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Call for law firms to address cultures that damage mental health

During Mental Health Awareness Week, law firms have been urged to consider how they can ensure working practices are sustainable and address the factors that can contribute to burnout.

The Law Society and mental wellbeing charity LawCare have called for a change of culture in the legal profession, including the excessive working hours and workloads that some lawyers experience.

LawCare’s 2021 Life in the Law report found that 69% of legal professionals had experienced mental ill-health in the 12 months before the survey, including feelings of depression, stress and anxiety.

Lawyers were also at a high risk of burnout, with the survey finding that women, ethnic minority groups and people with a disability score higher than average for burnout and lower for autonomy and psychological safety at work.

Twenty-eight per cent of the 1,700 legal professionals surveyed from across the UK, Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man agreed their work required them to be available to clients 24/7 and 65% said they checked emails outside of work hours to keep up with their workload.

Collective responsibility

Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said: “The legal profession should use Mental Health Awareness Week to take stock of its culture. The onus is often on the individual to ‘fix’ their mental ill-health. In truth, we have a collective responsibility to make a positive work environment for everyone.

“We need to start talking about how some working practices contribute to an increased risk of poor mental health and how we can work together to change things. Tackling excessive working hours and workloads, as well as ensuring better supervision and support, especially for younger lawyers, are essential.”

Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of LawCare, said: “After 25 years of supporting legal professionals, we believe that the culture of law has to change to ensure the sustainability of the profession.

“It can seem overwhelming, but all of us can make small changes every day to make the law a healthier and happier place to work, such as acknowledging some of the challenges working in the law presents and treating each other with respect and civility.

“If we could encourage firms and workplaces to do one thing this Mental Health Awareness Week, it would be to work towards providing management training to all supervisors and managers, and free up some of their time so they can regularly catch up with their team members to check in on how they are doing.”

Supporting junior lawyers

The research found that younger lawyers had the highest burnout and work intensity scores, as well as the lowest scores for work autonomy and psychological safety.

Suzanna Eames, chair of the Law Society’s junior lawyers division, said: “Report after report has demonstrated that the overall culture in law is damaging to many junior lawyers, leading to mental health problems such as burnout, depression, anxiety and (in the worst cases) self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

“We have seen over the course of the pandemic that the culture of a firm has a very large impact on employees’ mental health, and that positive leadership can have a real impact and can ensure that the legal profession is both fulfilling and sustainable. On the contrary, employers that have left junior lawyers without support or supervision have seen staff burnout and choose to leave the firm or legal profession in order to protect their health.

“One positive of the pandemic has been the growing conversation around mental health, and an increasing recognition that lawyers’ wellbeing should be treated as a priority. It is vital that this conversation continues to develop, and does not lose traction now that firms settle into varying models of hybrid working.”

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