03 November 2021

Lawyer wellbeing in crisis

A new report just published by the International Bar Association, the global voice of the legal profession, highlights a crisis in lawyer mental wellbeing

Now it's official and undeniable. 

There is a mental health crisis in the legal profession worldwide.

A few days ago on 26th October the International Bar Association published its global study into mental wellbeing in the legal profession [1]. The report was prepared by the IBA Presidential Task Force on mental wellbeing in the legal profession.

Following the first ever global surveys examining the mental wellbeing of legal professionals at both an individual and institutional level, the report identifies worrying mental wellbeing trends across the profession and provides ten principles for legal workplaces and organisations to help address the crisis.

Among the main findings were the following:

Stigma is widespread. 41% of those surveyed would not to discuss mental wellbeing concerns with their employer for fear it may have a negative impact on their career.

One in three of those surveyed said their work had a negative or extremely negative impact on their wellbeing.

There is a lack of training in wellbeing. 82% of institutions surveyed said they took mental wellbeing seriously but only 16% provided training for senior management.

Using World Health Organisation mental wellbeing index scores, the average overall score for the lawyers surveyed would usually lead to a recommendation for a health professional to screen an individual for depression.

People don't speak out about wellbeing issues. 32% feared being treated differently as a result. 24% said that their employer did not sufficiently recognise mental wellbeing issues. 17% feared not being believed or taken seriously.

28% of those surveyed wanted to see improved workplace culture, one where mutual respect is cultivated and poor behaviour is addressed.

Co-chairs of the Task Force, Steven Richman and Deborah Enix-Ross stated, “It is our hope that the mental wellbeing principles set out in the report will aid the legal profession in urgently responding to the crisis. For solutions to be implemented there must first be acknowledgement that mental wellbeing matters and that it does not denote weakness. The report is a call to action.”

The findings confirmed that poor mental wellbeing of legal professionals is a cause for global concern and that it has a disproportionate impact on women, younger lawyers, those identifying as an ethnic minority and those with disabilities.

The Task Force was initiated by former president of the IBA, Horacio Bernardes Neto. He said, “Supported by the data from two pioneering global surveys, the conclusions and principles contained in this report represent a vitally important first step in addressing the global crisis in lawyer mental wellbeing.” The initiative has been adopted wholeheartedly by the current IBA President Sternford Moyo who commented, “Recent events have forced all of us to stop and think about what it is we value most in our lives, and how our careers contribute, or not, to our mental wellbeing and sense of purpose. In that sense, this report could not be more timely or relevant.”

The report sets out the global statistics in stark detail. It recognises that the problems are complex, detailed, nuanced, some jurisdiction-specific, some generic, and that for many they will seem overwhelming. Lawyers and law firms have to do law, make money, cope with all the pressures covid has raised, meet deadlines, stay afloat and, in common with all, navigate their way through a time of almost unprecedented change. So how can organisations even begin to steer towards a healthier way of practising when there are so many competing and urgent pressures?

The report provides a compass. It summarises ten core principles which are universal. If you are short of time, I suggest you download the report [1] and turn to pages 11 to 17. In brief the principles are:

1 Mental wellbeing matters. No-one is unaffected. 

2 Mental wellbeing is not weakness. We all face challenges to our health from time to time. 

3 Raising awareness is fundamental. The default position where those whose wellbeing is challenged face stigmatisation needs to be addressed. 

4 A commitment to change and regular continuing assessment is needed. The profession needs to adapt to tackle the current crisis.

5 Policies matter. Adopting a mental wellbeing policy is a simple first step to change. 

6 Maintain an open dialogue and communication. Once a policy is in place, this needs to be supported by ongoing discussion.

7 Address systemic problems. Individuals’ mental ‘resilience’ will vary. Systems must support, not undermine, lawyers’ wellbeing.

8 Recognise intersectionalities. Issues of equality, diversity and inclusion must be central to policies and practice. 

9 Share good practices between individuals, institutions, sectors, jurisdictions and regional fora. ‘Silos out; sharing in’. 

10 Learn from others. Other groups worldwide have experience and wisdom to share on these issues. 

The IBA’s legal policy and research unit attached to the project has been coordinated by Sara Carnegie and George Artley in the UK. Following the publication of the report, Artley indicated that they were now working on coordinating the way forward with the project, with a view to setting up a permanent mental wellbeing body within the IBA.

Task Force member and CEO of UK lawyer support charity LawCare [2], Elizabeth Rimmer is clear about the next steps. She commented, Legal wellbeing is below average in every region of the world, stigma prevents people from seeking help and speaking up about their concerns and despite the recognition by employers of the importance of mental health, only 16% of organisations worldwide provide any wellbeing training to those in managerial positions. With the growing momentum acknowledging  the importance of workplace mental health, it is time now for educators, regulators and legal practices in every jurisdiction to come together to tackle the issues collaboratively.”

The legal profession worldwide has been provided with a detailed and thoroughly researched analysis of the crisis facing it. And with a roadmap. 

So, what’s my next step?

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