Life in the Law
UK lawyer support charity LawCare has just published research into lawyer wellbeing during the pandemic. It is detailed and thoroughly practical
On 28th September 2021 the UK legal mental health charity LawCare released findings of its research study ‘Life in the Law’ . The research into wellbeing in the profession captured data between October 2020 and January 2021 from over 1,700 legal professionals in the UK, Republic of Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey, and Isle of Man. The aim of the research was to take a snapshot of mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession to help inform future steps the profession must collectively take to improve wellbeing in the sector. While the details of the research relate to UK lawyers and organisations, the principles apply worldwide. Whether you practice in Madrid, Manhattan, Manchester, Melbourne or wherever you will know that the last year in law has been tough. Very tough.
The study questioned legal professionals on a range of areas, including work intensity (workload and working hours), and used three recognised academic scales for burnout (disengagement and exhaustion), autonomy (ability to control what, where, how, and with whom, work is done), and psychological safety (ability to speak up with ideas and questions, raise concerns or admit mistakes).
The majority of participants (69%) had experienced mental ill-health (whether clinically or self-diagnosed) in the 12 months before completing the survey. Most common experiences of mental ill-health, experienced often to all of the time, included anxiety, low mood, and depression. Of those who had experienced mental ill-health, only 56% said they had talked about it at work. The most common reason for not disclosing mental ill-health at work was the fear of stigma that would attach, resulting career implications, and financial and reputational consequences.
Data from the study suggests legal professionals are at a high risk of burnout with participants aged between 26 and 35 displaying the highest burnout scores, and also reporting the lowest autonomy, lowest psychological safety, and highest work intensity score. Female lawyers, those from ethnic minorities, and those with a disability also scored higher than average for burnout and lower for autonomy and psychological safety at work. Participants with lower autonomy at work and lower psychological safety at work displayed higher burnout.
Negative effects of current working culture and practices
Being exposed to high levels of work intensity (having a high workload and working long hours) was associated with higher burnout, regardless of how much autonomy a person had, or how psychologically safe their work environment was. 28% of participants either agreed or strongly agreed that their work required them to be available to clients 24/7 and 65% said they checked emails outside of work hours to keep up with their workload.
The study suggests that many legal professionals are getting less than the recommended amount of sleep (7-9 hours a night) with just over a third of participants (35%) estimating they had slept between 6 to 7 hours a night over the 2 weeks before completing the survey, a quarter (25%) averaging 5 to 6 hours, and over one in ten (12%) indicating they had less than 5 hours a night. As the number of hours slept per night decreased, levels of burnout increased.
Most participants were not furloughed (88%) and only 2% were made redundant because of the pandemic. Nonetheless, almost half expressed concern about their job security and 58% were more concerned about their finances during COVID-19. 59% reported being more concerned about increased pressures around work-life balance.
Bullying, harassment, or discrimination at work
Just over one in five participants (22%) said they had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination in the workplace in the 12 months before completing the survey. These individuals displayed higher burnout levels, lower autonomy, and lower psychological safety at work, and reported higher levels of work intensity.
The most commonly provided workplace support measures were regular catch-ups or appraisals, mental health policies, mental health and wellbeing training, and signposting to external support. Of these, regular catch-ups or appraisals were reported to be the most helpful. Having these in place helped to bolster confidence in personal development and reduce anxiety. Despite this only 48% of those in a position of management or supervisory capacity had received leadership, management, or supervisory training.
Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare, said, “This research, the first of its kind in this country, 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. We want this research to 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. The experience of living and working through a global pandemic has had a profound effect on us all and presents an opportunity like no other to reimagine the future and make it happen”.
IBA interim report
The LawCare research echoes findings into lawyer wellbeing internationally. In April 2021 the International Bar Association (IBA) published the initial results of a global evaluation into the wellbeing of the legal profession . It used two surveys, one of individual lawyers and another of legal institutions. It gathered responses from more than 3,000 individuals and over 180 legal organisations including bar associations, law societies, in-house legal departments and law firms. The surveys were the first of their kind undertaken at an international level with specific focus on the legal profession, covering the period between July and December 2020.
The interim findings confirmed that poor lawyer wellbeing was a cause for global concern. The index scores from the survey demonstrated that lawyers’ levels of wellbeing fell below the World Health Organisation’s global average in every region.
The IBA has set up a taskforce to coordinate and implement responses to the issues of depression, stress and addictions in the profession worldwide. The interim survey represents an initial step in the Association’s work in providing a holistic picture of lawyer wellbeing and will give recommendations to improve this. The full report is due to be published in late October 2021.
It may be that your organisation is well on the way to establishing good working practices which support lawyer wellbeing. It may be that this is something that has not quite worked its way to the top of the firm’s ‘to do’ list.
Real estate firm Convey Law in the UK has made staff wellbeing a top priority in the organisation. Managing director Lloyd Davies explained recently, “We have been using the services of professional counsellors for over three years. I know that other legal practices have trained Mental Health First Aiders working for them on a ratio of one to ten employees, so that they can recognise and address wellbeing issues before they become a problem".
“Mental health issues are often more complex than simply work related, with work and stress often amplifying the problem but not being the root cause. The cost of staff absenteeism and resignations will far outweigh the cost of addressing the issues internally and I would encourage all business leaders to consider how they can address such issues and provide the support their staff need. The law is often a macho environment where traditionally any form of weakness has been frowned upon. Good wellbeing initiatives and a caring culture will inevitably produce better results as issues of stress, anxiety and general mental health are dealt with appropriately and professionally.”
Addressing the challenge of keeping lawyers mentally healthy in a highly pressurised environment has never been straightforward. The experience of the last year or so has multiplied demands on all. The issues are serious, but not insurmountable. Here are a few simple first steps you could take:
1 Download the LawCare report . It’s free and full of practical ideas which can be adapted to any jurisdiction worldwide.
2 Spend 30 minutes googling ‘lawyer wellbeing’ and keep a note of anything useful.
3 Keep an eye out for the full International Bar Association wellbeing report which will published at the end of October 2021.
4 And start today