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The topic of lawyer wellbeing is one that is being increasingly discussed in the UK and Republic of Ireland. Surveys by The Positive Group (barristers), the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society of England and Wales (junior solicitors) and the statistics gathered by LawCare itself all demonstrate that lawyers can experience significant difficulties with their mental wellbeing. It also appears that these difficulties can be exacerbated, or even in some cases caused, by working within the legal profession. However, to date, there has been relatively little academic research examining the causes and consequences in these jurisdictions.
To begin to rectify this, in 2018 we conducted five focus groups with legal professionals across the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. In total, we talked with 29 lawyers (the majority of them barristers and solicitors) about their perceptions of emotional wellbeing within the profession.
By analysing these discussions, we identified a number of possible causes for the issues that arise with mental wellbeing within the profession, including the following:
A number of participants in our focus groups talked about feeling that their legal education and training had not fully prepared them for the realities of practice. Several could still vividly recall the shock and stress involved in appearing in court for the first time, dealing with difficult and traumatic cases and subject-matter and feeling immense pressure to demonstrate their worth in the workplace. Although these demands varied depending on the different roles and practice areas involved, overall there was a sense that more preparation, and a greater emphasis on the importance of wellbeing and self-care, was needed throughout people’s time at law school and as part of their continuing professional development.
Legal culture was often highlighted in discussions as impacting negatively on participants’ mental wellbeing. For solicitors in private practice this included the pressures of high chargeable hours and billing targets. For those in smaller firms or more senior positions, it included the need to act as a business person and to manage and supervise junior colleagues. For barristers, being self-employed meant there was continual competition for work and pressure never to turn briefs away. Across the profession, it seemed there was an assumption that people dealing with distressing and upsetting matters would simply get on with it and then move onto the next case without letting it affect them. Perhaps unsurprisingly given this, there was also still perceived to be a significant stigma about disclosing any difficulties with mental wellbeing. It was felt any such admissions would be judged as a sign of weakness and could potentially be damaging or diminish an individual’s competitive edge.
The idea of having to portray yourself as strong and avoid signs of weakness was part of a perception amongst participants that lawyers had certain personality traits or characteristics. The notion that lawyers needed to demonstrate their professionalism by displaying a particular kind of persona was discussed by several participants, although others suggested that it was important for clients and the public to understand that they were only human. It was clear that being a legal professional was seen by participants as a high status and privileged role, but at the same time this seemed to place demands on individuals to compete and perform in certain ways, including ones that could be detrimental to their mental wellbeing.
Dealing and working with others forms an important part of most legal professionals’ role and this was reflected in the number of references to this within our focus groups. On the one hand, there were seen to be a number of positives where people had supportive colleagues, had built wider informal networks or were gaining support from their workplace. On the other hand, examples were given of working in potentially toxic or exploitative working environments, with unsupportive workmates and with senior colleagues who were poorly equipped to manage or supervise others.
Participants in our focus groups also discussed a number of the consequences that could arise as a result of the issues raised above. Many of these were negative, including feeling exhausted, burnt-out and even experiencing vicarious trauma. Some spoke about the almost addictive sense of adrenalin and the difficulties of switching off from work. There was an awareness that, for some legal professionals, these consequences could result in the use of maladaptive coping strategies, including an over-reliance on alcohol or thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Some individuals also spoke about experiencing physical symptoms and ill-health and being trapped in cycles of behaviour where such strategies led to increased stress, in turn leading to more reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms. Mentions of stress were common amongst our focus group participants, with the legal workplace seen as being highly stressful which, as a result, impacted on the stress levels of individual professionals.
Although our focus groups only involved a relatively small number of legal professionals, many of their findings seem to fit with existing international research on lawyer wellbeing. It is clear that, despite increasing recognition of, and interest in, these issues there is still much work required. This involves not only individual legal professionals but also employers, regulators, representative bodies, educators and other key stakeholders in law to work together to explore the changes required to ensure the legal profession is fit for law in the 2020s.
To assist in this work, we have worked with LawCare to develop Fit for Law, a set of free, online resources which use emotional competence and professional resilience to help foster good mental wellbeing and healthy working practices. Fit for Law can be accessed at fitforlaw.org.uk
Written by Emma Jones, Neil Graffin, Mathijs Lucassen and Rajvinder Samra
The authors would like to thank the focus group participants for their time and valuable contributions.
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