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Mental health and the legal profession: the impact of covid-19

updated on 11 May 2021

Over the past few years it has been incredibly positive to see the narrative surrounding mental health shift to one that is more productive and supportive, with conversations around mental health becoming more commonplace. However, it is clear that the shift needs to transition from talking about implementing changes to actively putting them in place. The legal profession is renowned for being an extremely competitive field that can be exceptionally demanding for aspiring lawyers, new recruits and experienced lawyers alike. When we add covid-19 it makes the situation even more pressing.

The impact of the pandemic on mental health globally cannot go unnoticed. With lockdown came university closures, uncertainty surrounding exams and jobs, enforced remote working, online seminars, longer working hours for many, additional childcare and caring responsibilities as schools closed, heightened feelings of isolation and increased workloads due to furlough, to name a few.  

We spoke to LawCare CEO Elizabeth Rimmer, mental health advocate, LawCare champion and barrister Malvika Jaganmohan of St Ives Chambers, and former LPC student and current trainee solicitor Shannon Tong about the impact that covid-19 has had on aspiring and practising lawyers, what solicitors’ firms and barristers’ chambers are currently doing to support prospective and current lawyers, and what needs to change in this sphere. Plus, we share some tips on how you can take care of your mental health.

How has covid-19 affected mental health within the profession?

When the country was plunged into a dystopian-style lockdown towards the end of March 2020, working and studying from home suddenly became the new norm for many and, while the pandemic has since proved that remote working does work, people have also experienced huge amounts of uncertainty and, in lots of cases, loneliness and anxiety.

For practising and trainee lawyers, kitchen coffee chats were swapped with quick-fire messages on Microsoft Teams, while work socials transitioned to Zoom and passing queries have since been converted to scheduled meetings. For university students, interactive seminars and lectures transitioned to faceless Zoom displays, exams and university nights out were cancelled, and face-to-face networking and work experience opportunities were even harder to come by than normal.

With the government set to review working from home guidance the week preceding 21 June 2021, a vision of the future office remains clouded. While many law firms have set out commitments to introduce hybrid-working policies in a post-pandemic world, universities and their students remain in an uncertain limbo. Information around when students can safely return to university campuses is still unclear. So, what impact has the pandemic and the subsequent move online at all levels across the industry had on the mental health of practising and aspiring lawyers?

LawCare’s Impact Report

There is a host of evidence available which highlights the legal profession’s pressing need to address mental health concerns. As well as a recent survey conducted by the International Bar Association (IBA), which found that one in 10 lawyers under 30 said they have experienced suicidal thoughts as a result of work, stats from legal mental health charity LawCare’s 2020 Impact Report further implore the profession to implement meaningful changes to support current and future lawyers.

In 2020 LawCare provided emotional support to 738 people, a 9% increase on 2019’s figure, with most people seeking support aged between 21-30 (35%) and 31-35 (34%). “The main reasons people were getting in touch with LawCare for issues relating to the pandemic were worsening of existing mental health conditions, struggles with working from home and social isolation”, says the charity’s CEO, Elizabeth Rimmer. In fact, the report indicated that 34% of all calls, emails and webchats to the support service had a coronavirus element.

Working conditions

Longer hours and work/life balance

While it is important that we hold on to the positive elements brought about by remote working, there are many factors that have negatively affected the mental health of those in the profession, including the extra hours being worked. Over the past year, we have seen commuter time transition to work time – meaning the hours that bookend your days, in which you might have previously gone to the gym, out for dinner or the cinema, for example, are now essentially being used as extra working or studying hours. These activities that used to act as boundaries for the working day, encouraging us to log off in the evening, were stripped away when the country went into lockdown last year.

Elizabeth says: “Although we say we are working from home, it’s not working from home in the way it was prior to the pandemic when you could finish at 6:00pm, have something to eat and then head off to football, choir or to meet your friends in the pub. Although things have started to open a bit more recently, we haven’t had access to these other activities to support our mental health and wellbeing during lockdown.”

As such, maintaining a healthy and sustainable work/life balance has been challenging – solicitors, barristers and aspiring lawyers have found it difficult to separate work/studying from home without the physical separation that a commute and social life offer. Practising barrister Malvika Jaganmohan explains that it has become increasingly challenging to find that separation as her bedroom is also where her desk is. “It can be difficult to not feel like it’s just one long endless day”, she adds.

“The room that I consider my safe space is now also the room in which I read and listen to some horrible cases. Compartmentalising and moving on with the rest of my day after work has become even more of a challenge.”

Being unable to switch off following a day of work will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the lives of future and practising lawyers. Work/life balance within the legal profession at all levels has required adjustment for some time but the pandemic has heightened the situation and will hopefully influence some positive, meaningful changes. Working 7:00pm until midnight shouldn’t be glamorised – no one should have to work silly hours to prove themselves worthy of working in law.

Learning soft skills on the job and building networks

Part of an individual’s development within any profession comes from learning from those around you; picking up communication skills, interacting and building relationships with colleagues and clients, being able to pop your head around someone’s door to ask a question and attending meetings. “You learn so much about lawyering from being in the physical office”, Elizabeth says, but most of these opportunities have been lost as a result of the pandemic. The same can also be said for university students. Aspiring lawyer Shannon Tong explains that “a key part of the learning process, particularly on the LPC, is working with your peers, bouncing ideas off each other and solving problems together”.

As well as learning from the experiences of team members in the office, junior lawyers and trainees can also learn incredible amounts from their peers, with these relationships also acting as great support networks. Most interactions over the past year have been limited to the screen, making it difficult for such support networks to be built – junior lawyers have been missing out on “the micro-interactions” that come with grabbing a cup of tea or coffee and discussing what you watched on Netflix last night, Elizabeth adds.

Knowing that you’re not the only one trying to grapple with new work is likely to provide solace to trainees but lockdown has meant that trainees have been unable to build and make the most of a peer support network, as going for lunch or after work drinks, for example, have been off the cards. Zoom social events attempted to fill this void but it wasn’t long before ‘Zoom fatigue’ set in and it now feels like “we are moving towards Zoom-free Fridays”, Elizabeth explained, with some firms trying to encourage meeting free days.  

The loss of face-to-face social interaction has made it very tricky and even tiring for aspiring lawyers to work at developing their peer support network, which they “can gain so much from”. Being able to talk with people who are on a similar journey to yours is invaluable: “We underestimate how important that kind of support is”, Elizabeth emphasises.

This same level of interaction has also been lost for students. Whether students have remained in university accommodation or returned home, “the feeling of loneliness is a challenge”, Shannon explained.

Being unable to form physical study groups or take study breaks with friends has made the university experience incredibly daunting and lonely for many students.

Isolation

Alongside the lack of peer support come unwelcome feelings of isolation. It is likely that many new lawyers will “never have met their colleagues in the real world yet”, which brings with it a host of issues – some of which have been raised above and directly relate to the job, while other elements are more personal.

Malvika opens up about her experience during the pandemic. Having only been a tenant at a new chambers for around four months prior to the first lockdown in March 2020, she hadn’t had “the chance to properly carve out a place for myself in chambers”.

She adds: “The things I had been able to do before – the human interaction, meeting people in chambers to pick their brains, for example – had been completely removed from the picture. This made a lonely profession even lonelier.”

Feelings of isolation were also shared by law students following the closure of universities and the transition to online learning. Shannon urged firms during the recruitment process “to remember that students’ exams and learning have been conducted online, and that a candidate’s academic results could have been negatively impacted by covid-19. There isn’t any of the day-to-day support from peers and tutors that they have when they’re physically going into university”.

Elizabeth says: “It’s likely that lots of individuals are living in flat shares, they might not have a separate office for work meaning their whole world could literally have become four walls”. On top of the working conditions that have been developed over lockdown (ie, working longer hours) and the inability to see anyone other than those you are living with for prolonged periods of time, these feelings of isolation are not uncommon but if left unaddressed could lead to worsening mental health issues.

Uncertainty

It was clear from speaking to Shannon about her experience last March that candidates were facing “massive uncertainty over their future careers” almost instantly at the outset of the pandemic, whether that was because training contract positions were being deferred or because they were waiting for decisions around their exams to be made, among other things.

One of the more immediate impacts of the UK’s lockdown was on those students due to take exams. Aspiring solicitors and barristers were suddenly faced with delays to LPC and Bar course exams, and they were offered little guidance on the impact that might have later down the line in terms of qualification. Understandably, candidates were left feeling anxious and uncertain about their exams, as well as future training contract and pupillage positions. “I had LPC exams scheduled in March 2020. We were initially told that we would still be taking the exams in person, despite face-to-face teaching having already been suspended, because we were a smaller cohort”, explains Shannon.

Once the exams were postponed, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and the Bar Standards Board (BSB) had to decide whether exams could be taken online, which “led to worries about whether we would be able to start our training contract if we didn’t finish our LPC,” she adds. The Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) voiced their concerns regarding delays in an open letter to the SRA last year, which the regulator initially responded to by explaining that LPC exams must be supervised “to ensure integrity and security”. Eventually, the SRA took on board the JLD’s concerns and confirmed that LPC assessments could be sat remotely, but supervision would still be necessary – law schools were required to apply to the SRA before making any amends to assessments. The delay to exams still posed concerns for junior lawyers, who expressed fears over whether trainee solicitors would be granted leave to sit the exams and the prospect that training contracts could even be postponed until candidates had sat the LPC exams. These legitimate concerns added to the mounting pressure and uncertainty already being felt by aspiring lawyers.

It’s also important to note that the move online brought with it additional stresses in terms of WiFi and external noise disruption having a negative impact on candidates’ exam results, as Shannon explains: “The legal graduate job market is tough to crack in normal circumstances and covid-19 made it so much worse”.

As the UK’s roadmap out of lockdown progresses and with working from home guidance due to be assessed prior to 21 June, trainee solicitors might have the opportunity to finish the rest of their seats from the office. While this brings with it many positive elements, it is also important to “consider whether someone who completes a seat in the office environment, for example, will build better relationships with the team and potentially be prioritised for qualification in that practice area over someone who did the seat remotely earlier in the year”, aspiring lawyer Shannon comments.

While many will be eager to return to the physical office and university (plus nights out), not everyone will be feeling the same – these feelings of uncertainty are likely to transition into other worries and the legal profession must be aware of this.

What can firms, chambers and legal education providers do to support aspiring lawyers?

Change rhetoric into meaningful action and remove the stigma

While it has become very easy to reel off the negative impacts of the pandemic on mental health, taking stock of the positives that have also resulted and working to maintain these (eg, greater flexibility) is crucial. Elizabeth says: “Everyone needs to recognise that we are on a learning curve. We need to keep hold of the positives that have come about. This is a great opportunity to take on board the lessons from covid-19 and think about how we work and improve this within the legal profession.

“It’s time to think about how we can shift the culture and practice of the legal profession.”

Changing the discourse around mental health must be on the agenda. While we have seen conversations around mental health shift, it’s essential that the profession goes “beyond therapy puppies and fruit baskets” to “get to the crux of the mental health problem”, Malvika urges.

It might be becoming easier for people to talk about mental health issues in “softer terms, for example by lumping them under the banner of ‘stress’, but there doesn’t seem to be as much discourse around serious mental health issues, including depression or severe anxiety.

“There is a risk that ‘wellbeing’ is becoming a buzzword that is being churned out quite often but with very little action on the ground”, she observes. Rather than simply listing initiatives that look good on paper, firms have to follow through if they’re going to protect the wellbeing of their practising and future lawyers.  

Role modelling

Despite the work that is underway within the profession to support mental health, more needs to be done to remove the existing stigma. Rather than encouraging people to talk about their mental health, the competitive nature of the profession can seem to undermine progress on changing attitudes to mental health; many lawyers worry that being transparent will make them a less competitive candidate than their peers. While there should never be a requirement for individuals to disclose such issues, it’s important that they feel they are in an environment in which it is safe enough to do so should they want to, without accompanying concerns that it will impact their future career prospects.

Shannon urges firms to introduce “role modelling as a way to reduce the stigma” that overshadows the real issues at hand: “This could include partners, senior associates or directors, for example, speaking about their experiences. With most things like this, change needs to come from the top.”

Aspiring lawyers need to see people like themselves represented within the profession at all levels – speaking up about mental health issues should not stand in the way of candidates climbing the ladder. If firms are more transparent it will help to shift the rhetoric further to make “mental health part of normal day-to-day conversation” and in turn could facilitate in removing the stigma that has long been associated with raising such issues.

Support networks

While during the pandemic face-to-face meetings have been unfeasible due to restrictions, there are alternative ways for firms to create a supportive environment in which their lawyers can thrive. Plus, with the UK’s roadmap out of lockdown in progress, face-to-face meetings could be back on the cards soon for those who feel comfortable. All firms can introduce support networks.

“As evidenced by the IBA’s 2021 global survey and the American Bar Association work in 2016, the most vulnerable time in your legal career is the transition into practice. So, we know that this group needs that support and nurturing and even more so during a pandemic when nothing is business as usual”, Elizabeth comments.  

Shannon urges senior colleagues to be “fostering these supportive relationships with junior lawyers so if an issue did arise, the junior lawyer would feel comfortable talking to their supervisor”.

She adds: “Just having this discussion embedded into monthly meetings highlights to junior lawyers that there is an opportunity to discuss any issues, that their supervisor is keen to talk, and everyone is being asked about it. This sort of thing could normalise these conversations and reduce any anxiety regarding how these discussions may impact one’s future career.”

Malvika reiterates the importance of support networks, having benefited from a wellbeing mentor initiative that was set up in her chambers at the start of the pandemic: “It’s nice to know that there is someone for you to talk to should you need it.”

These types of support networks can also be introduced by legal education providers.

Working hours

Working practices and culture across the profession continue to require addressing. It’s an incredibly archaic idea that all lawyers must work ridiculously long hours to be good at their job and while there are practice areas that require extra hours at certain times, overworking employees is not sustainable, healthy or ethical. For many, the pandemic has only made this worse – Elizabeth says: “Keep an eye on the hours that people are working because it is easy to overwork during this period. Make it clear to juniors that they shouldn’t be overworking.”

With many firms set to implement hybrid working policies as the UK emerges from the pandemic, Elizabeth urges firms to ensure that “regular boundary hours” are maintained as they would in the physical workplace. It’s important to “recognise that the way we have been working from home is not the usual way to work from home – it should not be a benchmark for the future”, she adds.

Drawing on this, Malvika considers the scope for technology to “completely transform the legal landscape”. Looking back on her experiences as a barrister prior to the pandemic, she recalls the amount of time spent travelling and the lack of time she had available to recover from a case before having to work through the night in order to prepare for the next, scheduled for the following day. While face-to-face hearings are necessary for many cases, “remote working has provided the infrastructure to deal with a lot of run-of-the-mill directions and matters that we don’t need to attend court for. This part of remote working should be maintained”, she suggests.

Listen to lawyers and future lawyers – “one-size does not fit all”

The profession offers more support for lawyers experiencing stress and anxiety than it used to, but much of the support being offered has been generalised – assuming a one-size fits all approach. Mental health was an issue that the profession has needed to address long before the pandemic, but the lockdowns seemed to send a rippling effect across the legal sphere. With discussion still at a very general level there a number of actions that law firms can take to address mental health and wellbeing. In doing so, it is important that they recognise “that everyone’s experiences are different – one size does not fit all”.

“A blanket menu of initiatives” is not enough to tackle the issue, explains Elizabeth. “It’s important to ask people what it is they feel they need, listen to what they tell you” and then action it. For example, the return to the office could be a cause of anxiety for many, with others eager to get back. Understanding that not all employees will feel the same way about this is essential. Elizabeth urges firms to ask staff how they’re feeling about this return and to listen to the feedback as they develop a return to the office strategy. It’s important that “more work is conducted on a one-to-one and individual basis”, explains Shannon.

Tips on looking after your mental health

Looking after your mental health is not quite as simple as following a bullet point list or online guide – it’s a personal process that is likely to change overtime as new stresses are added into the mix. The legal profession is often described as “challenging” and “demanding” but this shouldn’t be to the detriment of its current and future lawyers.

We have outlined some practical tips below that could help to support your mental health and wellbeing.

Introduce boundaries and routine

In the current climate, with many trainee lawyers continuing their training contract from home and university students still not back on campus, introducing “boundaries between study, work and personal life” is likely to be helpful. Trying to find an alternative to the physical distance that returning home from university or work offers is a good starting point – this could be as simple as heading out for a short walk before and after work to imitate the normal commute. Taking time out for yourself – whether that is a walk, run, dedicated time to reading a book, cooking your favourite dinner, watching your favourite Netflix show or just doing absolutely nothing – will give your brain a chance to switch off from the pressures that come with studying and work.

In addition, Elizabeth recommends creating a plan for your day. She suggests “spending 10-15 minutes the night before or in the morning to plan out your key tasks and then reviewing your list at the end of the day to determine what needs to be carried forward”. Actively organising your work into various priority levels can also be useful to visualise which tasks need completing first and can ease the pressure that comes with trying to organise it all in your head.

Elizabeth urges aspiring and practising lawyers to see their mental health and wellbeing activities as “non-negotiable”. Your mental health and wellbeing are a priority.

Minimise social media use

With social media comes the thief of all joy – comparison.

While using social media can help aspiring lawyers to identify various opportunities on offer, it can quite quickly become just “a highlight reel” of your peers securing the training contract or pupillage offers that you didn’t get. “They’re not going to shout about their rejections; the bad days they’ve had; or the poor essay marks they’ve received. It’s unhealthy to compare yourselves to these people”, Malvika says.

She suggests that aspiring lawyers limit their use of social media purely for this reason. Where it is useful, make the most of it but remember that you are on a separate journey to everyone else.

Talk to someone

This can sometimes feel like one of the hardest things to do but recognising that you need support and seeking it out is important. Understand that all your worries are valid. “If you don’t feel like you can talk to family, friends, colleagues, your firm or chambers, reach out to LawCare”, Elizabeth urged. There are people and organisations that you can speak to – try not to leave it until you reach breaking point. Addressing these issues early on can be incredibly beneficial.

Also keen to encourage candidates to reach out should they need it, Shannon reflects on her university experience: “I had counselling from my university when things were tough for me in Summer 2020 – having that additional support was helpful, so I’d really encourage others to seek help and not minimise any feelings they’re experiencing.”

While there are several things that you can do to support your mental health and wellbeing, the legal profession also has a long way to go in its quest to address these issues. Remember that you are not alone. While everyone experiences things differently, there are always people available to speak to whether that’s a friend, colleague, family member, housemate, manager, dissertation supervisor or counsellor. If you are experiencing issues and are looking for someone anonymous to speak to, reach out to LawCare – they “provide information and support to anyone in the legal community experiencing mental health and wellbeing problems”.

Take a moment to reflect on this year and recognise how far you have come.

Olivia Partridge is the content & engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net.