“Prioritizing Mental Health in the Legal Profession: A Call to Action”

As Mental Health Awareness Month concludes, it seems pertinent to take some time to discuss the topic of mental health, particularly in relation to the legal sector and the professionals who navigate it.

Historically, the legal profession has been synonymous with stress, long working hours, competition, and, depending on your area of expertise, exposure to traumatic or emotionally challenging situations. These realities have meant that lawyers have been no stranger to mental health related issues such as increased levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and/or burnout. According to a 2021 survey conducted by an insurance firm, attorneys are the second most stressed category of professionals in the UK, with 63% of the legal field suffering everyday stress. Though this data is three years old, the question remains whether the issue is one of the past or one that needs to be addressed in the present-day legal field.

Firstly, we can see that mental health has increasingly become a point of conversation within the legal sphere, whether this be an emerging culture of self-care that has developed within society at large, or the initiatives which have been put into place by law firms in order to create an atmosphere of well-being within some of the world’s most prevalent law firms. We even see the rise of mental health charities and schemes coming into fruition throughout the legal sector such as Jonathan’s Voice, which is a charity that aims to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues and inspire people to seek help and open up, and the MHFA initiative which has provided mental health training and resources to over 20,000 organisations. But questions do remain: How useful have these initiatives been and is there more that can be done to combat this prevailing issue?

A study that was conducted in 2023, which centred the link between lawyers’ stress and suicidal thoughts, found that 66% of respondents believed that their time in the legal profession has proven detrimental to the state of their mental health, with 46% of them reporting that they were considering leaving the profession completely due to copious amounts of stress. Furthermore, data from a Mental Health Survey that was conducted by ALM and Law.com found that 38% of lawyers said that they were feeling depressed. This figure is alarmingly high, and is made worse when we consider that in 2021 the same question was asked and the data reported that at the time 37% of the lawyers were feeling depressed. Whilst this isn’t a huge increase, it implies that the problem is not necessarily a thing of the past nor something that is simply just going to get better over time.

So, what can be done about mental health in the legal sector?

One thing that cannot be understated is the importance of self-awareness and self-care. This remains important across all industries and walks of life, but in relation to lawyers who work extended hours, often balance multiple cases and projects at once, and deal with sensitive subject matters, it is crucial to assess regularly and take the necessary steps to mitigate stress.

Some of the recommended improvements:

  • Noticing when you are experiencing burnout and taking a break from work.
  • Getting a proper sleep at night.
  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle by focusing on a proper diet and (dare we say it) reducing the intake of alcohol.
  • Receiving your recommended amount of daily physical activity.

These are all proven ways to mitigate the risk of mental health problems. Studies show that adults who have half the recommended amount of physical activity per week had a 18% lower risk of suffering from depression compared to those who received no physical activity per week.

Another way that many experts argue is beneficial, is to vocalise your struggles as they begin to surface. Prevention is decidedly better than cure. Current societal and cultural norms have shown that lawyers are becoming more comfortable discussing the state of their mental health and are utilising platforms like LinkedIn to express this in a more public manner. Other ways can be by confiding in family and friends but also by seeking professional counselling, joining support groups with likeminded lawyers, such as the London Solicitors Litigation Association, who encourage the development of relationships between lawyers of all levels and positions. Also, many suggest opening up to colleagues and managers. Practices such as this are quite frankly a new phenomenon. However, we cannot deny that there has been a clear increase the number of lawyers who are becoming more comfortable with discussing their mental health. The mental health and wellbeing charity LawCare reported that over the last year there had been a 24% increase in the number of people who have been contacting them. These trends are positive and show that there is a growing sense of pro-activeness by individuals in the legal industry and by external groups in order to create safe spaces, which in turn will have a positive effect on the state of mental health as a result. However, what are law firms doing to help the progress of this cause?

A study on Mental Wellbeing in the legal profession that was carried out by the International Bar Association in 2021 found that 41% of employees were reluctant to discuss their mental wellbeing or concerns regarding their mental health due to fear that it would have a negative impact on their career. This might be a familiar feeling to many within the legal industry, which is notoriously competitive, and statistics show that 32.1% of professionals within the legal industry do not speak out as a result of fear that they will be treated differently if they do due to stigma surrounding mental health and immense pressure to perform and meet clients’ expectations. Whilst this attitude and culture has been the norm up until now it is becoming widely acknowledged that a new approach needs to be implemented across law firms. The legal profession is one that holds prestige, as the work can be challenging and the demand for excellence is constantly made apparent to those who navigate it. However, there has been a growing impetus placed on creating a balance between the pursuit of excellence and the well-being of individuals and many firms are striving to implement healthy cultures where individuals can feel more at ease when opening up about their wellbeing.

Traditionally, leaders within law firms felt as if the only way to achieve success is to appear endlessly capable of exceeding expectations. This perception tends to diffuse across the whole ecosystem of the firm and seeps into the behaviours of other partners, fee-earners, paralegals, legal assistants, and professional staff thereby creating a stifled environment where no one feels free to open up and subsequently no change can be achieved. Whilst this is not necessarily an issue that can be resolved overnight, it is pivotal that steps are taken to mitigate this. As the saying goes “change comes from the top”. An article by Reuters states that “when senior leadership models openness and vulnerability around their own lived experience, it creates a positive environment for those who are considering the benefits and consequences of asking for support”. The impact of this cannot be understated and goes a long way towards the creation of safe spaces within firms.

The reality of this is that once leadership within firms acknowledge the need for change in this area, there will still be much room for improvement in terms of actioning these new ideas. The International Bar Association found that in 2021, 82% of institutions reported that they take mental health seriously, however only 16% provide adequate training for senior management. As we have established, change has to start from the top which is why it is important that we keep up the momentum through these conversations to inform leaders within law firms and legal bodies about  the importance of this discourse and how imperative it is for them to be in the know about ways they can help create better atmospheres within their practices.

Once adequate training has been provided to leadership, many believe that it would be useful for the same thing to be experienced by other members of the team; if everyone within a firm is aware of a problem it becomes easier to mobilise and address it accordingly. With this shared understanding, more practical initiatives, such as team building activities and reward incentives, can be implemented to motivate people and create a positive environment. A team with a stronger community and culture is more likely to produce members who are willing to share their feelings. Furthermore, mentorship schemes can be of a great help, specifically to junior lawyers and lawyers transitioning through different phases or career milestones where one can experience notions such as anxiety and imposters syndrome. This form of mentorship would allow them to have questions answered, a friendly face to turn to, and overall feel more like they are part of the team. Furthermore, regular mental health check-ins mandated by law firms would demonstrate consistency and aid in the prevention of significant problems. Overall, teamwork and early action are recurring themes that help businesses succeed.

Pressure from clients has been established as a contributing factor when discussing the stress individuals within the legal sector feel. Recently, clients have become more and more informed and sensitive towards the wellbeing of their legal representatives. The reasons clients are becoming increasingly aware is in part down to their own experience of the law firms and a drive within corporates to tackle such issues.  The legal sector much like many other industries is reliant on people to be able to carry out often mentally taxing work to a very high standard and for sustained periods of time. This reliance on the individual means there must be an emphasis placed on well-being, and it is simply unsustainable to think otherwise.

Can lawyers and other legal professionals carry out high quality work so frequently, with no breaks, absent consideration for their mental state or emotional support? The data we discussed previously shows an increasingly large percentage of professionals facing these problems on a daily basis, with such a large number affected how could the industry hope to thrive in this modern era. Subsequently, if success is to be achieved, all parties must understand that key balances and measures must be taken to protect the wellbeing of all that are involved in these processes.

Overall, we can see that there has been a dangerous culture which minimised the issues of mental health and wellbeing within the legal industry. It is clear however, that this culture is beginning to subside, and the industry is looking towards more support for its people. But we must remember to maintain momentum and recognise that this race is not for the swift – as we usher in a new and improved way of engaging in the legal sector, teamwork, openness, and early action are critical.

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