Mental health and the law: part one

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An industry in crisis


The legal workplace is moving away from the ‘tough it out’ approach of decades past, but there’s still a long way to go in ensuring lawyers get the help they need to maintain their own mental health as they do their stressful, long-hours jobs.

“People need to recognise that there is a mental health crisis within the law,”
Nick Bloy, founder of Wellbeing Republic declares. Bloy, a former lawyer, acknowledges that mental health is an issue in a number of different industries, but is in no doubt that what we’re witnessing in the legal profession “constitutes a crisis.” Given mental health’s increasing visibility in the public narrative, one might argue that Bloy is overstating the problem: that the mental health crisis within law is no different to the mental health crisis full stop. The broader topic makes for difficult reading: in 2018, one in six people reported experiencing a ‘common mental disorder’ like depression or anxiety;  the most likely cause of death for men under the age of 45 is suicide; and suicide rates among people aged 10 to 24 have risen to their highest levels in 17 years. Between 2016 and 2017 about 1 million people received therapy through the IAPT programme for a common mental health issue, with roughly twice as many women as men getting treatment. It’s even impacting the economy: mental ill-health is estimated to cost employers £26 billion a year in terms of unproductivity, sick leave, and staff turnover.

All the above is obviously a cause for concern, but the numbers released in the Junior Lawyers Division’s (JLD) latest resilience and wellbeing survey report should make even the most jaded industry commentators take notice of the legal industry’s particularly pronounced problems. The report, with research headed up by Kayleigh Leonie, notes that 93.5% of respondents had “experienced stress in their role in the last month” with almost a quarter (24.8%) of those “experiencing severe/extreme levels of stress. It is concerning albeit understandable given the connection between mental and physical ill-health that 34.5% of respondents stated that work-related stress also had a negative impact on their physical health (physically sick and chest pains).” Moreover, it’s “extremely concerning that 1 in 15 junior lawyers (6.4%) have experienced suicidal thoughts in the month leading up to taking the survey.”

93.5% of respondents had “experienced stress in their role in the last month.”

According to Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare (which provides mental health support for those working in the legal industry), research done in both the UK and the US “shows that lawyers have higher rates of stress, anxiety and depression than on average” and that “lawyers can be more prone to mental health issues than others.” According to “the earliest piece of research on this topic,” a study conducted in 1990 at Johns Hopkins University, lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than average. As Nick Bloy neatly summarises, “when one in two junior lawyers claims to be experiencing mental ill-health, I would contend it’s a crisis.” What’s worse, it looks like things aren’t currently getting better: in fact, JLD stats over the past three years indicate that the number of legal professionals reporting mental ill-health is increasing year-on-year from 25% in 2017, to 38% in 2018, to 48% in 2019. This could be down to stigmas surrounding mental health collapsing and lawyers becoming less reluctant to report their problems, but makes for stark reading in any case.

What makes lawyers so vulnerable?

“One of the key factors seems to be the thinking style of lawyers,” says Rimmer. “There are certain skills you need to be a good lawyer: you need to approach things prudently; you need to be pessimistic to a degree because you need to think of the worst-case scenario in every situation; and there is a strong element of perfectionism. Everything you do has to be the best. Everything has to be the best.”

There are several reasons for this perfectionism. First, as nearly every interviewee noted, law tends to attract perfectionists and so firms breed an environment of needing to do everything absolutely right. Second, “you’ve been trained to think, ‘I can solve any problem,’” Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner’s London managing partner Segun Osuntokun points out. “Perfectionism can be damaging,” he admits. “It means thinking ‘something’s gone wrong and it’s my fault because I should have been 100%. On top of it all. No errors. No flaws.’” It’s something he does himself: “I have a very strong inner critic. I tend to beat myself up and can be unkind to myself,” admits Osuntokun, who says that he has to work hard “to be understanding” with himself.

“Lawyers have a tendency to take perfectionism and apply it in a maladaptive way.”

Nick Bloy suggests “there’s a chicken and the egg argument about perfectionism, but it’s likely a bit of both. You might find yourself in law because you are a perfectionist; but if you work in law, and you weren’t already a perfectionist, you’re more likely to become one. If you make a mistake it could spell millions in damages, so there is a lot of pressure to avoid mistakes of any kind. However, lawyers have a tendency to take perfectionism and apply it in a maladaptive way.” Moreover, as Kayleigh Leonie points out, “many lawyers feel that they are in a position where if they produce anything short of perfection, it could end up with them being struck off. Worst case scenario, if you make a mistake and get the law wrong, you might lose your firm its biggest client. If you make a mistake and breach your regulatory obligations, there is also the risk you might get struck off.”

This drive for perfection also contributes to the long hours that law is often (in)famous for. “We’re all striving to deliver work on time, perfectly drafted,” Leonie notes. It’s rare to get something perfect the first time around, which means going back to double and triple-check things. As Leonie acknowledges, while this revisionism might satisfy the lawyer’s craving to be 100% right, it isn’t time that most feel comfortable charging to the client.

Few are the lawyers with much time to count sheep, and lack of sleep is another key driver of mental health issues in the law. “There’s quite a lot of research that shows that if you’re not getting sufficient sleep, or the quality of your sleep is poor, you’re more likely to have suicidal thoughts the following day irrespective of any pre-existing mental ill-health condition,” Bloy says. “While the [JLD] survey didn’t track how much sleep lawyers were getting, we know that in many of the big firms it is not uncommon for lawyers to work for weeks on end with little more than four hours’ sleep each night if they are staffed on a big transaction.” It’s not just the long hours: anxiety surrounding work also causes disrupted or insufficient sleep. According to the JLD report, 66% of respondents said that work-related stress had led to disrupted sleep among other negative impacts on mental health such as “anxiety, emotional upset, fatigue, depressed thoughts and self-harm.” Leonie concludes that “too many lawyers aren't getting enough rest."

Technology and company culture isn’t helping. “The way we’ve integrated tech into work: the work phones, the emails, the logging in remotely… as much as these are all great things and give us flexibility, it makes it hard to know where to create boundaries, Leonie argues. “It’s putting more pressure on juniors. I think back to when I was a trainee, I didn’t have a laptop, I had a computer in the office. If I wasn’t in the office, I couldn’t do any work. I didn’t have a work phone, so when I left the office on a Friday, unless I was physically going into the office over the weekend, which I did do on occasion, that was it until Monday. I knew I had my rest time." That’s no longer necessarily the case: "Even if you’re not doing work, even if you’re not expected to do work at the weekend, you may still be expected to check and even seeing that email flash up, that’s still making your brain go into overdrive.”

In your own time

24-hour digital availability is one thing, but companies don’t need to expect their employees to be on call at all times. So why is this happening in the law? “When I’ve been delivering workshops recently,” Bloy tells us, “I’ve asked trainees how they would feel about leaving at 5.30pm.” In most jobs that’s a perfectly reasonable time to head home, yet Bloy found “95% said they wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving so early due to feelings of guilt or shame. They worry they wouldn’t be seen as a team player; or perhaps they would be labelled as lazy. In an environment where everyone is trying to outdo each other it’s unlikely to promote healthy behaviour. For progress to really take hold, lawyers need to be encouraged by higher-ups to set better boundaries for their time and be respected for doing so.”

It’s not the only area of law firm culture that needs to change. Leonie notes that the historic silence around mental ill-health, both in law and society as a whole, isn’t doing anyone any favours. The report notes that while roughly 20% of all junior lawyers report “regularly feeling unable to cope as a result of stress,” less than a fifth of that 20% “indicated their employer was aware” of their mental ill-health. In addition, early research suggested that this culture of silence has an additional gender dimension. Leonie says that “of the men and women who had said, ‘yes, I’m experiencing a mental health issue,’ none of the men had told their employer.”

“Partners should be making decisions about the safety of the working environment for themselves and the people they are responsible for.”

Of equal concern is a lack of understanding around the various aspects of mental ill-health, from its impact (whether that’s personal, psychological, physical and financial) to its causes and how to actually deal with problems. Bloy recalls running a workshop where “among many other things, I talked about sleep as a vital component of wellbeing and one of the partners said, ‘wow, that’s a real risk factor for us then?’ I was genuinely surprised that partners aren’t being supported more to understand the link between wellbeing and business performance. Partners should be making decisions about the safety of the working environment for themselves and the people they are responsible for, based on sound evidence. This is where culture can heavily impact on behaviour, which impacts on your ability to cope.”

Segun Osuntokun explains that an understanding of mental health-related issues among a firm’s top brass is “imperative. Firm leaders need to implement structures that they themselves will learn about. Leadership needs to be open to being taught about mental health; to put themselves in positions where they can be mental-health champions, mental-health first aiders and so on. At every appropriate opportunity, we need to take the chance to listen to professionals.”

In part two of our study, we outline how legal employers can effect positive change.

If you've been affected by any of the issues discussed in this piece, or are struggling with mental health or wellbeing problems, call LawCare on 0800 279 688. If you urgently need to speak to someone outside of helpline hours call the Samaritans on 116 123.