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How can early career lawyers set themselves up for a long career in the law?

A career in the law can be stimulating and rewarding in many ways, at both a professional and personal level. It can provide meaning and stability, and the opportunity to help others through providing access to justice. But it doesn’t come without challenges, particularly for those in the early stages of their career. A legal career is a marathon, not a sprint. Unfortunately, many lawyers too often prioritise their work over their wellbeing. For early career and young lawyers, who are particularly vulnerable to burnout and stress, this imbalance can cause wellbeing issues that lead to promising legal careers being cut short.

The challenges for early career lawyers

The VLSB+C Lawyer Wellbeing Project Report describes a “professional culture that frequently makes it very difficult for the average individual to achieve wellbeing. Respondents frequently revealed an experience of acculturation into the legal profession, which involved learning that they should not prioritise their personal wellbeing and that any failure to cope with pressures was a result of their personal weaknesses”. While this experience is obviously not true for every young lawyer, many do compromise their mental and social health for professional output. As a result, many early career lawyers are in crisis.

The tendency to put work before health is leading to early career lawyers leaving the profession due to stress, exhaustion, chronic insomnia, ill-health, depression, anxiety and a lack of autonomy. A 2021 Lawcare study found that the lawyers who experienced the highest level of burnout are aged between 26 and 35 years. In the Lawcare study, this subset of lawyers also reported experiencing high work intensity, low levels of psychiatric safety and low levels of work autonomy.

Unfortunately, this is not a new issue. In 2017, the Law Society of England and Wales’ Junior Lawyer Division conducted a survey on resilience and wellbeing of junior lawyers. The survey report found 84% of respondents had been unable to cope because of stress at some point in the month prior to the survey, with 16% reporting regularly feeling this way during this period. Further, 39% regularly felt stressed because of their work in the previous month, and almost two-thirds (65%) considered that their high workload was a leading cause of the problem. Ineffective management, billable hours targets, lack of autonomy and high client and self-expectations were also significant contributors to many junior lawyers’ stress. In one month alone, 74% of the respondents considered taking leave for mental illness but elected not to.

Three ways to set up a long legal career

For early career and young lawyers there are three key ways to better train for the marathon that is a legal career. These involve looking after your emotional wellbeing, looking after your body and looking for work that offers much more than money. Here are some tips on ways to achieve those goals.

Look after your emotional wellbeing by:

  • employing a healthy work life-balance
  • nurturing relationships outside of work
  • prioritising time for yourself
  • making sure you ‘switch off’ at the end of the working day
  • practising mindfulness
  • adjusting personal expectations to be healthier (i.e. you don’t have to push harder to achieve peak performance – late nights are not a badge of honour), and
  • speaking up about your experiences, your goals and your overall work satisfaction.

Look after your body by:

  • ensuring you get enough sleep each night
  • exercising regularly and sufficiently
  • monitoring your nutritional intake, and
  • being responsible with alcohol and drug use (the Black Dog Institute found legal professionals were more likely to self-medicate to treat depressive symptoms than professionals in other industries).

Beware the golden handcuffs – look for more than money by:

  • ensuring you have a healthy work-life balance
  • making the most of wellness benefits (e.g. EAP, meditation, yoga and fitness memberships)
  • investing in your professional development
  • developing a strong mentor-mentee relationship
  • working with managers who support your autonomy and actively help you manage your workload
  • remaining future-focussed by staying across legal tech and other developments
  • pursuing career satisfaction by doing work you enjoy
  • considering jobs in legal fields that complement your goals, and
  • giving back to your workplace and community.
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