Surviving or thriving? Researching wellbeing and mental health in the legal profession

Richard Collier discusses wellbeing and mental health in the legal profession, linked to his research at Newcastle University.

Low bridge with mind your head sign

There is growing concern across legal professions internationally and the UK, about lawyer wellbeing and mental health. Research suggests that many lawyers are, in the words of the 2017 Stevenson Farmer Review of mental health and employers, 'surviving but not thriving'.

The 2019 Junior Lawyers Division Resilience and Wellbeing Survey paints a troubling picture of the levels of negative stress and mental ill-health experienced by junior lawyers. At the same time UK university law schools are seeing increasing concern around the wellbeing of their law students, set against the backdrop of substantial evidence of poor mental health across the university sector. It is a sign of how resonant this subject is that the wellbeing of lawyers is firmly on the agenda at the forthcoming Future of Legal Education and Training Conference 2019.

This debate raises important questions about issues such as:

  • the standards of emotional competence in legal practice, with implications for regulators such as the Solicitor's Regulation Authority
  • about the place of emotion in the traditional university law degree and what it means to learn to 'think like a lawyer'
  • about the transition from legal education and training to a career in law, with an increasing focus, which is illustrated by the work of the City Mental Health Alliance, on how wellbeing and mental health agendas are central to ensuring lawyers  'thrive from the start'.

The law's 'wellbeing problem'

What connects these discussions about wellbeing across the legal community is an issue often overlooked. This is a debate marked by differences and similarities. The factors seen as contributing to poor lawyer wellbeing and concerns of the corporate lawyer, High Street and sole practitioner, law centre and legal aid solicitor, for example, aren't the same. The pressures associated with client demands, concerns around vicarious trauma and the impact of the organisation and form of billing of much legal work are more acute in some areas of law than others. We shouldn't generalise in discussing the law's 'wellbeing problem'. Our experiences of a career in law are themselves shaped by factors such as age, life course and background, with questions of class, gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, disability and health each influencing how wellbeing  is understood 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 legal workplace, raising questions about how it might be possible to better engage senior men in the profession in advancing this wellbeing agenda.

Certain themes recur in the wider literature on lawyer wellbeing:

  • the prevalence of a cultural stigma around mental health problems in the law
  • concerns about the competitive culture of much of legal practice
  • poor work-life balance, frequently long hours
  • the personality attributes of those who enter and teach law, of a legal profession replete with 'insecure overachievers'
  • 'imposter syndrome' and tendencies towards perfectionism
  • a common concern, in particular for junior lawyers, is about a lack of line-manager training in dealing with mental health matters when they do arise
  • in some instances, the impact on lawyer wellbeing of uncivil and corrosive workplace cultures, bullying, harassment and discrimination.

How things are

It is important in discussing lawyer wellbeing to recognise that high levels of job stress can coincide with high levels of job satisfaction, to not lose sight of the joys, rewards, pleasures and challenges of a career as a lawyer. The problem is that all too often poor wellbeing is seen as just part of 'how things are'; and that the bottom-line of client satisfaction will ensure that working practices that can be harmful to health somehow 'goes with the territory' of being a lawyer. This is a view that needs to be challenged.

Ticking the box?

Across areas of law, notably but by no means exclusively in larger corporate commercial practice, law firms are introducing an array of 'wellbeing weeks' and days, 'wellbeing rooms', mindfulness taster sessions, five-minute massages and so forth, amongst initiatives such as the rolling out of mental health first aid training and 'wellbeing champions'.

Each can be important, welcome, and positive interventions in and of themselves. The danger is that this is an approach that often focuses on encouraging the individual lawyer to do something about their own wellbeing, framing the responsibility to tackle problems at the level of the individual and not the working structures, cultures and practices that are productive of these experiences of poor lawyer wellbeing in the first place.

Becoming 'resilient'

The problem with urging lawyers to 'become resilient', is that far from seeing resilience as something to be called upon in exceptional circumstances, it can become a base-line requirement in ways that then reinforce what are, at the end of the day, still viewed as highly desirable traits in the legal profession (the ability to work long hours, to work without apparent caring commitments, or to be 'care-less', or, indeed, to see oneself, and be seen by others as, a particular kind of competitive individual). This can slide easily into self-blame and, with it, a furthering of distress. It can also legitimate in law firms a "ticking the box" approach to wellbeing rather than bringing about more substantive change in the legal profession.

Why is this issue significant? This is a debate that is not going to go away. At issue are:

  • complex questions about how law firms respond 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
  • looking to generational shifts in attitudes, of the greater willingness of younger lawyers to be open about mental health issues.

In the context of a rapidly changing profession and marketplace for legal services the very idea of 'wellbeing' has itself become part of what it now means to be a good employer and provide a first-class service to clients. Much has changed.

Sticking plasters?

The trouble is that for all recent welcome interventions the perception on the part of many lawyers on the ground may be of a marked gap between genuine and well-meaning commitments to improving lawyer wellbeing, and the causes of their actual distress. If this is the case then the welcome initiatives that have been introduced will be seen by many lawyers as, at the end of the day, little more than sticking plasters.

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

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Richard Martin (2018) This Too Will Pass: Anxiety in a Professional World (Trigger Books)

Angus Lyon (2015) A Lawyer's Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress (Ark Group)

Rachel Field, James Duffy and Colin James (eds) (2016) Promoting Law Student and Lawyer Well-Being in Australia and Beyond (Routledge)

Neil Graffin et al (2019) 'The legal profession has a mental health problem – which is an issue for everyone'The Conversation 18 April 2019

Junior Lawyers Division Resilience and Wellbeing Survey 2019 (PDF 512KB)

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