Mental Health in the Legal Profession

Written by Charlie Braithwaite
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An image indicating the effects of poor mental health in the legal professional: An individual is seen, bent over and struggling, while trying to hold up the roof of a court room on their back. The Roman columns traditionally seen on court house that would usually hold the roof up have collapsed, with one leaning one and one fully on its side.

Lawyers work with extraordinary dedication, pulling off Herculean tasks for their clients. That can sometimes take a toll when it comes to mental health in the legal profession. In fact, lawyers are perhaps even more likely than most to struggle with managing stress and their mental health.

The legal profession is notoriously demanding, as indicated by lawyers’ mental health statistics. 93% of junior lawyers admit they feel stressed at work, with one in four feeling stressed daily. With this in mind, is it any surprise that over two-thirds of lawyers have experienced mental health issues? 

This blog examines why lawyers’ mental health is more important than ever, outlines the signs of poor mental health among lawyers, and provides a blueprint for how law firms can safeguard the mental health and wellbeing of all of their employees.

Why mental health for lawyers is more important than ever

The legal profession has carved out a reputation for its “knuckle down and get on with it” nature—especially among top corporate firms. Being bright might get junior solicitors in the door, but their work ethic is what keeps them there.

This attitude makes sense for legal professionals: Lawyers have to be responsible and hardworking: Clients need their expertise to stay out of jail, formulate their wills and trusts, win custody of their children, and other potentially life-changing matters. They expect their lawyers to perform highly at all times, and lawyers expect the same of themselves. 

That adds pressure to perform highly consistently, which can be compounded by business needs. Law firms, like every other business, want to increase their profitability. However, this requires racking up their staff’s billable hours. The result? Solicitors can sometimes wage a constant battle with an ever-increasing caseload. They don’t work all hours because they want to—they do so because they have to. 

Something has to give in those scenarios—and often it’s individual lawyer stress levels or even a mental health crisis. The pandemic showed just how dangerous all work and no play can be. Working from home blurred the boundaries between work time and personal time, meaning some junior lawyers regularly clocked 14-hour days. Additionally, 40% of lawyers say they’ve become more stressed since the pandemic has begun, with lawyer burnout and exhaustion increasing at an alarming rate. 

What can the legal community do to counteract these rising stress levels and to prevent burnout? Quite a bit. 

The signs of poor mental health among lawyers 

Mental health in the legal profession needs to be addressed. Law firms must keep an eye on their employees, watching out for signs of poor mental health before they become an issue. In particular, they should pay close attention to the following:

Burnout

When lawyers work too hard, for too long, they burn out. They’re unable to maintain their usual performance and may even feel distracted or demoralised. In fact, burnout is causing many solicitors to leave the profession altogether

So, how can firms spot when employees are on the verge of solicitor burnout (or burnout at any level of the firm)?

Managers should closely monitor how their team is behaving. Employees might tell you they feel fine, but actions speak louder than words. For example, if you see that a colleague or direct report has been answering emails when they should be catching up on much-needed shut-eye, have a word. If they come into work but already seem exhausted, encourage them to take a day off. 

Don’t assume employees will let you know when they’re burning out. Pay attention to the warning signs and step in when you feel like your team is overburdened. Create the kind of working environment where work-life balance is encouraged and rewarded, not one where people ignore their own mental and physical health. 

Anxiety or stress

A certain amount of anxiety and stress is normal—it’s a part of life. However, too much can have a disastrous impact on lawyers’ mental health. Solicitors perform at their best when they’re cool, calm, and collected. Stress and anxiety, on the other hand, cloud lawyers’ thinking and worsen their mood.

Unfortunately, it’s sometimes tricky to spot when lawyers are suffering from anxiety or stress. These are high-performing individuals who are used to putting everything to one side and getting the job done. That said, there are certain signs to watch out for.

For example, if you notice changes in how they interact with their colleagues or clients. When usually well-tempered individuals are suddenly short and snap at others or withdraw, this could indicate they’re feeling anxious or stressed out. 

Managers should avoid publicly calling them out on their behaviour—this might make things worse. However, they should pull the person aside and ask them how they’re feeling. Better still, if possible, they should offer to relieve some of their caseload. 

How law firms can safeguard their employees’ mental health and emotional wellbeing 

It’s not enough to identify those who are experiencing high stress or periods of adverse mental health—firms must actively work to protect their solicitors’ emotional wellbeing. Follow these 5 steps to safeguard your lawyers’ mental health moving forward.

1. Be proactive rather than reactive

As the saying goes, “prevention is better than cure”. Don’t wait until your staff is overburdened to take action. Ensure managers know the warning signs of mental ill-health (as discussed above), and encourage them to prioritise their team’s mental health over increasing their billable hours. 

Set up comprehensive mental health initiatives, taking a leaf out of biglaw behemoth Baker McKenzie’s book. You could even adopt Goodwin Proctor’s approach and pay for staff to go away on holiday. Or, how about providing on-site counselling

2. Speak about mental health openly

Create a culture that normalises speaking about mental health. Let solicitors and others in your firm know that it’s perfectly natural to experience the odd low. However, highlight that it’s certainly not normal—or acceptable—to feel like they’re perpetually fighting low. 

As with everything else, this starts from the top. Senior management can lead by example, speaking about times when they’ve struggled in the past and needed to take a break for the sake of their mental health. 

It takes real strength to admit when you’ve felt weak. If leaders are open and honest about their mental health, this attitude will filter down throughout the organisation. 

3. Check in regularly

Check-ins can take many forms. You can send around anonymous surveys to take your team’s general pulse, while managers can also check in individually with solicitors. 

Most importantly, make it clear that you genuinely care about your team’s mental health—and show that you’re willing to take swift action if they’re struggling. 

It’s not enough to simply ask how they’re coping. Go one step further, digging into what they’re struggling with, before taking the appropriate action. For example, if your team feels overburdened, consider implementing automation-based tools to take low-value tasks off their plate. 

4. Be willing to change

Firms should avoid trying to second guess their team, assuming they know how solicitors feel and what they need. Instead, they should ask for their opinions and seek out advice on what the firm must do better. 

However, we warn you: this might be incredibly uncomfortable. It may reveal ugly truths hidden at the very core of your firm. For example, leaders might discover their management style is more harmful than helpful. Embrace the feedback as objectively as possible. Understand what needs to change, why, and take action. 

Be willing to change your firm’s processes, attitudes, client base and culture if necessary. Show employees that their mental health is a top priority. 

5. Don’t set it and forget it

Safeguarding your solicitors’ mental health is an ongoing journey. Your firm can’t simply make wholesale changes today but push mental health to the backburner tomorrow. Continually check in, ask what you can do better, and seek to improve your firm’s approach to mental health.

You might not get your approach right the first time around. However, minor improvements here and there quickly add up. 

Embrace the process

The legal industry is slowly realising the impact of not addressing poor mental health in the legal profession. Law firms that adopt a proactive approach, encouraging employees to be open and implementing preventative measures, will improve the legal sector as a whole—showing that mental wellbeing and high performance can go hand in hand. 

Best of all, they’ll improve their staff’s lives. 

Categorized in: Professional Development, Wellness and Mental Health