The legal sector has a very real mental health problem

The legal sector has a very real mental health problem
07 Sep 2020

Let’s start off with some sobering facts:

In the United States, the 2016 American Bar Association together with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in a study of attorneys (see “Studies on Well-Being in the Profession”) underscored mental health concerns in the legal profession. Of the attorneys surveyed, 28% reported experiencing symptoms of depression, 19% reported symptoms of anxiety, and 23% experienced symptoms of stress and 21% qualified as problem drinkers.

In the United Kingdom, LawCare revealed that 26% of all lawyers that called into their helpline were suffering from stress, 12% suffering from bullying and a further 12% of all callers suffered from depression.

In a further article titled Lawyers experience high rates of anxiety and depression, it was found in Australia and New Zealand that –

“A survey of 200 legal professionals across Australia and New Zealand revealed a high percentage of employees at small and medium-sized law firms had experienced depression and stress in the workplace. An overwhelming 85 per cent of respondents said they had experienced anxiety, or knew someone close to them in the workplace who had. More than 60 per cent of respondents said they had experienced depression, or knew someone close to them in the workplace who had”.

And lastly in South Africa, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (“SADAG”) has revealed that one in every five people will suffer from a mental illness. Every 24-hours in South Africa, 22 people commit suicide and 220 people attempt suicide. 9.5% of teen deaths are due to suicide. SADAG’s research has also revealed that employees are taking more than 18 days off work due to depression but are reluctant to disclose depression as a reason for sick leave due to the stigma associated with the condition. The statistics around lawyer specific mental health concerns have yet to be quantified. And that is a scary thing considering the stigma that is currently attached with mental health issues.

There is no denying it. The global legal industry (even before COVID-19) has a mental health problem. And that problem needs to be addressed.

Stopping the stigma

Mental health is always spoken about in hushed tones and usually behind closed doors. As if it is something to be ashamed of. But, why?

There is nothing weak about mental health. As we discussed in last week’s article: The fear around mental health in the legal world – we all have a level of mental health and that level of health (as with our physical health) fluctuates over time.

So why does the term “mental” trigger such awkwardness and discomfort in so many of us?

Perhaps our youth has something to do with it?

Growing up, the slang term “mental” was used quite often. When you heard that a party was “mental”, you automatically assumed that it was wild and that things got out of hand. Similarly, if someone were to call another person “mental”, you immediately kept your distance at the connotation that the person was, in fact, crazy (not that we were qualified to ascertain anyone’s state of mind).

But the actual definition of ‘mental’ is nothing sinister – it literally means “related to the mind”.

However, when you put the words mental and health together, we are lead to something far more complex, far more important, but sadly, less spoken about.

Isn’t it time to reshape how we, as a society, view mental health and the associated issues? Especially in the legal profession.

Perception of the legal industry

I have one image for you – a suit. Picture Harvey Specter in his expensive designer suit, working late into the night demanding excellence in everything he does. And from everyone he works with. And now picture someone you know who is exactly like this. I bet someone popped into your head almost immediately. Maybe it was yourself.

The sad reality is, this is how the general public believe legal professionals are supposed to act. Never mind how junior lawyers expect themselves to act. And this expectation continues long into most legal professionals’ lives. Truthfully, we can all agree that this image of absolute strength and perfection is exactly how lawyers are represented in mainstream media – workaholics, perfectionists (and we touch on this subject on Braving Boundaries), practitioners with meticulous attention to detail, rational and invulnerable to stress. Basically assumed to be bullet proof. Almost superhuman. And society, generally, does not consider how legal professionals may in reality be affected by the work they do. Neither do the lawyers themselves. At least, they would never admit to being affected by their work out loud. And this is an impossible standard.

Lawyers are, simply put, not bullet proof and are certainly not superhuman. Any expectation to the contrary is a very dangerous one.

What is “mental health”?

According to Mental, a person’s mental health refers to their “emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act”.

And in the legal profession, a person’s emotional, psychological and social well-being is not (very often) considered to be top of mind. We are taught to believe that you need to “get on with it”. Harden up. Have thicker skin. At least, that’s what I was told. Often. The workplace, especially in law firms, is no place for sensitivity. But is being affected by something necessarily just being sensitive? And even if you are sensitive, does that mean there is no place for you in a law firm? That shouldn’t be the case. And yet, as we are constantly lead to believe, seemingly is. At least on the face of it.

The reality of mental health in the legal industry

An overwhelming majority of legal professionals believe their mental well-being is worse off as a result of their chosen career, an in-depth Mental Health and Substance Abuse survey of law firm lawyers and staff suggests.

But, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are far more alarming articles and studies to illustrate the above statement.

In an article titled It is Time to Normalize Mental Health Check-Ups, they state that mental health has become a critical issue –

“Mental health has become a significant topic of discussion and study for legal professionals as of late, and for good reason. Mental health has a critical impact on the general population—in 2018 alone, 47.6 million adults in the United States experienced symptoms that met criteria for a diagnosable mental illness. This equates to 19.1 percent of the population, or one in five adults. Further, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.

Findings further suggest that legal professionals may experience mental health issues at a rate higher than other adults in the United States. This, along with several recent deaths of legal professionals by suicide, have sparked a long-overdue conversation about mental wellness in the legal community.”

Similarly, in an article titled Mental Health in the Legal Industry: It’s Time to Take Action, they state the following –

“According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 300 million people are estimated to suffer from depression globally. Around the world, close to 800 000 people die due to suicide often caused by depression every year. And the legal industry is not immune.

A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University on the issue suggests that the prevalence of depression is closely related to a person’s professional occupation. Accordingly, lawyers are 3.6 times more likely on average to suffer from depression as people in other professions.” 

And let’s stop there for a second. As this bears repeating. 300 million people are estimated to suffer from depression globally. And the legal industry is no exception. In fact, studies reveal that legal practitioners are more susceptible. Not entirely shocking though. If you think about it.

In a further American article titled By the Numbers: The State of Mental Health in the Legal Industry, they found that “31.2% of more than 3,800 respondents feel they are depressed, 64% feel they have anxiety, 10.1% feel they have an alcohol problem and 2.8% feel they have a drug problem.”

Lastly in an article titled Moving mental health to the top of the legal agenda, they refer to a study that states that –

“According to research carried out by Dr Rebecca Michalak of the University of Queensland: ‘Lawyers suffer from significantly lower levels of psychological and psychosomatic health wellbeing than other professionals’. Add to this a global pandemic threatening the lives of loved ones, job insecurity and economic instability, and we have a rather large melting pot ready to explode.”

Those are astonishing (and frightening) statistics and outcomes of many studies around mental health worldwide.

And despite these statistics (and many studies), there still seems to be a stigma associated with admitting to some form of mental health concern. As if admitting that you are not bullet proof is a weakness.

In the above-mentioned article –

“According to Mental Health First Aid England over 80% of managers admit to prejudice against employees struggling with their mental health and only about 20% of companies provide training to managers around the subject. I dare say, law firms lag behind in the main. In fact, I recently asked a senior partner from a Magic Circle what they do to support mental health and she responded: ‘Driven people like us don’t suffer with those sort of issues’. Sadly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Though many efforts of engagement within the legal profession have been reported, particularly during this particular crisis, there is still a long way to go and the profession must not lose sight of this”.

But, admitting concerns over your mental health is not a sign of weakness or inability. This is an antiquated notion that needs to change. And quickly.

So how does your work affect you?

In an article titled The legal profession has a mental health problem – which is an issue for everyone, a study was conducted in which legal professionals discussed how their work affects them –

”Participants have disclosed a number of issues which they felt had arisen from their work, including experiencing high levels of stress or witnessing it in others.

For example, they often speak about the long hours they do, the high billing requirements they have, their large caseloads and the negative effect that these have on them. They also speak of the alienating cultures in which they work and which put them in competition with their colleagues.

Many practitioners also speak directly of how the cultures of some legal environments mean that well-being is often not a concern. The focus for many law firms is on fee earning, growth and productivity. Well-being is therefore viewed as irrelevant. For example, practitioners have told us that there is a culture of “you have got to get on with it” when dealing with stressful or emotionally demanding work.

Some have suggested that there is a stigma within the profession with regards to mental health and that highlighting well-being issues could be perceived as a sign of weakness and become a barrier to promotion. Participants have also discussed a traditional lack of investment into supporting the mental health of lawyers.

Other lawyers have told us about the negative impacts of working with traumatised individuals, hearing traumatic narratives, or working with distressing evidence – for example, material evidence relating to serious crimes or road traffic accidents. Some have discussed the lasting effect that some cases had on them because of their distressing nature.”

And I am certain that many of you reading this article can relate to some (if not all) of the issues listed in the above article – long hours, always being on call and unable to disconnect, high billing requirements, high caseloads, competition between colleagues, a culture of “get on with it”, impacts of traumatic cases on your well-being. All leading to high stress levels, anxiety, depression, burn-out and in some cases substance abuse.

It is evidently not an experience limited to certain parts of the world. It is a feeling felt globally in the legal profession. A pandemic, if you will. And it needs to be addressed. More importantly, legal professionals need to feel comfortable enough to be able to speak about their personal concerns around their own mental health. Freely and openly.

Where to from here?

We are starting to see many firms take a more proactive approach to managing mental health, providing access to services such as counselling, coaching, mental health first aiders and employee assistance programmes (EAPs), to support individuals with mental health issues. Areas that impact mental health such as financial wellbeing, diet, alcohol intake and sleep and developing programmes to address these specific issues are also becoming top of mind.

An organization such as LawCare in the UK, promotes and supports good mental health and wellbeing in the legal community. In an article titled The mental health stigma: how the legal industry is responding, they state that whilst awareness around mental health has increased dramatically in recent years, the legal industry still faces challenges –

“Meanwhile, statistics revealed by the charity LawCare, highlighted that calls from lawyers to its helpline has reached a ‘record high’. The charity received nearly 900 calls last year from 616 callers – representing an 11 percent rise compared to 2016. Nearly half of the solicitors and barristers who called in for help cited depression (17 percent) and workplace stress (27 percent) as the reason. Other problems included disciplinary concerns, anxiety, and bereavement, financial problems, bullying and harassment, chronic illness, alcohol and drugs, career development and relationship issues.

Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare, said the growing number of calls to the helpline is rising every year and is showing no sign of abating. “Life in the law can be challenging. Long hours, a competitive environment, heavy workload and pressure to meet billing targets can contribute to stress and mental health issues”, said Rimmer”.

Law societies around the world are starting to recognise the alarming trends facing the legal profession today, with decisive steps being taken to address mental health in the workplace. For example in the UK, “The Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce” has been established to promote and support mental health and well-being in the legal community.

So whilst progression around mental health issues is relatively slow in the legal profession, at least there is a shift in the right direction, providing some light at the end of the tunnel.

Final thoughts for today

Now more than ever before, as people navigate their way through the emotional trauma, stress, anxiety and depression arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, there seems to be a clearer understanding of how these traumas can negatively impact the lives of both themselves as well as those around them. How these traumas can materially affect their mental health.

For some people, it is the first time that they have been ready to admit, out loud, that they are suffering from some kind of mental health issue. And that is progress.

Perhaps as we start with the healing process following the pandemic, we should use this new knowledge to continue encouraging people (and businesses) to talk freely and openly about mental health in the work place. Pivot off of it – make policies, protect people, encourage discussion and promote overall mental wellbeing.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the phrase “are you mental?” was no longer associated with negative connotations that are currently invoked when hearing the phrase, but rather that “are you mental?” quite simply meant, – is your mental health ok?

Article written for Braving Boundaries by Alicia Koch, Founder of The Legal Belletrist.

See also:

(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)
Alicia Koch
Alicia Koch

Alicia Koch is an admitted attorney with over 10 years PQE. She has worked in law firms, has had her own legal consulting company and has been an in-house legal... Read more about Alicia Koch


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