Life in the law can be fantastic; many individuals thrive in this fast-paced, high-pressure industry and are very successful and happy. However, that is the not the case for everyone. Lawyers and support staff regularly contact LawCare to talk about feeling overwhelmed, stressed, anxious and burnt out. We hear about long hours, demanding bosses, incivility from clients, a feeling of never being good enough or getting things done, and the constant dread of making a mistake.
Although research has been undertaken in other countries, notably the United States and Australia, we have little data from the United Kingdom on how the culture and practice of law affects wellbeing. Are lawyers more at risk of poor mental health than in other professions? And how will issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic feed into this? For example:
- A lack of routine and support structure.
- No separation between home and work.
- Too much time or not enough time spent alone.
- A lack of supervision.
To this end, last year LawCare set up a research committee made up of academics and experts with the aim of launching the biggest ever research study into the wellbeing of legal professionals in the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. It is a cross-profession, cross-jurisdiction piece of research that seeks to understand the day-to-day realities of life in the law and includes three academic research scales for:
- Psychological safety.
All three are issues we believe to have a significant impact on the wellbeing of lawyers.
Burnout is recognised by the World Health Organization as an occupational phenomenon, rather than a medical condition. It results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Those who are experiencing burn out are likely to feel:
- Low energy or exhaustion.
- Increased mental distance from their job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to their job.
- Reduced professional efficacy.
Legal professionals with burn out may often become forgetful, which might manifest itself in missed deadlines or meetings. Their judgement may be affected, and they might consider leaving their job or even the legal profession entirely. We hear from many individuals like this at LawCare. Our research will aim to show how common burnout is in the legal profession and which specific issues may be causing it.
Psychological safety at work means:
“being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.”
Legal professionals who feel psychologically safe at work are comfortable expressing their opinions and giving feedback, can admit to a mistake, are prepared to ask for help and are their true selves at work. Legal workplaces are often hierarchical, and many junior members of the profession find it difficult to put their head above the parapet, which is when problems can start to grow.
Autonomy in the workplace means how much freedom people have at work. An autonomous workplace is based on trust, respect, dependability and integrity. For example:
- Can people regulate their own hours and workload?
- Are they able to make decisions without running it past managers?
- Do they feel in control of their own working life and career?
Often the traditional structures in the law and the long hours culture make it difficult for legal professionals to feel autonomous, which can reduce engagement at work and job satisfaction.
We need you to tell us about your life in the law
Anyone working in the legal industry in any capacity, including support staff, can complete the online questionnaire, which launches ahead of World Mental Health Day on 10 October. The results will form the basis of an academic paper and will help us to improve the support available to legal professionals and drive long lasting change in legal workplaces so that people working in the law can thrive. We urge you to take part and share your experiences at lifeinthelaw.org.uk
If you are finding things difficult and need to talk, LawCare can help. We provide emotional support to all legal professionals and support staff. You can call our confidential helpline on 0800 279 6888, email us at email@example.com or access webchat and resources at www.lawcare.org.uk.