Building a more caring legal industry

Sharon Glynn talks to Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare, about recent findings that paint a troubling picture of the mental health and wellbeing of those in the legal profession.

The legal profession has a reputation for high demands and long hours – and the pandemic has only magnified those challenges. Many legal professionals have struggled to avoid burnout whilst managing client demands and personal responsibilities.

LawCare, a charity that supports and promotes mental health and wellbeing in the legal sector, is aiming to change that. The organisation recently released findings of its Life in the Law research, which considered responses from over 1,700 legal professionals about how legal work culture and working practices are impacting them.

I asked Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare, to help me dissect the findings.

“We have a mental wellbeing problem in the law and our research is adding to a growing body of evidence about that,” Rimmer said. “Legal professionals know what to do to support their mental health and wellbeing, but the challenge is around prioritising it.”

A central part of the problem has to do with how the profession monitors and measures success – and how it pressures employees to achieve it. In the legal profession, we reward success and there's limited room for failure.

“There's this real perception of law that is exacerbating or creating an environment that's feeding into these feelings of burnout and work intensity. So how do we change that perception of law?”

LawCare’s research measured to what extent legal professionals are experiencing burnout, autonomy at work, psychological safety and work intensity. Among the key findings:

  • Respondents averaged a score of 42.2 on the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory, indicating a high risk of burnout; levels of burnout related to exhaustion were particularly high
  • Most respondents (69%) had experienced mental ill-health (either clinically or self-diagnosed) in the 12 months before completing the survey
  • Of those who had experienced mental ill-health, only 56.5% said they had talked about this problem at work; the most common reasons for not doing so were the fear of stigma associated with it, potential career implications, and financial and reputational consequences
  • Female respondents averaged higher in burnout compared to their male counterparts and also reported having lower autonomy and psychological safety at work, which refers to how secure they feel in voicing ideas and concerns or acknowledging mistakes
  • Respondents who identified as belonging to an ethnic minority group and respondents with a disability also reported higher levels of burnout, as well as lower average scores for autonomy and psychological safety at work
  • Though most respondents were not furloughed or made redundant because of the pandemic, almost half expressed concern about their job security and nearly 60% were concerned about their finances
  • Almost 60% of respondents reported being more concerned about increased pressures around work-life balance
  • Respondents demonstrated awareness of self-care practices and also acknowledged that at work, having catch-ups or appraisals helped boost their confidence in personal development and reduced anxiety

Paving the way for positive change

To help move the needle in support of mental health and wellbeing, Rimmer urges organisations to approach the challenge from several directions. She suggests law firms should find ways to reframe how they measure success.

Instead of encouraging metrics around hours worked and rankings achieved, for example, firms can ask themselves if they reached an effective outcome for the client and walked away from the experience feeling that the relationship worked well.

She also emphasises the need for individuals, firms, clients, regulators and professional bodies to take collective responsibility for wellbeing in the industry.

Senior leaders must model the importance of mental health, be open about their own struggles, and encourage the sharing of ideas and concerns without fear of reprisal. Individuals must follow their lead, be willing to share ideas and speak up when they need help.

Finally, Rimmer encourages the use of training and support for managers to help them look beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting employees. If they proactively consider the different characteristics individuals have and how these might impact someone's mental health and wellbeing, she says, they will be more effective in making employees feel heard and understood.

“This is a wake-up call for the profession,” Rimmer said. “In order to deliver our best, we have to look after our minds and bodies. As we come out of this pandemic, with the learnings we've all had personally and professionally, this is our moment to move things forward in a positive way so we're not having these same conversations in 10 years’ time.”

Taking positive steps will not only make firms more attractive to the best talent, but will also make them better insurance risks.

If you ensure your employees are working in an environment that allows them to perform at their best, you should also generate a better risk profile and fewer claims.

Law firms are definitely getting better at recognising the importance of mental wellbeing and are launching some great initiatives to support good mental health. The LawCare report highlights our collective responsibility in protecting mental wellbeing – and I’m hoping it will inspire and empower everyone to take positive action to change the perception of law from being a profession in which poor mental health is accepted to one where it is the exception.

The LawCare support service is for people who work in the legal profession, including support staff and concerned family members.

You can reach their helpline on Monday to Friday from 9am to 5.30pm on 0800 279 6888.

If you urgently need to speak to someone outside of helpline hours, call the Samaritans on 116 123.

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