19 is not just exacerbating tensions and accelerating trends around wellbeing which are already there. It is also prompting new discussion about opportunities for positive change in the legal community and, at the same time, significant concern about the implications for lawyer wellbeing, mental health, and existing social divisions and inequalities.

Is COVID-19 reshaping the debate about lawyer wellbeing?

A positive reading: embracing change, promoting wellbeing

COVID-19 may provide an opportunity for legal workplaces and organisations to reinvent themselves in positive ways and to rethink wellbeing. There are several elements to this.

Flexible working

What may result from the pandemic is a rethinking of attitudes to flexible working, following the upending of traditional working patterns during 2020, after remote working became the default for so many lawyers.

This, in turn, has had psychological benefits for some lawyers and wider implications for society, gender equality, family relationships, the environment, sustainability and quality of life.

For some lawyers, the new ways of working provided unforeseen opportunities: enhancing quality of work, increasing autonomy, reclaiming commuting time, improving diet and exercise, and offering a chance to show firms that individuals can be trusted to work remotely.

Humanity in professionalism

The pandemic may, in time, lead to greater openness about wellbeing in the legal profession and a shift in attitudes towards expressing individual vulnerabilities.

This development could change the culture around mental health and challenge stigma, and is potentially driven by the wholesale adoption of virtual meeting platforms (which create a paradoxical sense of intimacy and distance by allowing users to see inside each other’s homes).

This intertwining of our public and private lives has allowed us to see the humanity behind the professionalism and, perhaps, encouraged us to question our understanding of professionalism altogether.

New possibilities

Above all, the pandemic has revealed the possibility of change.

If the legal profession can be as responsive and flexible as at the start of the first lockdown in 2020, this shows not only the resilience of individuals and organisations but also the adaptability of the legal community as a whole.

If all this can happen, are the kinds of changes many of us would advocate for in advancing the wellbeing agenda, really so unimaginable? Do we want to go back to old ways, even if we could?

Causes for concern

There is, however, another reading of how the pandemic has affected the profession, which has become more persuasive over time, as studies emerge of the pandemic’s impact in general and on lawyers’ wellbeing specifically.

Against the backdrop of poor wellbeing on the part of many lawyers – the terrain against which, it is important to remember, the waves of the pandemic have crashed – four factors suggest the legal profession may be facing new challenges, as well as opportunities, around wellbeing.

Health, grief, security and loss

We have seen increasing recognition on the importance of grief and the need to recognise the multiple dimensions of the loss experienced over the past year. However, in the rush to return to normal – to the extent that COVID-19 vaccines allow – it may be tempting to forget what we have been through.

The pandemic has raised fundamental questions about our subjective experiences of health and security in how it has impacted individual lawyers, families, friends and wider communities. Many are dealing with multiple dimensions of grief – whether through bereavement or loss of contact (emotional and physical) with families, loved ones and wider social connections.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is frequently cited in the legal wellness field (see, for example, Thriving in law: Supporting employee wellbeing during the pandemic).

Yet at a time when much legal wellness literature is focusing on such issues as self-actualisation, esteem or imposter syndrome, the pandemic has meant we have been in the territory of more existential concerns around personal safety, security and health (with more now known about ‘long COVID’, for example, than a year ago).

Mental health and COVID-19

Since March 2020, studies (including data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS)) have suggested:

  • significant numbers of people with no previous history of mental illness are developing psychological problems as a result of the pandemic
  • depression in the UK has doubled since lockdown
  • the NHS is experiencing a marked rise in people reporting mental health difficulties

This is not a diagnosis but it is a strong indicator of what appears to be a scale of everyday depressive feelings and behaviours. With research predicting that employers across all sectors may be faced with ongoing instances of poor mental wellbeing and anxiety over the coming year, there is no reason to think that a legal community already struggling with wellbeing issues is somehow immune.

In the context of a heightened demand on occupational health services, employment assistance programmes, online digital therapies and the like, this highlights the need for law firm leaders and legal regulators to commit to supporting the wellbeing of lawyers.

Equality, diversity and inclusion

Seeing wellbeing as a social (and not simply a professional) problem raises concerns about whether COVID-19 is exacerbating existing inequalities in the legal profession.

Research is exploring how questions of gender, race, ethnicity, health and socio-economic background have shaped susceptibility to, and experiences of, COVID-19 within specific communities in the UK.

The IBA’s interim survey results on wellbeing in the legal profession (published in April 2021) suggest wellbeing issues have a disproportionate impact on the young, women, those who identify as an ethnic minority and those with disabilities; with these groups reporting wellbeing index scores consistently below the global average for other respondents.

With regard to gender, for example, ONS data suggests the first year of the pandemic has had a disproportionate mental health impact on women – with women reporting higher anxiety, depression and loneliness than men. The study Working from home under COVID-19 lockdown highlights how balancing work with domestic responsibilities has been “the greatest challenge of lockdown” for many.

At a time when the legal profession is seeking to engage men in championing gender equality (see, for example, the Law Society male champions for change initiative), the overturning of traditional working lives has revealed deep fault-lines around the issues of care of the young and the elderly.

The present discussion of lawyer wellbeing is interlinked with wider debates about discrimination and harassment (see the 2019 IBA report, Us Too?), and the impact of toxic cultures – not least on junior lawyers.

Employment, security and public health

As lockdown eases, far from a brave new world of flexibility and enhanced wellbeing, concerns are being raised about the subjective and economic consequences of the pandemic.

The overall picture of the impact on individuals within the profession is mixed.

Some working in specific areas of legal practice have emerged relatively unscathed, but for others, the pandemic has brought considerable anxiety around:

  • employment security
  • finances
  • long working hours
  • increased pressures around targets
  • a blurring of the divide between work and home

Additionally, some have experienced a perceived increase in client demands and expectations, ‘digital overload’, isolation from colleagues, and a lack of support and supervision – particularly for those early in their career, seeking to develop skills and network.

Meanwhile, many senior leaders have faced pressure, simply to keep firms going. For others, the reality has been dealing with inadequate IT systems and, in some instances, concern about personal safety if called into the office during the pandemic.

In August 2020, the Justice Committee warned MPs that 60% of high-street solicitors feared going out of business as a result of COVID-19, with legal advice centres and the not-for-profit sector especially affected.

In July, the Bar Council’s Whole Bar Survey set out the pandemic’s “profound and acute impact on an already stretched justice system”. The survey showed that publicly funded barristers, the most socially diverse part of the Bar, were “hit very hard”.

The terrain of wellbeing post COVID-19

In responding to COVID-19, it is essential that the legal community takes collective responsibility for the wellbeing of its members and thinks afresh about ways of working that embed emotional wellbeing as part of our everyday lives.

This should be done not simply as a matter of enhancing productivity, maximising profit and “working better”, but as an ethical issue.

In this regard, the pandemic constitutes a potential paradigm shift that may reshape – in complex and unpredictable ways – the terrain of wellbeing in law for some time to come.

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