updated on 10 May 2022
For many years mental health and the legal profession have been at loggerheads. Long hours, high-intensity workloads and covid-19 are among a seemingly endless list of factors that continue to contribute to the profession’s mental health crisis. And what about those vying to get through the door? The competition is, as ever, fierce and expectations high.
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The now very sought-after work/life balance was long overlooked by legal professionals and their clients. While the stigma surrounding mental health has shifted somewhat over the past few years, in some ways thanks to the covid-19 pandemic (who’d have thought it?), the wellbeing issues impacting individuals across the sector continue to persist.
“At LawCare we think a real problem has been isolation,” CEO of legal mental health charity LawCare Elizabeth Rimmer explains. “During the pandemic many were, and still are, working from home, which is great for some people, but others have really struggled with the lack of interaction, connection and supervision from their workplace” – an issue we saw arise across the board.
Meanwhile, other obvious factors that spring to mind include the stress that comes with working in a high-pressured legal environment and the fact that most, if not all, people have personal issues that they’re dealing with at the same time. Plus, funnily enough, the external factors that will inevitably have impacted your work, studies or applications – the pandemic, the rising cost of living and the war in Ukraine – will likely have had a personal impact too.
When chatting to LawCareers.Net, Elizabeth is keen to highlight that “the working practices in the law are detrimental to mental health and wellbeing”.
She adds: “We have seen workplaces introduce various wellbeing initiatives, but few really tackle the ingrained culture in the profession.
“We are encouraged that the profession is talking more openly about the issues faced and the pandemic has certainly helped shine a spotlight on what needs to change. We believe there is momentum now and a real appetite to tackle the culture in the law for the future sustainability of the profession and the mental wellbeing of the people within it.”
So, what does the mental health landscape look like at present? What more can the legal sector be doing to support both practising and aspiring lawyers? And, what resources are currently available to you, our future lawyers?
The stats speak for themselves
One in 10 young lawyers globally reported having experienced suicidal thoughts as a result of work, according to an International Bar Association (IBA) Survey. Meanwhile, legal mental health charity LawCare’s recent Life in the Law study found that nearly 70% of its 1,700 respondents reported having experienced mental ill health, clinically or self-diagnosed, in the 12 months prior to taking part in the survey.
Using data from October 2020 to January 2021, the study also revealed that only 59% of those who experienced mental ill health talked about it at work, citing concerns about the “stigma that would attach, resulting career implications and financial and reputational consequences” as reasons for not disclosing. A similar trend was identified in the IBA survey, with 75% of respondents aged between 25 to 35 saying their employers should be doing more, and 41% saying they would not discuss their mental wellbeing issues with their employer due to fears it would negatively impact their career or livelihoods.
We spoke to an aspiring lawyer about their thoughts on how the profession deals with mental health issues. While referencing the overtly competitive nature and pressure around “billable targets”, they also believe that prior to the pandemic “‘mental health and wellbeing’ were only buzzwords”. The culture of the profession is one of long hours, intense work and rewarding those who commit to these things regardless of external factors – a culture that often encourages a “get on with it attitude”, resulting in high levels of burnout that often go unrecognised or ignored.
In fact, participants between 26 and 35 who took part in the Life in the Law survey demonstrated the highest burnout scores, lowest autonomy, lowest phycological safety at work, and highest work intensity score. On top of this, nearly 30% “agreed or strongly agreed that their work required them to be available to clients 24/7”, while 65% admitted to checking emails outside of contracted work hours to keep up with their workload.
These figures indicate just how much of an issue glamorising and encouraging such a culture is on the profession, particularly at the junior end. This is a trend that has been impacting most sectors for a lot longer than you might think, and is one that must be addressed as part of the effort to resolve the mental health crisis that we are seeing. Despite our best efforts, the boundaries between home and work life did become hazy during the pandemic but glamorising overworking isn’t new. Yes, our working weeks got longer as the physical inability to remove ourselves from our working environment – whether that was your bedroom, home office space (if you were lucky) or communal kitchen – became increasingly difficult. But this notion that you must always be doing something ‘productive’ has been dictating the way people work and rest (or not) for a very long time!
YouTuber, product manager and former Linklaters LLP associate Eve Cornwell created an incredibly interesting video on this unhealthy work culture, which she calls “the toxic productivity echochamber”. She talks about feelings of restlessness and this desire, and almost need, for every activity you do to have some sort of productive element – she says: “I hold a lot of fear about being unproductive. And I hold a lot of guilt and angst about taking time off.” It’s not uncommon to feel this way but it is unhealthy and unsustainable. Eve uses the following affirmations to start each week:
Eve explains her use of these affirmations as a useful tool to help individuals deal with this inner voice, as well as the demands and unrealistic expectations that seem to have been born out of social media. This topic really could be a whole article in itself.
Read ‘How can young lawyers avoid burnout?’ for tips from Farhan Farani, managing director at Farani Taylor.
Toxic productivity and lack of sleep
Waking up early. Going to bed late. These are both aspects of work culture that have been glamorised and resulted in this toxic productivity. The Life in the Law study also questioned participants on their sleeping patterns, with levels of burnout naturally increasing as hours slept decreased. While the recommended amount of sleep is between seven to nine hours each night, 35% of respondents estimated they slept between six to seven hours, 25% said they slept around five to six hours, and 12% reported that they slept fewer than five hours each night.
But the problem doesn’t just stem from high-intensity work and workloads. Creating an inclusive workspace also appears to be at the heart of the issue. Looking more closely at the behaviours experienced at work, one in five participants had reportedly experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination in the workplace in the 12 months prior to the survey taking place. The study revealed a correlation between these respondents and higher burnout levels, lower autonomy and psychological safety at work, as well as higher levels of work intensity.
The stats from both studies clearly show that, as in most lines of work, mental health-related issues are prominent. CEO of LawCare Elizabeth commented on the Life in the Law findings, explaining that the study “provides robust evidence that the legal profession is stressed, tired, anxious, at high risk of burnout and that those working practices in the law that undermine mental health need to change.”
LawCare hopes its study will help to “inform future steps the profession must collectively take to improve wellbeing in the sector”. The charity is pushing for change, not just to the way the profession offers support but to the way it operates too. The IBA survey reinforces the need for this mission to be a priority, having found that more than a quarter of respondents believe there needs to be increased levels of awareness regarding mental wellbeing and 23% want more resources and direct intervention. So what’s in place to ensure the people on the ground are being cared for?
What is the profession doing?
In 2021, LawCare provided emotional support to 667 people, with a large portion (37%) aged between 21 to 30. Stress, anxiety, low mood and depression were some of the most common issues that legal professionals sought help for last year, according to the charity’s 2021 Impact Report.
We’ve spoken to aspiring lawyers who cite feelings of “hopelessness”, with one adding that they felt “especially frustrated as a disabled person entering the world of law. The profession didn’t acknowledge intersectionality and how people from different backgrounds experience further mental health and wellbeing issues as a result of the barriers they face.”
Aside from the work that charities like LawCare is doing, what can law firms do to support the mental health and wellbeing of all employees?
Mentoring and counsellors
Elizabeth says: “One of the easiest things workplaces and educators can do is just to make space for people to talk and check in with each other, our Life in the Law research reported regular catch-ups with a manager or supervisor were the most beneficial to wellbeing from a range of measures. Managers and supervisors should have adequate training to support these conversations.”
Macfarlanes LLP has several mentoring schemes on offer, including its associate scheme and business services development programme. The associate scheme involves associates and partners from the same practice area being paired up – associates can also request to be paired with a partner of a specific gender, background or from another practice area.
LawCareers.Net’s content and engagement coordinator and former paralegal Christianah Babajide believes that “having a close, professional relationship with someone at a firm or chambers, who is not your manager, is helpful because junior lawyers then have someone to speak to about stressors of their job, for example, that they wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable disclosing to their manager.”
As an alternative to a mentoring scheme, in early 2022 US firm Latham & Watkins hired full-time counsellors for its UK offices following burnout concerns among staff, adding to the firm’s existing initiatives which it introduced in 2009. Employees will have access to therapy sessions with mental health professionals.
Meanwhile, Ashurst LLP has a global network of wellbeing allies who have been mental health first aid trained to support struggling colleagues. The firm also offers its employees a subscription to Headspace, a company that specialises in meditation.
Independent law firm Farrer & Co LLP has also revealed that 36 employees have now been trained as mental health first aiders and will be offering support to colleagues who have mental health concerns.
Find out more about Farrer & Co’s mental health first aiders in this News.
An anonymous aspiring lawyer highlights how important it is “for firms, chambers and education providers to regularly consult with aspiring lawyers to learn from them about the problems they’re facing.”
They add: “It would be refreshing to hear from senior leaders about the ways in which they support or manage their own mental health. For example, what techniques do they deploy to help handle stress?” This is insight and communication that can easily be implemented via mentoring schemes.
Offering employees extra time off work to recharge is an excellent way to avoid burnout among staff. Employees should make the most of the extra hours to do something (or nothing) that helps them to relax and feel happy. The high pressure that comes with working in this profession and the fierce competition that aspiring lawyers are dealing with before they even secure a role makes it feel as though there is no time to rest. While this competitive culture needs to change for a long-term impact to be felt, wellbeing days will inevitably be well received among employees.
In 2021, Walker Morris LLP introduced a new sabbatical scheme which enabled all its solicitors, from associate to director level with more than two years of service, to be eligible for up to four weeks paid leave on top of their annual holiday.
Similarly, Kennedys is offering colleagues an annual wellbeing day, which allows employees to take their day’s leave and carry up to six days of their holiday allowance over to the following year.
Magic circle firm Linklaters launched a specialist mental health app in 2021. Alongside the app, which aims to support its UK employees to take a proactive approach to their wellbeing, the firm also offers a £300 wellbeing allowance. The allowance can be used in conjunction with the app to support employees in finding “personally relevant mental-health-related tools and resources.” Staff will have access to a directory of virtual and in-person wellbeing services, including sleep and mindfulness podcasts, and volunteering opportunities.
Signposting to support
Elizabeth says: “We’d like to see workplaces signpost to support so that people know there is someone to talk to if they have a problem whether it’s big or small. Anyone working in the law can contact LawCare for free, confidential emotional support from people or who work, or have worked, in the law on 0800 279 688 or lawcare.org.uk.”
While mentoring and in-house counselling are great initiatives to support the wellbeing of employees, it’s important to remember that not everyone responds to support in the same way. Some may feel more comfortable talking to someone who is external to the organisation (eg, LawCare), so all law firms, chambers and education providers should be seeking out such external support and ensuring that their staff or students are aware of it.
For more ideas on how to support the mental health of those in the legal profession, read Elizabeth Mason’s LCN Says. Elizabeth is a committee member of the Junior London Solicitors Litigation Association and an associate at Reed Smith.
Tips for practising and aspiring lawyers
Whether through internal mentoring schemes or external mental health support or therapy, if you’re feeling stressed, anxious or are just generally experiencing mental ill health, try to make use of the resources available to you at work or university. Taking that first step towards asking for help can be quite overwhelming, but recognising that you need help is a real strength and one that you should listen to.
Elizabeth says: “We would like to see people in practice and education talking more openly about the challenges a career in the law presents, this will better help aspiring lawyers manage any inevitable bumps in the road and will make it more likely that once in practice, you are able to acknowledge and speak up about any difficulties.”
Use your holiday allowance
While busy periods are common with most jobs, you should always make sure you’re using your holiday allowance. During your holiday periods, avoid checking your work emails as this will prevent you from fully switching off – you’d be surprised how much just taking a long weekend (ie, Friday or Monday off work) can impact your productivity levels and motivation.
Strive for a healthy work/life balance
For aspiring lawyers, researching law firms, their culture and working practices is a great way to identify the type of environment you might experience. Training contracts, vacation schemes and more general work experience opportunities are also excellent chances to see what it’s really like to work at your shortlisted firms. If work/life balance is important to you, try to speak to people already at the firm and find out what their working hours are like during a standard and busy period of work. This will help you to decide whether you and the firm are a good match.
Before even embarking on life as a lawyer, taking time away from your studies is also critical. Get into regular selfcare habits early on and make sure you prioritise this time throughout your studies and legal career – whether it’s going for a walk, reading a book or cooking your favourite meal.
Organise regular catch-ups
During the pandemic, feeling isolated was a key issue for many. “The pandemic took away the joy of networking and attending law fairs”, explains Christianah Babajide. “Aspiring lawyers now have to work harder to build these contacts and connect with lawyers”, she adds.
Regardless of whether you’re working/studying from home, the office or university, planning regular catch-ups with your manager, friends at work or outside of work, and family will serve as a great way to stay connected.
What does the future hold?
While the way we work seems to have changed forever following the pandemic-induced lockdowns – with a mixture of office and home working an option for many – there remains an urgent need to properly address the “ingrained culture” of the profession, which seems to be the root of many of the mental health issues experienced by aspiring and practising lawyers.
The stats outlined in the IBA and LawCare reports indicate just how pressing the issue really is. It’s clear that law firms are introducing initiatives, in the shape of mentoring schemes and wellbeing days, but how are these initiatives being sustained? How do they address the bigger mental health issue at hand? And, are they working for everyone, or do law firms need to readdress their initiatives to ensure that there are options for all staff, depending on their circumstance and background?
While there’s no quick fix, there are several things that the profession is or can be doing to support the wellbeing of its staff, and Elizbeth hopes that the Life in the Law research will be the “catalyst for us to come together as a profession to create that change, to create a culture in law that puts the law’s greatest asset – its people – first.”
Olivia Partridge (she/her) is the content producer at LawCareers.Net.