Wellbeing well-managed

Is it really possible for solicitors to achieve and maintain optimum levels of lawyer wellbeing? The word ‘wellbeing’ is being bandied around the profession and the legal media for good reason: lawyers are particularly prone to stress, anxiety and depression - and the fallout is getting worse.

It’s a concern that the issue of mental health and wellbeing is so grave that a lot of research into the issue is been carried out. The general picture is that the proportion of trainee solicitors experiencing mental health problems doubled last year; and once qualified it is not getting any easier.

More specifically, junior lawyers have recently been found to be suffering severe stress and anxiety, according to the latest resilience and wellbeing survey from the Junior Lawyers’ Division of the Law Society(JLD). More than 1800 junior lawyers (of up to five years’ post qualification experience (PQE) responded to the 2019 survey which revealed almost 50 per cent said they had experienced mental ill-health (whether formally diagnosed or not) in the last month. This is a substantial increase on the 38 per cent reported in the 2018 survey.

Following on from the JLD survey, a research study intended to flesh out the findings – as well as its finding in the previous two years’ surveys - has concluded that junior solicitors find the process of qualification as a lawyer highly anxiety-inducing. They have difficulties in relation to work-life balance, long hours and client demands though they also recognise the importance of management and the limits of their resilience.

These junior lawyers are the senior partners and law firm management of the future – that is, unless they burn out first. But as solicitors progress their careers the evidence is the levels of stress and other mental health issues do not decrease. The latest Bellwether/LexisNexis UK report, Stress in the Legal Profession: Problematic or Inevitable, found two thirds of solicitors are now experiencing high levels of stress and 76 per cent say it is a major issue for them. In fact, the report found “a staggering number of respondents [61 per cent] not just experiencing stress, but feeling it keenly”.

Noone can argue that stress is an expected part of a solicitor’s job. The practice of law is demanding in numerous ways. As one Bellwether/LexisNexis survey participant said: “There’s competition and constant pressure. It’s all about ticking the right boxes and saying the right things. I can’t see things changing.”

But when stress levels become unmanageable and lead to more serious mental health issues, something has to be done. The evidence is clear that unacceptably high levels of stress are endemic within the profession.

Can firms do more to help their lawyers manage stress levels? Of course they can, though solicitors themselves must also be prepared to speak out when they are struggling before they reach serious mental health problems. Firms need to foster an open culture where solicitors are able to talk.

Lawyer supervision must include an element of watchfulness over lawyers’ wellbeing; supervisors should be trained in how to recognise and react to signs of acute stress and anxiety so that action can be taken.

Some firms (albeit those with the resources to fund it) are investing in wellbeing initiatives inhouse, or employing psychotherapists to train partners and senior management in recognising stress in their colleagues and to run seminars on mental wellbeing.

Job satisfaction

What is encouraging is that the Bellwether/LexisNexis report found 80 per cent of solicitors reporting high levels of job satisfaction. This, at least, is a good foundation on which to build a lasting legacy of lawyer wellbeing.

On publication of the report Jon Whittle, market development director at LexisNexis UK, remarked: “We found a robust, optimistic profession which continues to believe that hard work pays off in a bright successful future. Last year the Government positioned the law as a professional occupation with the highest levels of work-related stress, depression and anxiety which we believe is cause for concern. However, our respondents don’t agree on whether size of firm equates to stress levels.”

But he pointed out that while 55 per cent of solicitors believe enough is being done, three quarters feel there is a sense of confusion and resignation in attitudes to stress.

However, the report found a lack of awareness regarding the deeper implications of stress in the legal workplace “and an absence of insight into how improve the situation, which supports what the research suggests – there is a fundamental disconnect at work here”. But it found while a significant number of solicitors are stressed, more seem able to admit they’re stressed than acknowledge they have a problem with stress.

So it seems lawyers are, for the most part, resigned to the reality that high levels of stress are an accepted reality in the profession. But should they ‘put up and shut up’? Given that the importance of wellbeing is increasingly high on the radar, the answer must be ‘no’. More is being done by the profession to heighten awareness and to encourage firms to play their part in managing stress mental wellbeing; and more must be done.

The importance of wellbeing has not caught the attention of the courts themselves. The Central Family Court recently produced working draft guidance written by His Honour Judge Robin Tolson QC. It includes common sense guidance but there have been criticisms that some of the guidelines are not at all realistic for practitioners on the ground. Here’s a flavour of what it says:

  • There should be a one-hour lunch break;
  • There’s no need to reply to emails after 6pm and before 8am;
  • Only one lawyer in attendance is almost always enough;
  • Orders should be as short as possible.

Cynics may say “at least it’s a start”, but there has to be consistent change throughout the justice system and the legal profession as a whole if lawyer wellbeing is to be protected long term. If this does not happen, we risk losing a generation of talent at the altar of mental ill health.

 

 

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