It’s no secret that wellbeing – or more accurately a lack or low levels of it – is a significant issue for the legal sector.
In our 2019 Lawyer Wellbeing Report, we highlighted research that suggests lawyers’ levels of non-specific psychological distress are high compared to population norms, as are their rates of depression. Evidence of poor levels of lawyer wellbeing is also supported by the International Bar Association, which found one in three barristers surveyed said their work had a negative, or extremely negative, impact on their wellbeing.
Addressing wellbeing is everyone’s responsibility. To do it effectively, we all need to understand what poor wellbeing looks like for lawyers so that we can work together to identify and mitigate the contributing factors.
What poor wellbeing looks like
For lawyers, poor wellbeing manifests in many ways, including:
- Burnout – fuelled by exhaustion, high workload, long hours, an inability to maintain a work-life balance and low level of autonomy
- Mental ill health – including stress, depression, anxiety and vicarious trauma
- Physical ill health – physical health issues may be wide ranging in presentation and severity
- Low levels of autonomy – including little control over what, where, when and how we work
- Psychological safety – including an inability to speak up, embarrassment about raising concerns and fear of revealing mistakes. In the IBA study, nearly half of those surveyed indicated the fear of negatively impacting their career put them off discussing their mental health issues at work
- Work intensity – which can be relentless, particularly for lawyers working on multiple matters (in the our Lawyer Wellbeing Report interviewees reporting long work hours were very common)
- Sleep issues – including insomnia and disrupted sleep, and
- Alcohol or drug abuse.
The contributing factors
Poor levels of wellbeing and mental health issues are common in the law for many reasons.
Without question, legal systems and institutions play a key role in lawyer wellbeing.
Most lawyers have had to deal with heavy workloads, high levels of stress, long hours and client pressures since their early careers. In recent times, these contributing factors have increased with the blurring of boundaries facilitated by working from home and technology.
In many firms, lawyers may also face internal pressures about billing, productivity, growth and other expectations (including learning and development, business development and pro bono work). These pressures can contribute to a lower quality of outputs and a lack of autonomy in a lawyer’s working life. Further, the metrics used by many firms (e.g. productivity, billing and time) perpetuate these issues by failing to incentivise wellbeing goals.
Workplace culture may also contribute negatively on wellbeing. For example, lawyers we have spoken to have expressed concern about the hypercritical, highly competitive and ‘up or out’ promotion cultures they have experienced. Even more worrying are workplace cultures that accept bullying, harassment, sexism and racism. Symptomatic of these cultures are the low levels of managerial training in wellbeing (the IBA survey found just 16% of institutions provide it) and the absence of wellbeing as a topic in many CPD programs.
These cultural factors can contribute to some groups being at a higher risk, including women, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, First Nations peoples, younger lawyers, and people with disabilities.
Another factor contributing to poor wellbeing for lawyers is the vicarious trauma they can experience through their work. This can be particularly true for lawyers working on personal injury, refugee, criminal and family law issues. These experiences can be compounded where there is a lack of support available to lawyers to help manage their vicarious trauma.
For lawyers experiencing poor wellbeing, broader societal views of the legal profession may provide an unhelpful backdrop and reinforce damaging stereotypes.
Some people harbour generic negative assumptions about lawyers, including that:
- they are not trustworthy (In Roy Morgan’s 2021 Image of Professions Survey only 26% of Australians rated lawyers as ‘high’ or ‘very high’ for ethics and honesty)
- they are high performing professionals so they can ‘handle it’, and
- they choose to take on high stress, high earning positions (i.e. little sympathy for what is seen as a personal choice).
More broadly, there continues to be a legacy of misinformation about wellbeing and mental health.
For all Victorians, the pandemic has been difficult and it is no surprise that it has had a part to play as a contributing factor to the state of lawyer wellbeing. Lawyers Weekly highlighted that the wellbeing of lawyers declined quite significantly in 2021 when compared to previous years, calling this trend the ‘shadow pandemic’.
There are several reasons for this problem. During lockdowns and into the ‘new normal’ most lawyers worked from home. This led to many experiencing a ‘blurring’ of boundaries between home and work, which caused issues including longer working days, poor motivation, poor concentration, feelings of loss of control, isolation, stress and anxiety. There were also unusual patterns in workflow, including corporate ‘belt-tightening’ in 2020 followed by high levels of mergers and acquisition activity in 2021. None of these issues are unique to the legal profession.
It is also worth highlighting there have been some positive aspects of working from home, including the benefits of increased time with family, no commuting, and better lifestyle habits. Anecdotally, we know this has led to self-reflection for many lawyers.
Tackling the issues
Lawyer wellbeing is everyone’s responsibility, including the legal regulator.
To help drive cultural change and the wellbeing of the legal profession, the VLSB+C is taking an active role through our:
- Regulatory work – we are committed to minimising the negative impacts we may have on practitioners and consumers in the course of our regulatory work
- Mental health Policy – which encourages lawyers who are experiencing a mental health condition to voluntarily seek appropriate treatment. We only require lawyers to disclose mental health conditions to us if their condition will affect their ability to meet their legal practice obligations. We will treat lawyers who disclose a mental health condition to us fairly and sensitively and we will treat disclosures made to us confidentially and perform our function without discrimination.
- Lawyer Wellbeing Project – designed to shift the conversation about lawyer wellbeing away from an emphasis on personal resilience, to highlight the systemic drivers of poor wellbeing and identify what changes might be needed to improve wellbeing outcomes. We also produced the Lawyer Wellbeing Report as part of the project.
- Operational Wellbeing project – which includes a guide to a best-practice approach for dealing with challenging interactions, complaints and investigations.
- Wellbeing resources – we promote a range of wellbeing resources for lawyers on our website.