Getting to the Heart of Mental Health Issues in the Legal Profession
Perhaps more than any other white-collar profession, law demands an extraordinary amount of hard work and mental dedication from its practitioners. Compounding this, the legal sector is notoriously poor at identifying and managing lawyers’ struggles with mental health.
In this feature, business development strategist and corporate wellbeing consultant Tom Keya gives his honest insight into the area, drawing from his own experience.
The Tolls of the Industry: Pleasure and Pain
Law is one of the most rewarding careers out there, both intellectually and financially. The best lawyers treat law as a lifestyle rather than a job. Those lawyers tend to do the best, but also suffer the most. You effectively are ensuring (as subtly as possible) that, at any given time, the right people know you are a lawyer and you are good at what you do. That does not mean showing off or having all conversations be about law – it just means that it becomes part of your DNA. When you tell people you are a lawyer, a certain prestige comes with it. You feel proud of what you have achieved, and you are almost guaranteed a comfortable life.
Therein lies the issue: law takes an incredible toll on the mind. You end up being burnt out, exhausted, unable to quit as you are accustomed to a certain lifestyle and also, above all, unable to see yourself as anything other than a lawyer. It is all you are and all you know.
Having experienced severe mental health issues as a lawyer, including a full breakdown, I have adopted a new approach. Both in my own law firms and my consultancy with Soul, I work with technology, psychiatrists and cognitive behaviour therapists to monitor the mental health, anxiety levels and happiness of employees. It is so important to raise awareness in order to fund and secure better support for employees. I work with many likeminded business leaders to do just that.
Lawyers deal with a culture of stress and it is taking it taking a real toll. While I work on employee wellbeing across multiple sectors, I am a passionate supporter of the need for systemic change in the legal industry. My background is law, and the sector is dealing with a significant issue. Trust me.
Examining The Problem
Lawyers and their emotional wellbeing are getting crushed. Research shows that 25% of productivity is lost due to mental health issues. This is particularly relevant for lawyers as their success is measured in productivity, retention, and revenue. So, if their mental health is suffering, it is taking a direct toll on the bottom line too (it goes without saying, but maybe it gives you more of a real concern when framed like this).
It is so important to raise awareness in order to fund and secure better support for employees. I work with many likeminded business leaders to do just that.
Every senior member and firm leader must put a strong emphasis on improving conditions. Get the strategy meeting booked, consult external experts. Do it as fast as you can. The legal life in your firm is likely taking a high toll on those practicing it.
Recent examination also shows that this is a severe issue. In 2019, the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority started to raise awareness of the mental wellbeing of professionals. More and more lawyers – especially those fresh to the industry – are asking for stress management and help with mental health issues than ever before. Research by independent charity LawCare and the Open University shows that between 2016 and 2017, there was an 11% increase in calls for help. This increased again by 5% a year later.
This was all before the pandemic began. Lawyer mental health across the board was already bad.
Top of the Pile
Stress management in the workplace is not something that is high on the agenda for the general environment. It is typical for mental health in the workplace to be put on the backburner in favour of growth, productivity and higher fee earning.
Some practitioners still say that there is a culture of ‘just get on with it’ from firms when they are dealing with, for example, work that is stressful or emotionally demanding. But regulators are starting to take a more severe approach to the wellbeing of people in the workplace throughout the legal sector. This will have an impact across the board, in that eventually it is likely that employers will become liable for any errors that result from high stress. Employers are responsible for the problem.
A further study by LawCare found that the global pandemic exacerbated the mental and physical health of employees in the sector, with anxiety and stress the most common reasons for employees to reach out. Research by Protectivity also shows a high level of mental health problems in the legal sector, with data showing that people in this sector are the second most stressed after employees working in HR.
It is typical for mental health in the workplace to be put on the backburner in favour of growth, productivity and higher fee earning.
Combating a High-Stress Culture Within Law Firms
I think there is an insidious legacy within legal services that stress is simply part and parcel of being a lawyer or employee in the sector.
Of course, stress of some description is generally present for most people, whether they are wealth managers or business leaders. And stress is to be expected – to a level. The problems come when stress becomes too much and when it is relentless. This is when stress translates into mental health issues that impact the bottom line, other colleagues and ultimately the client. When it comes to widespread poor mental health, the business can expect a decrease in productivity and billing, far more employees leaving and a dip in long-term profits.
The potential of people is destroyed when they are left to somehow deal with the catastrophic effects of ill mental health. But if every one of these employees is supported and regularly communicates with likeminded colleagues and managers, much of these issues will be mitigated.
What Should Law Firms Do and Not Do?
The kinds of stressors facing a corporate lawyer will be different to those faced by a barrister or a legal aid solicitor. I advise employers to assign business leaders to focus purely on improving the mental health of their employees. My experience and research show that, above all, a balanced approach is key. People regularly hide when they are dealing with problems arising from their mental health and are likely to try to work through it.
A great example of a business leader within professional services failing to safeguard the mental health of his employees can be seen in the UK chair of KPMG, Bill Michael, who told employees who were struggling with remote working during the height of the pandemic to “stop moaning.” While KMPG is an accountancy firm, and Mr Michael did issue a formal apology to his staff, this type of top-down messaging is all too common in the legal sector too.
Breaking Down the Contributors to Poor Wellbeing
According to Dr Bob Murray, a third of all lawyers will ideate suicide at least once every year. Barristers and criminal lawyers come at the top of the list of people who will think about suicide, with small firms coming in behind.
Crucially, none of these solicitors talk to anyone – even to their doctor – about how bad they feel. Young people and older people within legal services report similar levels of mental ill health, showing that there is much to be done to improve the workplace.
People regularly hide when they are dealing with problems arising from their mental health and are likely to try to work through it.
Most professionals within the legal sector are perfectionists; it comes with the territory. But this means that they are more likely to suffer from burnout. Legal work in this sector is stressful and is getting worse. Chronic stress is therefore rife. Chronic stress leads to serious physical health conditions, including cancer and heart disease.
Company-Wide Solutions for a Growing Problem
De-stressing each individual within the workplace is a good approach to dealing with these problems. But a better way to support employee wellness is to change and de-stress the workplace environment. Victimisation is never the answer, and it is important for employers to unequivocally show support to those who are dealing with these kinds of issues.
There should be no reward for pretence or hiding from these kinds of problems; rather, support should be accessible and encouraged. With some of the businesses that I work with, a programme of inclusivity and exercise has improved the collective wellness of employees.
Combine Digital Solutions with Offline Solutions
Digital solutions are also high on my agenda, and part of my current work is developing software that will help CEOs and business leaders to monitor employee mental health.
Taking responsibility for employee health in the workplace is only going to become more essential for managers and leaders. Poor mental health in the workplace will never be solved until the solutions are designed around human beings, and their mental and physical health, rather than productivity.
Change the Culture Across the Business
There is a unique culture within the legal sector that has implications for the wellbeing of employees that others don not. From the earliest days of a legal career, the emphasis is on competition and billing (business development and growth). The more hours worked, the more successful the trainee or qualified lawyer, and the more they are rewarded.
When we add client expectations on to this, along with the binary nature of legal work, it is unsurprising that people find it difficult to stay afloat mentally. Sometimes, with the stress on the body (shakes, adrenaline and over-/under-eating), it is both mental and physical health that takes a steep decline. A regulatory and competitive system that puts the majority of the emphasis on doing more, making more, and ensuring that there can be no failure, all combine to negatively impact the wellbeing of employees.
The single most important step a business leader can take to combat this is to shift towards a work culture that thinks constant stress and pressure is not something that should be rewarded.
Tom Keya, Founder
71-75, Shelton Street, Covent Garden, London, United Kingdom, WC2H 9JQ
Tom Keya is an executive of UAE-based law firm Ruthbergs LLC and founder of Soulh, a technology platform and wellbeing supplements company designed to improve mental health and burnout in the workplace, Following his own struggles in the legal profession, Tom Keya became a strong advocate for those suffering from mental health issues in the legal sector, consulting businesses on the mental health of their employees.