The legal profession has unique challenges for staff mental health - but there's a strong business case for addressing that. This short booklet outlines the issues and is full of tips for supporting staff and changing the culture.
Mental health in the legal profession
The legal profession has a unique culture, with particular pressures and expectations – as Simon Davis, Law Society president, describes in his blog. These can easily have implications for mental health, for you and your colleagues or employees. We asked , the charity that supports the legal community, to share some of the issues – and some ideas that can help.
It’s all about culture
“Right from the start, when you’re training in law, you compete with your peers for placements and jobs.” And that competitive pressure is always there: billing clients by the hour means those who stay in the office the longest get the rewards and the recognition. Combined with clients expecting you to be available all the time, it’s no wonder there’s very little time or energy to think about your wellbeing, your home life or other responsibilities.
Then there’s the nature of the work itself. “In law, everything’s black or white, right or wrong, and you’re always looking for problems, risks, loopholes and downsides. It can lead to a lot of negative emotion.” When you combine this, a competitive atmosphere and a regulatory system that, quite rightly, holds you to a very high standard, the thought of making a mistake – any mistake – can feel like a looming fear. Saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’ve got something wrong’ seems like a risk. And yet, from you or your workplace’s perspective, an error ignored could turn into a disaster later on. In other words, “it’s in a workplace’s best interests to create a culture where people are able to speak up if they’re unsure about something.”
So, what’s to be done?
Set an example
Ideally, we should move towards a culture where pushing yourself to the limit is recognised as a problem rather than an accolade. Leadership is key: senior staff need to be seen to embrace more flexible and lower-pressure working practices, and to be honest about their lives. “Having senior people who are willing to talk about the problems they’ve had can really help to change the culture.”
Get leaders on board
At the same time, it’s important to recognise the microcultures within organisations. Whatever’s said at the top must be embraced by each team – so, we need to train, equip and encourage line managers to pay attention to mental health. “We need to make managers accountable for their teams’ happiness.”
Allow room for people’s lives
There are some glimmers of light, though. Legal workplaces are starting to recognise that people have other commitments and constraints, whether they be caring responsibilities, health issues or anything else. “As lawyers, barristers and other professionals here to solve our clients’ problems, we often think we have to leave our personal identity at the door – but there has to be a balance.” And one upside of the billing culture is that you’ll often already have a good sense of exactly what each employee is doing inside of work. Thought about differently, this could become part of ensuring a decent work/life balance for staff.
Adjust your motivation
Much of LawCare’s advice can be boiled down to a simple idea: “Don’t incentivise people to exceed their targets.” Bonuses, recognition and career progression often come down to individuals’ performance, and “performance is usually measured in terms of billable hours. But it needn’t be this way. Why not assess client satisfaction, teamwork, or pro-bono contributions?”
And that’s the key to LawCare’s mission to build a thriving and sustainable legal profession. Focusing on wellbeing, on people, and on positive, sustainable working practices will lead to better outcomes. “This will make your workforce more successful. It will make you better practitioners.”
Persuaded? Below, LawCare recommend ten resources to get you started.
Resources in this toolkit:
Working in the legal profession can be challenging. This guidance outlines the problem and presents advice, tips and examples for how to improve culture and support employees and colleagues.
LawCare provides support and information to anyone in the legal community. This page has details of their phone, email and web helpline, and information on all sorts of wellbeing issues - from bullying to stress to bereavement.
This is Me
This is Me is a business-led campaign to support organisations, and their employees, to talk about mental health. It encourages people with experience of a mental health problem, whether their own or of a loved one, to share their stories.
Wellbeing in the Workplace
Wellbeing in the Workplace is a free online wellbeing programme that gives employees the skills they need to manage their own emotional health, and to support those around them, well before those feelings reach crisis point.
Mind’s workplace wellbeing index
Mind's Workplace Wellbeing Index is a benchmark of best practice and policy. It will highlight what your organisation is doing well, how you compare to others, and how you could improve in your approach to mental health at work.