Investigating the causes of stress in in-house law: survey launch

It is common knowledge that lawyers are under pressure, all across the world. Studies in India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Australia, Sweden, the USA, and of course the United Kingdom, all confirm that the psychological state, health, and overall wellbeing of lawyers is substantially worse than in comparable professions.

It is often thought that lawyers in law firms are under more pressure than in-house lawyers. However, there is little evidence to back this up, as most studies to date have been conducted on lawyers working in commercial law firms (what I would call “business lawyers”) rather than on in-house lawyers.

I am working with Practical Law to gather UK data in order to expand my research and cast light on the situation in the UK, and invite you to participate by taking this short survey by 28 February 2020, after which I will share a report on the results. You are guaranteed complete confidentiality and anonymity.

Measuring stress: moving in-house may not relieve the pressure

I am an occupational psychologist and independent researcher who has specialised in researching lawyers and the legal workplace for the past fifteen years. By comparing data from previous studies I have been able to discern patterns across types of practice.

These patterns challenge the assumption that business law is more stressful than in-house law. According to my findings in two studies of Swedish lawyers’ stress-levels, including a 2017 study of more than 1800 Swedish lawyers, a business lawyer thinking of moving in-house for a less stressful working environment may be making the wrong move.

In fact, the aggregate results across these two studies show that business lawyers suffered the lowest level of emotional exhaustion (one of the three dimensions of burnout) when compared to their peers in other areas of law. Using the Maslach Burnout Inventory-General Scale (MBI GS), which measures stress on a scale of 0-6, with 6 being the highest score, in-house lawyers’ results were comparable to those of criminal and family lawyers:

  • Business lawyers: 1.9
  • Criminal lawyers: 2.2
  • Family lawyers: 2.4
  • In-house lawyers: 2.3

These findings suggest, therefore, that in-house lawyers suffer similar levels of emotional exhaustion to lawyers who often work in small organizations with fewer support functions and with ‘difficult’ clients who are undergoing a period of intense upheaval in their lives.

Feeling the pressure: are women under more stress than men, regardless of area of law?

My findings also suggest that female business lawyers should be particularly wary of moving in-house. My previous survey results show that female in-house lawyers are significantly more stressed than male in-house lawyers. Using the MBI GS again, we find the following results:

  • Female in-house lawyers: 2.5
  • Male in-house lawyers: 2.0

My research also shows that the number of hours worked is not the factor that drives stress in male in-house lawyers, but that for female in-house lawyers there is a direct correlation between number of hours worked and level of exhaustion.

Indeed, it seems to be the case that female lawyers generally are under more stress than male lawyers. The MBI GS also allows us to see the percentage of survey respondents in each area of law who were found to have a high level of emotional exhaustion. My results show that:

  • More female lawyers than male lawyers experience a high level of stress in each area of practice.
  • More female in-house lawyers experience such levels of stress than their female counterparts in other areas of practice.
Area of practice High emotional exhaustion (% of respondents)
Female Male
Business 30.0 15.2
Criminal 31.5 21.3
Family 31.7 25.0
In-house lawyers 32.1 19.2

Survey launch in partnership with Practical Law: is it gender, not practice area, that determines stress levels in law in the UK?

While these findings may be interesting for a lawyer working in the UK to read, they are not descriptive of the situation in the English, Northern Irish or Scottish legal systems as they do not draw on data from the UK. While there are many similarities between lawyers in the UK and Sweden, there are marked cultural differences with regards to raising a family, and also the social welfare system. Attitudes to gender equality also differ between Sweden and the UK.

I am therefore working with Practical Law to gather UK data in order to expand my research and cast light on the situation in the UK, and invite you to participate by taking this short survey. You are guaranteed complete anonymity and confidentiality, and I will not share the raw data with anyone (including Thomson Reuters). For more details, see the survey introduction at the above link.

If my hypothesis that gender is more determinative of stress level than area of practice is supported by this data, I can also explore whether any of the reasons I could suggest for that explains the position in the UK: for example, a lack of full equality in the workplace (see this blog post on the Law Society’s International Symposium on “The power of gender equality to transform the business of law”), or at home (studies in North America show that greater staff turnover in female business lawyers is associated with number of children) .

I also suspect that there may be underlying connections with other phenomena observed in the UK legal sector, such as gender inequality, bullying and sexual harassment, which I would like to investigate (see Us too?  IBA research reveals higher than average levels of bullying and sexual harassment in in-house legal teams).

I will share a report on the survey results and their implications after the survey closes on Friday 28 February 2020. Thank you for your participation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share this post on: