Today is World Mental Health Day, which this year focuses on young people, giving us an opportunity to look at how young people fare in the legal profession.
At LawCare we believe you start “thinking like a lawyer” on the first day of your legal studies. Law is by nature competitive and adversarial, and the heavy workload begins when studying or training to be a lawyer. There are high levels of negative emotions within law: the work is often about winning or losing and requires legal professionals to be critical, judgmental, combative and aggressive. You are required to think pessimistically, looking for potential problems and worse-case scenarios. In addition, many law students and lawyers are perfectionists who fear failure and making mistakes. All of this can significantly affect mental health and wellbeing.
45% of calls to LawCare are from young people
We know that some law schools are now providing counsellors and dedicated welfare officers for their law undergraduates as there is growing recognition that law students are particularly vulnerable to stress, anxiety and depression. 45% of the calls to the LawCare helpline are from young people studying or training, citing anxiety, panic attacks, sleep problems, financial worries, bullying, and homesickness as the reason for their call.
Unfortunately, the problems don’t end after graduation. A study of over 12,000 lawyers in the United States found that making the transition into practice is the most vulnerable time in a lawyer’s career. A recent call to LawCare, from “T” illustrates the issues first hand. T is about to finish his training contract, during which he has been bullied, humiliated and given poor quality work. He told us that it has taken all his strength to remain in post as he is determined to qualify. Sadly, this kind of story about mistreatment of junior lawyers is common. We were able to provide him with a safe place to talk about his experiences and reassure him that he is not the only person who has felt like giving it all up.
Preparing law students for practice
So, what can we do to better prepare law students for practice and a challenging working environment? We must work together as a profession to prioritise wellbeing and improve the working culture in the law. Equipping law students with the right skills to manage the pressures of practice and understand their emotions is key if we want to reduce levels of anxiety, stress and depression.
Taking on new responsibilities as a junior lawyer can be daunting, as can managing the expectations of clients or working for a difficult boss. We need to provide junior lawyers with the best foundation to help them handle life in practice. At LawCare we believe practical modules on mental health, emotional competency and self-care should be on the curriculum for every law student (as they already are in some Australian and US law schools) and learning in these areas should continue once in practice.
There are also practical ways students can develop their emotional competency skills, such as by doing pro-bono work in law clinics, which can help them learn from a variety of real-life challenging situations. In addition, law schools need to have structures in place to provide emotional support to students. Many law schools are doing this already. For example, at the University of Birmingham Law School they run a drop-in session, two hours each day in term time, for law undergraduates to come and talk to staff about anything non-academic that is worrying them. 1500 students used the service last year.
Changing law firm culture
We also need to see a culture change within law firms so that we can talk freely about the stresses and strains of working in the law and learn from each other about how to overcome difficult situations. Leaders need to prioritise wellbeing at a senior level and do more to train, support and mentor junior staff.
Staff should be encouraged by firms to work healthy hours, keep track of their workloads and take all their holiday entitlement. Long hours can lead to stress and reduce staff performance and morale. Often long hours are unavoidable but staff should have time off to recover after a busy period and not regularly work at weekends. Having the time to pursue the things we enjoy and spend time with friends and family is vital to wellbeing.
There are many things the profession can do across the board, from law school to practice to regulation, to positively influence the mental health and wellbeing of young people in the law. Looking after the mental health and wellbeing of our future lawyers must be a priority for everyone in the legal community.
Life in the law can be tough. If you need to talk in confidence about any personal or professional issue call the LawCare helpline on 0800 279 6888, 365 days a year. Additional information, resources and factsheets are available on the LawCare website.