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Research reveals high risk of burnout in legal profession

Legal professionals are at high risk of burnout with more than two-thirds of lawyers suffering from mental ill-health over the past year.

Whether it was diagnosed clinically or by lawyers themselves, anxiety, low mood and depression afflicted 69% of respondents to a survey conducted by legal mental health charity LawCare. A significant proportion (6%) had admitted having suicidal thoughts while 22% had said they felt “unable to cope”.

The study, Life in the Law 2020/21, asked legal professionals about work intensity using three recognised academic gauges for burnout. These were disengagement and exhaustion, autonomy, and psychological safety.

Just over half of lawyers surveyed (56%) said they had discussed their feelings at work. Their main reasons for not disclosing any issues was the fear of stigma, with its attendant career, financial and reputational consequences.

The highest risk of burnout was being experienced by professionals between the ages of 26 and 35. They also recorded the lowest autonomy levels, lowest feelings of psychological safety and highest work intensity scores. Most agreed their work was fast-paced with tight deadlines.

Women, disabled people and people from ethnic minorities also scored higher than average for burnout and lower for autonomy and psychological safety at work.

One striking finding was that more than a quarter of participants (28%) agreed that their work required them to be available to clients 24/7 and about two-thirds (65%) said they checked emails outside of work hours to keep up with their workload.

Sleep deprivation was another issue for a significant proportion of respondents with 35% acknowledging they slept less than 7 hours a night, a quarter averaging 5-6 hours and a tenth less than 5 hours a night.

Despite the legal sector generally being one of the more economically resilient areas of the economy during the pandemic, half of the survey participants expressed concerns over job security and more than half (58%) began to feel concerns over financial security during the pandemic. Concerns over work/life balance grew considerably, with 59% reporting increased pressures.

Regular catch-ups and appraisals were seen by respondents as the most helpful types of support offered by employers when it came to alleviating pressure because they were seen as ways of bolstering confidence and reducing anxiety. However, only 48% of those in managerial or supervising roles had received any leadership training.

Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare said: “This research, the first of its kind in this country, provides robust evidence that the legal profession is stressed, tired, anxious, at high risk of burnout and that those working practices in the law that undermine mental health need to change. We want this research to be the catalyst for us to come together as a profession to create that change, to create a culture in law that puts the law’s greatest asset – its people – first. The experience of living and working through a global pandemic has had a profound effect on us all and presents an opportunity like no other to reimagine the future and make it happen.”

The research captured by LawCare was carried out between October 2020 and January 2021 from more than 1,700 legal professionals in the UK, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Of the respondents, 73% were women, 26% were men and 1% identified as other/non-binary. 12% were from ethnic minorities and 9% had a disability. Two-thirds were aged between 26 and 45.

Solicitors made up 60% of the participants, and barristers 7%. The remainder were legal executives, paralegals, intellectual property attorneys and business support professionals.

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