Last year we released the findings of our research study, Life in the Law. The research, the first of its kind in this country, looked at mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession, and over 1,700 professionals from the UK, Republic of Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man took part. The study questioned legal professionals on a range of areas, including work intensity (workload and working hours). It used three recognised scales for:
- Burnout (disengagement and exhaustion).
- Autonomy (the ability to control what, where, how, and with whom, work is done).
- Psychological safety (the ability to speak up with ideas and questions, and to raise concerns or admit mistakes).
Burnout is a key issue
Legal professionals scored high on the scale for 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% had talked about it at work, with the most common reason for this being the fear of stigma. Certain groups in the profession present a greater risk of burnout. For example:
- Younger professionals.
- Those from ethnic minority groups.
- Those with a disability.
Many legal professionals are working long hours, not getting enough sleep, and one in five said that they were bullied, harassed or discriminated against in the 12-month period before completing the survey.
Focusing on the positives
However, we didn’t just want to focus on the negative aspects of a career in the legal profession. Our aim behind Life in the Law was to also look at what has a positive effect on wellbeing and what the profession can do to make a difference to work-life balance.
We found that as the number of hours of sleep increases, the rate of burnout drops. A wide range of workplace measures can help, from private health insurance to mental health training. Regular catch-ups or appraisals were reported to be the most helpful measures. Having these in place helped to bolster confidence in personal development and reduce anxiety.
We also asked people about their experiences working through the COVID-19 pandemic. While there have been many challenges, such as social isolation, a blurring of boundaries between life and work, and increased workloads, for some there were positives. For example, greater flexibility and more agile working, and a chance to spend more time with close family and really think about what they wanted in life.
A collective responsibility
It is clear from this research that we need to collaborate 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 that we all have a part to play.
Individuals need to look after themselves, learn how to draw boundaries and treat colleagues with respect. Senior leaders need to set out the organisation’s values and culture, and establish systems to make sure that they are followed.
Regulators, professional bodies and legal educators are also part of the solution to making law a profession that values its people. This is important not just for individuals and workplaces, but for the future sustainability of the profession.
Key areas the legal profession needs to focus on
- Challenge the stigma surrounding mental health and wellbeing.
- Change the organisational culture of law by acknowledging the important role that those in management and leadership must play in bringing about meaningful change.
- Promote the importance of management training to provide the skills required to support individuals alongside regular catch-ups and appraisals.
- Identify and engage key stakeholders in the conversation about wellbeing by acknowledging that it is a collective responsibility. Work must be done across professional and regulatory silos, while recognising differences across areas of legal practice.
- Share insights, educate and raise awareness about wellbeing across the legal community.
- Consider the intersectional nature of wellbeing within the context of multiple factors such as gender, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation.
This research is the start of what we hope will be a long-lasting movement in the law that takes a proper look at our working practices, the culture of workplaces, the way we treat each other and the values we embody. Law’s greatest asset is the minds of those working within it, and we must protect those minds at all costs. We urge you to join us in making this happen.