It’s good to talk

There are times when clichés can be put to excellent use. In the context of lawyers’ mental health wellbeing, two clichés are particularly apt: ‘It’s good to talk’; ‘A burden shared is a burden halved’.

Early February saw the annual Time to Talk Day which encourages everyone to speak up and talk about mental health. Lawyers should not now be ashamed to speak up if they are affected by stress, depression or other mental health issues. It is a growing problem which employers are increasingly recognising as a top priority.

The legal profession is tough. Lawyers have to be similarly tough - working long hours often under a great deal of stress. Demands are made from senior management and demanding clients, so it is no surprise that the profession as a whole is suffering a significant mental health impact.

Some lawyers are (or seem to be) immune from the ill-effects of workplace stress – though that’s not to say they will not always be. This means no one should ignore the issue.

But the evidence is stark: lawyers are increasingly asking for help. LawCare, the charity that provides emotional support to the legal profession and campaigns for better mental health awareness in the sector, has reported that the number of lawyers contacting it for help continues to rise year on year.
It recently published its 2019 statistics which showed 677 people sought help last year. This was an 8 per cent rise on the previous year. The most common problems for those lawyers were stress (26 per cent) and depression (12 per cent).

Two particularly concerning issues are highlighted in last year’s figures:

  1. There was a growing number of lawyers who contacted the charity about bullying. The charity said 12 per cent of the contacts it received concerned bullying, with two thirds of individuals saying they were being bullied by a manager or superior.
  2. More than half (53 per cent) of callers were trainees, pupil barristers or were less than five years qualified; and 5 per cent were law students.

The evidence confirms bullying is present in the profession and is having an adverse effect on victims’ mental health; and the stress on the younger and less senior lawyers is intolerable. The profession needs to sit up, take notice and take action.

Elizabeth Rimmer is the CEO of LawCare. She comments: “We spent 304 hours providing support on the phone last year, answering a call every 2 ½ hours. Last year also saw the launch of our new webchat service enabling us to provide support to more people. The biggest trend we’ve noticed is the number of people contacting us about bullying and harassment which is now one of the top three issues people contact us about, possibly because of a lot more attention on this issue in the media over the past couple of years.

“We will be undertaking more detailed research later this year to discover exactly how the culture of law is impacting on wellbeing and mental health, and we hope to use this to drive change in legal workplaces.”

Separate research was published in February which suggests solicitors in England and Wales have poorer well-being than the general population. The study, conducted at the University of East London, was led by former solicitor Lucinda Soon. It is the first to benchmark solicitors’ mental wellbeing against national data and previous research on other occupational groups.

It studied 340 trainee and qualified solicitors who displayed lower average levels of well-being than the general population, general practitioners, vets, and teachers.

Soon estimated that, looking at the data as a whole, the average well-being score of solicitors would be within the range of 43.4 and 45.1 in 95 cases out of 100. Female solicitors were found to have significantly poorer well-being compared to male solicitors, but both female and male solicitors demonstrated lower well-being averages of 43.7 and 46.2 respectively when compared to equivalent national means for adult females and males (49.6 and 50.1 respectively).

As LawCare’s research also found, wellbeing was lowest in solicitors with between 5 to 15 years’ experience (40% of respondents) and not much better in trainees and junior solicitors with up to five years’ post-qualified experience (34% of respondents). Senior solicitors with 15 years plus experience showed the highest well-being.

So where does the profession go from here? There is no magic bullet either to remove all stress or to equip all lawyers whatever their level of experience to withstand the negative impact on mental health. However, a greater awareness among the profession is a start. With one in four individuals in the UK experiencing a mental health problem in any given year, the issue is vital.

This then needs to be followed by discussion, training and equipping lawyers to deal with stress and to adopt the right coping strategies. Firm management has a responsibility to look after its staff and to introduce and implement policies that promote mental health and wellbeing; enable staff to talk about their struggles; and to create safe spaces for lawyers.

Last year, LawCare launched a new interactive online resource for all lawyers called Fit for Law based on research with focus groups within the legal profession. The purpose is to drive forward psychologically and emotionally healthier ways of working in law. Firms can encourage their lawyers to log onto this course as well as other wellbeing resources – whether or not they are online.

The course is free and aims to provide lawyers with an awareness of the benefits of emotional competence and professional resilience; and the importance of applying and reflecting on these concepts in the legal workplace. It takes 2-4 four hours to complete, but is broken down into smaller sections. There are also videos from legal professionals on wellbeing issues and various interactive activities.

It’s time to talk – but let’s not leave it at that.

 

 

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