Is mental health an issue for solicitors and lawyers?

When thinking about the legal sector the first things that come to mind are stereotypical: over-achieving, competitive work environment, insane work hours and workload, drive and attention to detail. But sadly, these traits associated with lawyers and solicitors can also be flipped into weaknesses.

Statistics and surveys have revealed over the last ten years just how impactful the work environment in law firms really is with a shocking one in ten under 30s experiencing suicidal thoughts from the strained work attitude in this sector (IBA 2020 survey). The legal industry is surrounded by poorly represented cultural attitudes, enforced by hit shows like Suits, promoting a “work is life” mentality, and leaving no room for emotional health.

In an increasingly competitive space, mental health and wellbeing should be a top priority. So why is it still not being unanimously addressed? And what can be done to help?

 

Key terms that need to be understood:

To fully understand what is happening in the legal sector, there are key terms that need to be defined. These include:

  • Burnout: emotional exhaustion / cynicism resulting from over-working and doing “people-work” – showing the employee’s inability to manage emotions when dealing with clients

 

  • Secondary Trauma: psychology signs/symptoms resulting from involvement with traumatised individuals

 

  • Legal Wellbeing: aims to improve work-life balance, manage stress, positive mindset, promote habits of consistent self-care – no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving this, personal (specialised to legal sector)

Wellbeing is what law firms should be focussing on to provide the support that lawyers and solicitors need to stay working in this environment.

 

Mental health statistics (for lawyers and solicitors):

Over the last ten years, there has been an increasing number of surveys looking into how many employees are affected by the work they do. Unfortunately, each survey comes to similar conclusions. The mental well-being of lawyers is being massively underlooked.

The 2014 Law Society in England and Wales survey reported 96% of solicitors (out of 1,517) were experiencing negative stress, 19% at severe levels.

Taken place more recently (July 2020 – December 2020), the International Bar Association released findings from their survey addressing the legal industry on an international level. The findings showed:

  • 41% said they could not discuss wellbeing issues with their employer, in-case it would damage their career or livelihoods
  • 22% said there was no wellbeing help, support, or guidance in their jurisdiction
  • Between the ages 25-35, 75% believe their employers are not doing enough for mental wellbeing
  • 28% said they need an increased level of awareness in the workplace
  • 23% asking for more resources for professional support and intervention
  • One in six lawyers with disabilities have experienced suicidal thoughts from work-related mental wellbeing issues – with one in eight having self-harmed

The numbers shockingly reveal how deep-rooted and serious the mental health issues are in this industry, spreading across all ages and genders. So, do these issues simply just come with practising law? Or is it a structural issue that has been ignored?

 

Why is there such poor mental wellbeing in legal professions?

“Law firms have this uncanny ability to keep you forever unsatisfied, striving for something just out of reach” (Richard Martin – former City employment lawyer and author of This Too Will Pass)

The legal sector’s “just get on with it” attitude means that mental health issues are shrouded in stigma. Struggling means weakness and can ultimately affect career progression. This is just one reason why lawyers are uncomfortable with speaking out about mental health.

Common trends in the causes for poor lawyer wellbeing are long hours, high billing requirements, large caseloads, alienating culture, competition, deadlines, expectations of success and emotionally demanding work.

The 2020 IBA survey provides statistics on the main reasons for this mental health crisis:

  • Most common reasons: high workload, work-life balance, stress / pressure
  • How frequently employees experience negative factors: 46% competing demands, 44% long hours, 48% unrealistic time pressures

Secondary legal trauma is also a huge factor. Working with traumatised individuals, hearing multiple traumatic narratives, and working with distressing evidence is enough to impact anyone’s wellbeing. It is the assumption that lawyers can approach these cases rationally that results in a lack of extra support and understanding.

Alongside these factors are the unhealthy coping mechanisms that are so widely adopted in the legal community. Law training disconnects lawyers from themselves – work trumps emotional life. To avoid feelings of suffering, substance and alcohol abuse is widely undertaken where extra support and open discussion should be.

 

What can be done to help solicitors and lawyers?

Although the most recent surveys outline how much of an issue mental wellbeing currently still is for lawyers, there are steps that can and are being taken to begin to change this.

The charity LawCare stated that the number of contacts looking for support for anxiety doubled from 2020 to 2021. This shows the shifting legal context where employees are actively seeking help for poor mental health

Law firms can support staff through schemes such as the Mental Health First Aider (MHFA). The training course provides First Aiders with the knowledge and skills to support any colleague struggling with mental health. It provides an opportunity to understand different mental illnesses from depression, addiction, suicide, to eating and personality disorders.

Listed below are organisations that are now providing support for those in the legal community:

  • Solicitor’s Regulation Authority: helpline
  • LawCare: charity offering emotional support, information, and training to the UK legal community – raising awareness to improve the legal culture
  • Law Society Helpline
  • Mind
  • Samaritans

Now with organisations set up to give support and spread awareness on the mental health issues that once seemed too deep-rooted to shift, the legal community are finally opening up.

However, the change must also take place in the individual. Practising mindfulness, setting up boundaries between work and home, and prioritising the wellbeing of yourself all make huge differences towards changing the very structure of the legal community.

 

As the focus on mental and corporate wellbeing in the legal industry, and other companies, is slowly becoming a priority, so is the emphasis on employee benefits. Find more information on how mental health comes under employee benefits here.

Furthermore, some Private Medical Insurance providers are now covering drug and alcohol abuse within their mental health coverage.  This is something that has typically been a general exclusion.

Contact us through Engage Health Group where we give free no-obligation advice and support on how a well-structured Employee Benefits strategy can work hard to care for your workforce.