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Work/life balance in the legal profession: mental health under the microscope

updated on 13 May 2024

In recent years, there’s been a growing dialogue around mental health in the law – a profession that has a reputation for long hours and intense work. A number of studies and changing priorities have put working hours under the microscope, with more people beginning to ask questions about working practices and the demands often expected of lawyers.

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LawCare’s 2020/2021 Life in the Law research found that 69% of legal professional participants had experienced mental ill-health in the 12 months prior to completing the survey. Read on to find out more about what researchers have discovered and the actions law firms are taking to meet a changing world. We also chat to Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare, about working hours in the legal profession and what you can do as an aspiring lawyer to prioritise your mental wellbeing.

Working hours – a hot topic

When it comes to working at a major City firm, long days have always been an expected part of the job. You only need to watch any legal TV show or film to know that burning the midnight oil is often part and parcel of being a commercial lawyer.

So, why has work/life balance become such a hot topic? The answer to this question is complex, as our understanding of mental health has developed, along with people’s needs and expectations of their working life.

Recent tragic events have prompted more discussion about working hours at City firms. However, this has been an ongoing conversation since the pandemic changed the way that many organisations operate. With kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms shapeshifting into offices and meeting rooms, many enjoyed the flexibility of remote work, with no commute and more time for leisure activities. Others, however, found, and continue to find, remote working isolating and struggle with the blurred boundaries between home and work life. In 2024, many firms are now asking lawyers to return to the office for three or four days each week, with some even monitoring attendance or linking time in the office to reward and recognition.

Can and should we return to pre-pandemic working practices when the world has changed so much? For one, the pandemic negatively affected many people’s mental health. Figures from NHS England show that, following the pandemic, more young people have mental health issues. As employee needs change, businesses across various industries are considering how they can alter their practices to attract and retain talent, with flexible working hours or good work/life balance making up part of this.

What’s been discovered?

A variety of studies have looked in detail at lawyers’ working pressures, from the number of hours worked to the intensity of the workload.

At one firm, the average hours at work amounted to 12 hours and 28 minutes per day, with lawyers arriving at 9:33am and not leaving until 10:00pm on average, according to a Legal Cheek report that ranked the average working hours at a range of major law firms.

Given that research by the World Health Organisation listed workload and work schedule as two out of 10 main risk factors for poor mental health, these findings are significant and should be a red flag for law firms that are promoting, encouraging or simply accepting such working practices. 

"For a sustainable legal profession, we've got to do some work in this space. Otherwise, we're at risk of losing people who are put off coming into the legal profession because of its reputation"

Elizabeth explains that long-hour culture is intrinsically linked to how law firms operate using billable hours. “In private practice, you’ll be set a chargeable hour target that you need to meet. Firms reward the people that exceed those targets. For example, if your billing target is 1,600 chargeable hours a year (if you’re in the City, it’s probably 2,000), firms often reward people who go beyond those targets.

“So, the profession is incentivising people to work long hours, which is a challenge because this system rewards those unhealthy behaviours. It’s also a form of exclusion because not everyone can put those kinds of hours in due to other responsibilities such as being a carer or having an underlying mental health condition or disability, seen or unseen.”

It’s not just the long hours that are a problem – the high intensity of the work completed also affects lawyers. LawCare’s Life in the Law research evaluated work intensity, which “comprises both a time-quantity element in terms of number of hours worked and an intensity element which looks at how intense the effort is during the time worked”. The research found that, on a scale of four to 24, participants’ average work intensity was 14. The study explained: “Regardless of how much autonomy a person had, or how psychologically safe and supportive their work environment is, the presence of high-work intensity produced a negative effect and correlated with higher risk of burnout.”

The report also found that:

  • more than 75% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that their workload is unpredictable;
  • 80% agreed or strongly agreed that their work is fast paced with tight deadlines;
  • almost 65% agreed or strongly agreed that they need to check their emails outside of regular work hours to keep up with their workload; and
  • 28% agreed or strongly agreed that their work requires them to be available to clients 24/7.

It’s clear that lawyers are expected to commit a great deal of time and attention to their role, often placing their personal life on the backburner. But how will the growing demand for more flexibility change accepted practice, and how will firms’ policies meet these demands?

The legal profession has always had a reputation for being fast paced and challenging, and many (although not all) head into their legal career well aware that this is the case. But, as more people begin to prioritise their mental health, aspirations are also changing. Research by Major, Lindsey & Africa found that millennials are “increasingly open to leaving their current firm, rather than staying to become partners. Dissatisfaction with work/life balance is the primary reason”. Similarly, a survey by Deloitte found that generation Z (gen z) and millennials have a “strong desire to achieve better work/life balance”, ranking this attribute as more important than career development. This shift has also caused changes to where aspiring lawyers are applying, as a recent survey found that aspiring gen Z lawyers are 60% less likely to join the US’ largest 200 firms than they were three years ago.

Elizabeth emphasises that continuing to improve mental health support is vital to attract and retain future talent. “Mental health and work/life balance are becoming bigger concerns for people thinking about coming into law. We're trying to get a message out to the legal sector that mental health matters for lots of reasons for individuals and organisations. For a sustainable legal profession, we've got to do some work in this space. Otherwise, we're at risk of losing people who are put off coming into the legal profession because of its reputation."

Conversations about the current intensity of the profession partnered with the changing expectations of aspiring lawyers means that many law firms are considering how they need to grow and adapt.

Read this LCN Says by Dana Denis-Smith to find out more about what the next generation are looking for in employers.

What are legal employers doing to prioritise and support work/life balance?

According to research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, “slightly more organisations are approaching health and wellbeing through a standalone strategy”, with 67% agreeing that line managers understand the importance of wellbeing in 2023, compared with 58% in 2020.

The Solicitor’s Regulation Authority (SRA) has released a range of guidance, emphasising that firms should “treat staff fairly and with respect”. The regulator stated that it’s “particularly concerned that evidence shows some solicitors with protected characteristics experience higher levels of unfair treatment at work”. Meanwhile, the SRA’s Code of Conduct for Solicitors aims to ensure that, among other things, lawyers’ mental wellbeing is protected. The code states that lawyers must maintain trust and act fairly. This includes treating colleagues with respect, not abusing your position and not discriminating on the basis of personal views. The code also requires firms to have structures in place to ensure requirements are followed. More information about the SRA’s workplace environment guidance can be found on the SRA’s website.

Firms are also creating their own guidelines to ensure positive mental wellbeing. For example, Barclays, Addleshaw Goddard and Pinsent Masons LLP recently created the Mindful Business Charter, which emphasises the importance of a systematic prevention of stress, as opposed to an individual cure. The charter has four key pillars:

  • openness and respect;
  • smart meetings and communications;
  • respecting rest periods; and
  • mindful delegation.

The charter has been signed by a range of businesses and law firms, including Burges Salmon LLP, Charles Russell Speechlys LLP, DWF Group Limited, Hill Dickinson LLP, Michelmores LLP, Shoosmiths and many more.

LawCare’s Life in the Law study also notes the importance of open communication. Research found that having properly trained managers and a support network at work is essential for mental wellbeing. The findings show: “The most commonly provided workplace support measures were regular catch-ups or appraisals, mental health policies, mental health and wellbeing training, and signposting of information. Of these, regular catch-ups or appraisals were reported to be the most helpful.”

Firms are introducing different measures to improve mental wellbeing. For example, Fladgate LLP introduced a new scheme to 30 real estate lawyers, allowing them to work reduced hours for reduced pay, while in 2022 Farrer & Co LLP trained a cohort of employees to become mental health first aiders.

Read this LCN Says to hear more from Farrer & Co’s mental health first aiders

Chair of the City of London Law Society, Colin Passmore, recently emphasised the importance of having systems like this in place to monitor employee mental health. He stated that if a lawyer is working long hours, this should send a “trigger warning” for the individual’s mental health to be monitored and looked after.

Elizabeth seconds this notion: “If [employers] see that people are working long hours, it should be a red flag and they should take action. If you see that someone's been consistently working long hours, ensure they're having a break, have a conversation and find out why.”

While some steps have been taken by firms, research shows that more needs to be done. Bupa and YouGov research found that wellbeing services, such as health insurance, mental health support, access to confidential phone lines, gyms and financial support were available to 45% of legal employees. This is slightly below the average for employees across all sectors, which is 45%.

In light of this, Elizabeth emphasises the importance of holistic measures: “We’re trying to encourage firms to identify the risks associated with unhealthy working practices and to do something about them to prevent people from developing mental health issues in the first place. That's the shift that we need.”


Protecting your mental health

As firms try to improve the state of mental health in the profession, it seems only natural that those looking to pursue a career as a lawyer are considering how the busy legal profession will impact their mental health. In LawCareers.Net’s recent user survey, 49% of aspiring lawyer respondents selected work/life balance as one of the top three things they looked for in a future legal employer, with 33% choosing culture and values, and 28% picking working environment.

If you’re an aspiring lawyer, there’s lots you can do early in your career to ensure you’re prioritising your mental health. Elizabeth explains that “some of the habits that are carried over to legal working life, start in legal education”. The competitive nature of the profession means that it’s easy to build unhealthy habits: “People have to work so hard and it’s so competitive and when these individuals get into the profession, those patterns of behaviour are ingrained and rewarded by firms.”

So, remember to prioritise your mental health from the start. Some things you can do to protect your mental wellbeing include:

  • taking regular breaks;
  • avoiding working into the evening;
  • creating a to-do list to help tasks feel more manageable;
  • making time for family, friends and hobbies; and
  • talking through your problems with someone you trust.

Elizabeth reminds lawyers and aspiring lawyers that protecting your mental health is a key part of your success at work. She explains: “Your brain is your greatest asset. When it comes to doing legal work, you should recognise the value of doing things that support your mental health because that's going to help you manage your career, be a good lawyer, and be happy and productive.”

Find out more about establishing healthy habits in this LCN Says by Elizabeth Rimmer

When it comes to incorporating wellness activities into your daily routine, many use technology to help them. For example, some people go to online therapy, which can be easier, cheaper and more accessible than attending in-person appointments. In addition to therapy, mood tracking apps can be used to help practise self-awareness, allowing users to recognise how often they’re feeling stressed or experiencing a low mood. Wellbeing and mindfulness apps are also becoming increasingly popular, with an array of free meditation tools available. Some people also find it useful to set digital reminders for wellbeing activities, helping them to remember to carve out time in their day to prioritise their mental health.

Despite all this and the potential bleak picture it paints of the profession, Elizabeth urges students not to be put off pursuing a legal career. She says: “If you really want to start a career in law, it’s an immensely rewarding career for many people. There’s a recognition now, more so than there was even five years ago, about some of the challenges that we face around mental health. I think there’s a growing movement around wanting to do something about it so I believe things will change. Value your own self-care and commit to keeping your healthy habits in place, and not letting them slide”.


Maintaining a good work/life balance ensures the success of employees and, in turn, businesses. Over the past few years, more aspiring lawyers are putting work/life balance at the top of their priority list and law firms are considering how intense working hours are mentally, emotionally and physically affecting their employees.

This is key, as Elizabeth explains: “There’s an understanding that people who’ve rested and aren’t feeling overwhelmed or stressed are going to be more productive, happier and better able to do their job. So, from an employer's perspective, it’s important to recognise that people who can pursue activities that support their mental health are probably going to do a better job when they come back to work.”

It’s important that we continue to have conversations about working hours and mental health to ensure that there’s support for those struggling, as well as implement measures to protect mental wellbeing across the profession, from aspiring lawyers to law firm partners.

Note from the LawCareers.Net content team: if you need support while at university, there are a number of places you can contact, including your university's support service, Nightline and Student Space. If you need support now, text SHOUT to 85258 to chat to a trained volunteer.

Ellie Nicholl (she/her) is a content and engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net.