Are employers doing enough to support junior lawyers’ wellbeing in the workplace?
As part of its agenda for the last three years, the executive committee of the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society of England and Wales (JLD) has been focusing on supporting junior lawyers experiencing mental ill-health and high levels of stress at work and raising awareness of these issues in the legal profession.
When starting your legal career, whether as a paralegal or trainee solicitor, this may be your first time working in a professional environment.
As well as adjusting to working in the legal profession, paralegals and trainee solicitors are under an increased amount of pressure as they try to prove themselves to their employers, either to be awarded a much sought-after training position, or to be offered a newly-qualified position at the end of it.
Many junior lawyers feel unable to raise issues with their employers when they are struggling to cope with the pressures of their role.
It can be difficult to juggle your workload particularly in circumstances where, as a junior, you are accepting work from several different members of staff, more senior than you, in the department.
The transition from trainee to becoming a newly qualified solicitor can be a tricky one as you try to establish yourself in the department you have qualified into.
This can come with its own complications and additional pressure as many junior lawyers have a tendency to worry and over-prepare when they are released from the protective shield of being a trainee.
Stress, mental ill-health and junior lawyers
To ascertain the extent of the levels of stress and mental ill-health amongst junior lawyers, the JLD conducted a survey in 2017 which received over 200 responses.
The 2017 survey found that more than 90% of junior lawyers experienced stress in their role with 26% of those experiencing severe/extreme levels of stress.
More than 25% of junior lawyers stated that they had experienced mental ill-health in the last month (whether formally diagnosed or not).
It was clear to the JLD that high levels of stress and mental ill-health affected the majority of its members (specifically, paralegals (who have obtained their LPC), trainee solicitors and solicitor up to five years’ qualified).
The JLD ran its resilience and wellbeing survey again in 2018 and it received nearly 1,000 responses.
The overall figures in relation to stress remained the same as in 2017, however, the proportion of men regularly reporting either severe or extreme levels of stress increased from 20% to 26%.
In 2018, high workload and client demands and expectations were the most commonly selected causes of stress, whereas high workload and ineffective management were the most common causes in 2017.
In relation to mental ill-health, more than 38% of junior lawyers stated they had experienced mental ill-health in the last month (whether formally diagnosed or not), an increase of almost 13% from the 2017 survey.
The largest change was in relation to trainees, 19% reported experiencing mental ill-health in the last month in the 2017 survey compared to 38% in 2018.
A quarter of junior lawyers that responded to the survey worked with vulnerable clients (vulnerable by virtue of age, mental or physical health difficulties, as a result of being in custody, through lack of capacity, through experience of trauma, or who are vulnerable for any other reason).
A higher proportion of this group reported that they regularly felt unable to cope and/or had regularly experienced stress because of work over the last month compared with those not working with vulnerable clients.
Junior lawyers working with vulnerable clients also reported that their employers were less likely to offer help, guidance and support in relation to mental ill-health.
In relation to the pressures of family law specifically, Bryan Scant, former chair of the JLD explains:
‘Family law can be a stressful branch of the legal profession. It’s difficult not to absorb your clients’ problems when you spend your days trying to help. Those who work in children law are often exposed to the most horrific and distressing material, which can easily have an impact your mental health.’
One of the key statistics from the surveys showed that junior lawyers did not think that there was enough support for those struggling with the demands of the profession, causing stress and mental ill-health.
Disappointingly, only two-fifths of junior lawyers, in the 2018 survey, felt that their employer offered help, guidance and support in relation to mental health.
A similar proportion did not know what support their organisations offered, suggesting that existing employer provisions could be better promoted.
As a result, the JLD has worked on a number of different initiatives to provide more resources and support to both employees and employers.
Employer guidance for best practice
To assist employers in meeting some of these challenges, the JLD developed best practice guidance aimed at reducing stigma and fostering positive mental health.
The guidance is designed to give employers ideas on how to build a successful wellbeing strategy for their organisation.
The guidance focuses on three core pillars - (1) support; (2) education and training; and (3) culture - to enable organisational change.
In summary, the core pillars include:
- Support: implementing a work council/employee engagement group, training mental health first aiders, obtaining am EAP/counselling service, undertaking stress risk assessments, following the Health & Safety Executive’s guidance, starting health promotion initiatives, training human resource departments, utilising occupational health and showcasing key dates.
- Education and training: training line managers, discussing individual training needs with employees, encapsulating wellbeing within performance reviews, arranging seminars, workshops and guest speakers and incorporating a wellbeing strategy into policies and procedures.
- Culture: sharing personal stories, appointing champions/mentors, amending or preparing an organisation commitment statement, ensuring a joined-up approach across the organisation, encouraging employees to take annual leave/time away from office, monitoring success, making processes more efficient and ensuring reward links to fostering a positive culture.
The JLD is keen for organisations employing junior lawyers to take a proactive and inclusive approach to tackling stigma.
By supporting employees that are feeling under pressure, employers can create workplaces where junior lawyers feel able to raise their concerns, without reprisal, in the knowledge that they will be supported.
Promoting mentally healthy workplaces
The JLD has hosted two roundtable events with law firms to promote mentally healthy workplaces. These roundtable events involve a discussion on the recommendations in the guidance.
As part of the discussion, law firms are encouraged to share their best practice and positive/negative experiences of running initiatives internally.
By giving firms an opportunity to speak openly about their wellbeing strategies and what they are doing, it helps give ideas to other firms who are still in the process of planning their own strategies.
A joined-up approach
The JLD is a member of the Legal Professionals Wellbeing Taskforce, which is a cross-profession taskforce set up to promote and support positive mental health and wellbeing across the legal community.
The taskforce brings together representatives from LawCare, the Bar Council, the Law Society, the SRA, CILEx, CILEx Regulation, CILEx Law School, the Law Society’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys, the Institute of Paralegals, the University of Law, BPP, Newcastle University, the Young Barristers Committee, the Judicial Office, and the Bar Standards Board.
In 2018, the taskforce hosted two panel events, one focusing on emotional competency in the legal profession: an educational perspective, and the most recent on creating mentally healthy legal workplaces.
It is clear that negative stress and mental ill-health continue to adversely affect the legal profession as a whole.
There is real value in investing time and resource to improve employees’ wellbeing and mental health.
The legal profession is at risk of losing some of its best talent if employers do not begin to embrace their employees’ wellbeing as a key asset for their business.
By supporting employees and providing them with the necessary tools and resources to succeed, employers can reduce absences, reduce the risk of mistakes, increase productivity and create organisations which attract and retain the best talent.
The JLD is committed to keeping the resilience and wellbeing of junior lawyers at the top of its agenda for 2019.
The JLD’s chair, Amy Clowrey, advised:
‘Over recent years the JLD has been proactive in ensuring that resilience and wellbeing is being tackled by the profession. Mental ill-health adversely affects a high percentage of our membership and until we see a positive change the JLD will continue to push for healthy working environments that foster talent rather than hinder it. Similarly, it is for this reason that the JLD’s charity of the year for 2019 is Mind. Mind provides vital services, including treatment and support, for anyone suffering from or supporting someone with a mental health problem throughout England and Wales.’
The JLD’s resilience and wellbeing survey for 2019 was open for responses between January and March 2019.
Kayleigh Leonie is the Law Society Council member for solicitors zero- to five-years’ qualified.
A version of this article was first published by Resolution in their magazine The Review in February 2019.