Written by Elizabeth Rimmer, Lawcare
LawCare is the mental wellbeing charity for the legal profession. We offer free, confidential, emotional support, peer support, and resources to those working in the law in the UK, Channel Islands and Isle of Man. We promote mental health and wellbeing best practice in legal workplaces and drive culture change in education, training and practice. We’ve been supporting legal professionals for 25 years and we understand life in the law.
Last year we published the findings of our Life in the Law study, https://www.lawcare.org.uk/life-in-the-law/ , this study the first of its kind in this country, with over 1700 respondents looked at how working practices in law affect mental wellbeing in the legal profession.
We questioned legal professionals on a range of areas, including work intensity (workload and working hours), and used three recognised 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, and raise concerns or admit mistakes).
The research confirmed to us the issues that we hear about at LawCare every day. Legal professionals across the board scored above the cut-off point on the scale for being at significant risk of burnout. 69% had experienced mental ill-health including stress, anxiety, and depression in the 12 months before completing the survey.
Of those experiencing mental ill-health, only 56.5% had talked about it at work – the most common reason for this was fear of stigma. Most respondents reported working long hours, not getting enough sleep, and 1 in 5 said they had been bullied, harassed, or discriminated against in the 12-month period before completing the survey.
The importance of individual characteristics
One striking aspect of the report is the different experiences of specific groups within the legal profession. The report’s findings demonstrated that individual characteristics have an influence upon the mental wellbeing of legal professionals, with specific groups seeming particularly vulnerable to burnout.
Our data shows that multiple factors shape the experience of wellbeing. Younger professionals who responded (in the 26 to 35 age bracket) displayed the highest levels of burnout. They also experienced the highest level of work intensity, in other words, working the longest hours and putting in the most effort during those times. In contrast, this age group experienced the lowest levels of autonomy and psychological safety.
The youngest age bracket surveyed (18 to 25) consisted mainly of paralegals and trainees. The fact they displayed lower levels of burnout than their 26- to 35-year-old counterparts suggests that the level of training, supervision and support provided upon initial entry into the legal profession may be a positive influence upon wellbeing. At the same time, it highlights that such support cannot simply be removed upon qualification or following an initial period of supervision. There is a need to think carefully about how to balance support and independence as younger professionals begin to gain more experience.
Despite similar levels of work intensity, females also displayed higher levels of burnout and lower levels of autonomy and psychological safety than their male counterparts. It was also notable 80.2% of respondents who indicated they had caring responsibilities were female. A similar pattern in terms of burnout, autonomy and psychological safety was identified amongst respondents who identified as part of an ethnic minority group and participants with a disability.
Respondents who had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination at work within the preceding twelve months also demonstrated a higher level of burnout and lower levels of autonomy and psychological support. They experienced higher levels of work intensity as well. Individuals who were female, of ethnic minority or with a disability were disproportionately represented amongst respondents who had experienced such issues.
The impact of COVID-19
The onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic had a significant impact across the legal profession. Our report indicated that it led to particularly high concerns around work-life balance and financial security.
Once again, when considering the impact of COVID-19, individual characteristics influenced the experience of respondents. Those who were female, of ethnic minority, or who had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination reported being more concerned about their work during the pandemic. Those with a disability had an increased concern over how, when and where they would work during that time. Fears around career progression and isolation were particularly expressed by younger respondents.
One size doesn’t fit all
We need a sector-wide commitment to why mental wellbeing matters and to start redefining the culture in law in the positive, to what it could be: a workplace where people have a positive work-life balance, feel valued, respected, supported and thrive.The findings of Life in the Law demonstrate that there is no single ‘one size fits all’ solution to the issues which exist around wellbeing in the legal profession. Whilst it is (or should be) the collective responsibility of all stakeholders in law to promote better mental wellbeing and flourishing, this may require different strategies, initiatives and forms of support for different groups of legal professionals.
Of course, no individual or group can simply be defined by one single characteristic. Instead, there are likely to be numerous intersectionalities between individual characteristics and the experiences of different groups. However, what these findings emphasise is that there is a need for nuanced and reflective dialogue and discussion around lawyer wellbeing, to ensure all voices are heard and acknowledged.
We also looked at what has a positive impact on wellbeing. We found that as the number of hours sleep increased the rate of burnout dropped. We also discovered that of a wide range of workplace measures available, from private health insurance to mental health training, 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.
What has emerged from our research is that it is clear that we need to work together to make the law a healthier, happier place to work. Participants in the study agreed that wellbeing in the profession is a collective responsibility and we all have a part to play – whether at an individual level in looking after ourselves, drawing boundaries, and treating our colleagues with respect or, at a more senior level, in setting out the values and culture of the organisation and having systems in place to make sure these are followed. Regulators, professional bodies, and legal educators also have their part to play in making law a sustainable profession that continues to attract and retain a diverse range of people .
51 Scottish lawyers contacted LawCare during 2021, 17 male and 34 female. 48% of those were newly qualified (between 0 and 5 years PQE), which aligns with the overall UK findings. The Law Society of Scotland have just launched their new 5-year strategy which includes a key objective of supporting their members to thrive and providing resources to sustain positive mental health. The Society have a well-established wellbeing steering group that organises a range of events. There is also a newly formed men’s wellbeing group which operates independently of the Law Society. Details of all of these can be found at https://www.lawscot.org.uk/members/wellbeing/. The Society are also committed to social mobility and diversity and has recently been awarded the Investors in Diversity award.
Over the last 25 years, we have listened to over 10, 000 people about their experiences of Life in the Law.
It can be very difficult to reach out for support when you are having a hard time, and lawyers in particular can struggle to let their guard down and be honest about how they are really feeling but it’s always better to speak up when an issue is just staring and to seek support before matters escalate. Putting your head down and trying to bury yourself in work just to get through it can be counterproductive and lead to burnout and exhaustion.
You might just need to get something off your chest about a challenging client, or you might be experiencing a longer-term issue with stress, disciplinary proceedings or financial worries. Whatever it is, our support service offers a safe place to talk without judgement. We’re here to listen, with helpline calls, emails and online chats answered in confidence by trained staff and volunteers, all of whom have first-hand experience of working in the law. Our support spans the legal life from student to retirement.
We won’t ask for your roll number or details of your workplace, you don’t have to give your name, and we are independent of professional bodies and regulators.
We have a network of peer supporters, people who work in the legal profession who may have been through difficult times themselves and can offer one-to-one support, friendship and mentoring to people referred to them.
We can also provide financial support for those who need professional counselling.
If you need support contact our helpline on 0800 279 6888, email firstname.lastname@example.org or access online chat and other resources at www.lawcare.org.uk