19 Nov
2019

“There’s a lot of suffering out there” – leading academic warns of the legal profession’s mental health problem

  • Research shows huge amount of stress, anxiety and mental ill-health among lawyers
  • Cultural push towards wellness is not enough, structural change of firms is needed
  • Change should not be justified by economical benefit but from ethical arguments

Behind many rich, stimulating and vibrant legal careers lurks an undercurrent of suffering, with stress, anxiety and mental ill-health rife within all areas of the profession. With this in mind, Richard Collier, a professor of law and social theory at Newcastle University, told WTR why he’s concerned for the mental health of a generation of lawyers, and what the industry can do to effectively improve employee wellbeing.  

The body of research into the legal profession’s problems with mental health is growing. Collier’s latest addition to it is a study funded by the charity Anxiety UK. Anxiety and Wellbeing Amongst Junior Lawyers: A Research Study documents the findings from interviews with people who have under five years of post-qualification experience. It raises questions about how law firms respond to evidence of the complex relation between mental health and the workplace, the scale of poor lawyer wellbeing, the need to work in more efficient, effective and safer ways; and the greater willingness of young lawyers to be open about mental health issues.

Many of Collier’s findings flesh out research carried out in the 2019 Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) Resilience and Wellbeing Survey. The JLD survey received 1,803 responses from UK lawyers, and produced alarming figures for the industry: high workloads, client demands and expectations caused 74% of respondents to ‘regularly’ or ‘occasionally’ feel stressed, causing experiences of disrupted sleep, anxiety, emotional upset and fatigue, negative and depressed thoughts, and self-harm. 14% of those experiencing mental ill-health reported experiencing suicidal thoughts.

The problem is rooted deep within the way our legal institutions work and how they’re failing to account for this growing issue. Exemplary of this, 78% of respondents thought their organisation could be doing more to provide support to employees.

More than one problem

Although the two reports focus on junior lawyers, Collier is quick to note how widespread the issue is across all demographics. “We can’t generalise in discussing the law’s ‘wellbeing problem’. The specific issues relating to corporate firms (working hours, etc) can be very different from in-house and high-street firms, or legal aid lawyers.” He continues: “It is also important to remember our individual experiences of wellbeing can be shaped by boundaries of age, gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, race, and stage of career and so on (and as the JLD research shows, some distinctive pressures can face early career solicitors).”

Despite problems as myriad as the people they affect, tracing a narrative of the issues is not an insurmountable task. “Whilst there’s no one problem, there are shared themes across the community. Concerns about stigma around mental health issues, the importance of speaking out and being supported when they do, issues about work life, long hours, the competitive culture, even the personality attributes of lawyers: the particular kinds of insecure overachievers and perfectionists it’s been suggested that the career attracts. And perhaps especially the impact here of the dominant form of billing of much legal work.”

On the surface, it seems that issues of mental ill-health at work are being prioritised like never before. It’s almost impossible to get through a day without interacting with a volley of wellness initiatives. Meditation, yoga and wellness breaks frequently show up in the language of committee action in big city firms. These are good signs, Collier believes, because the culture around mental health is tangibly changing.

However, Collier is sceptical how universal a salve the wellness trend is. When wellness is prioritised, the onus is often shifted onto the employee and their capability for resilience. “The focus is on individuals to change what they’re doing themselves, which is quite limited. There’s going to be kickback from individuals who don’t need to see a mindfulness poster but need a change of work culture. That’s where conversations about billing, the dominant culture, and also men’s dominance at upper levels in the profession start to appear.”

These solutions couldn’t come soon enough. In Collier’s research, he’s come across countless examples of people struggling to match the demands of the job with their lives. Why does this matter? The health of lawyers should be a concern for society. “If you scratch the surface of the data,” he says, “you realise there’s a lot of suffering out there.” To recognise the need for cultural change does not mean the many initiatives that have been introduced to support lawyers are unwelcome. “We’re also not saying that a career as a lawyer isn’t incredibly rewarding, personally, intellectually, and certainly financially for some at least.” But Collier is still adamant that the profession needs a serious rethink.

At the heart of many issues is stigma. Long hours cause lawyers to lose a work-life balance while feeling unable to speak out to their personal needs, regularly due to the same refrain. “Although some will say it’s just part of the ‘package deal’ you buy into, more and more aren’t accepting that, perhaps especially junior lawyers; there is a generational change taking place in attitudes to wellbeing and mental health” Collier says. “There’s lots of evidence that for all the potentially high financial rewards in some areas, there can be other sides to an outwardly successful career.”

Intersection of gender

While flexible working schemes are now showing up at the big firms, many others still lag behind. The intersection of gender is unavoidable at this point from the conversation. “Taking wellbeing seriously entails engaging men – given their continued dominance at upper echelons – in providing leadership, speaking out about their own experiences, in driving this agenda forward; this is why the recent turn to better engaging men in gender equality is so significant.” Collier notes. “There’s still gender disparity at the top of the profession. You have to talk about men and how the men at the top of this culture need to change.”

In fact, acceptance of the status quo is one of the first things Collier wants to challenge. “The danger is, if you don’t address this, you’re going to lose a lot of good lawyers, and traditionally it has been more women are leaving the profession in this equation than men.” More women (63%) reported mental ill-health had a negative impact on their physical health than men (50%) in the JLD study.

However, to think that these issues disproportionately affect women in the profession would be myopic. The JLD study also found a higher proportion of men (20%) suffering suicidal thoughts than women (12%). One of Collier’s other focuses is on the way men exist in the legal profession. He’s extensively researched the ways men’s attitude to fatherhood has evolved over time, from a simple breadwinner character to someone that wants to be present in their children’s lives.

Collier relates a typical comment from a study he did on fathers at major law firms: “Some see it as the costs of the package deal of this life. ‘I didn’t see the boys grow up, but I’ve got the big car and the big house’.” Yet many are finding this trade-off to be deeply unsatisfying. All the more reason for the model to change, particularly at the top: “The equality, diversity and inclusion aspect is not talked about enough in relation to the wellbeing debate,” he says.

Rethinking mental health and the workplace

Tackling stigma at the top of law firms has been the focus of a number of excellent campaigns. The Green Ribbon campaign, for example, saw law firms such as Freshfields don ribbons to indicate they or someone they knew had experienced mental ill-health. Elsewhere, mental health charity LawCare launched This is Me in 2016 to open up a dialogue for major industry personalities to talk about their experiences with mental health. Firms that have taken part include Baker & McKenzie, CMS, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells and Linklaters.

Campaigns such as these are good steps, but Collier argues structural change with wellness in mind is still necessary. “You have to go beyond ticking the box, as the danger is wellbeing is just another measure that the universities and firms use. If it becomes a box ticking exercise, you’re not changing the structures or key aspects of the causes of the problems in the first place.” He adds, “It’s about rethinking the relationship between mental health and the workplace. It’s raising fundamental questions about what being a good lawyer and employer is.”

One of the areas in need of change, and identified by Collier’s research, is manager training. “There’s a key role for management. They need support themselves too. Many seem to be struggling.” Support networks need to be set up for all lawyers as well as adequate education on the issues.

Traditionalists may worry that paradigmatic shifts in how the legal professions works sound nice, but don’t consider the fundamental demands of the job. It’s a valid concern – law likely will always be a career more demanding than most. For this reason, the Mindful Business Charter was established. A collaboration between major banks and law firms, signing up to the charter indicates a firm’s awareness that the profession has high demands, but that measures need to be taken to mitigate any unnecessary sources of stress. Firms already signed up include Pinsent Masons, Ashurst, Clifford Chance and Simmons & Simmons.

The legal landscape is changing, and Collier is hopeful that a generational shift will see increasing change. However, one argument that he is particular to rail against is preluding these necessary changes with an appeal to the economic benefit. Although studies and research do support wellness schemes, diversity and inclusion policies, and work-life balance as financially valuable to firms, there’s a risk it can then be de-prioritised were it ever proven to not make financial sense. “There’s a bottom-line argument about the economic benefit.” Collier says. “But there’s also an ethical argument here. Tackling wellbeing because it’s the right thing to do,” he urges.

Collier’s current research, funded by a fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, will see him speak to members of the legal community for a project called Wellbeing, Law and Society: Policy Practice and Politics – A Socio-Legal Study. He is also writing a book for Cambridge University Press on wellbeing in the profession.

For anyone feeling affected by issues raised in this piece, LawCare’s helpline can be reached at +44 0800 279 6888 from 9am – 5:30pm Monday to Friday. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.

Jonathan Walfisz

Author | Reporter

[email protected]

Jonathan Walfisz