Elizabeth Rimmer outlines the key finding of LawCare’s Life in the Law report and explains what firm leaders can do to foster mentally healthy workplaces

Elizabeth Rimmer headshot

At LawCare, we have recently released the findings of our ground-breaking study Life in the Law. This academic research, the first of its kind in this country, looked at mental wellbeing in the legal profession, with over 1,700 professionals from the UK, Republic of Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey, and Isle of Man taking part.

Key findings

The key findings of our research confirmed to us some of the issues we hear about at LawCare every day. Legal professionals across the board scored high on the scale for burnout, the cut-off point for a high risk of burnout is 34.8, our sample averaged 42.2. Some 69% had experienced mental ill health including stress, anxiety, and depression in the past 12 months preceding the survey.

Of those experiencing mental ill health, only 56.5% had talked about it at work – the most common reason for this was stigma. Certain groups in the profession, such as junior lawyers, women, those from ethnic minority groups and those with disabilities present a greater risk of burn out. Across the profession we found many are working long hours, not getting enough sleep and 1 in 5 are being bullied.

However, we didn’t only focus on the negative, our aim with Life in the Law is to look at what has a positive effect on mental wellbeing, and what the profession can do as a whole to improve the culture in law to better support mental wellbeing. We found that as the number of hours slept increases, the rate of burnout drops. We discovered that, of a wide range of workplace measures available, from private health insurance to mental health training, regular catchups or appraisals were reported to be the most helpful. Having these in place helped to bolster confidence in personal development and reduce anxiety. We also asked people about their experiences working through the pandemic. While there have been, of course, many negatives such as social isolation, blurring of boundaries between life and work, and increased workloads, for some there were positives such as greater flexibility and more agile working, and a chance to spend more time with close family and really think about what we want in life.

Why does this matter?

Lawyers who are sleep deprived, have a poor work-life balance, feel overwhelmed by their case load, and pressured to meet their billing target or the expectations of clients, are more likely to make mistakes or poor ethical decisions. Stress can lead to raised levels of cortisol and other hormones which negatively affect the brain’s ability to function and process information. Lawyers experiencing stress, anxiety or depression may find it difficult to concentrate, pay attention to detail or interact with colleagues, and have their judgement and decision-making skills compromised. They are less likely to meet the high standards expected of them by both their clients and regulators.

There have been numerous cases heard before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, which show the regulatory consequences of poor mental health. The most well-known of these is perhaps the case of SRA v James, MacGregor, and Naylor [2018] EWHC 3058 (Admin), which raised concerns about the impact of a poor workplace culture on mental health, and highlighted the negative impact it can have on individual careers and firm reputation. In the first instance, the tribunal found these solicitors to be dishonest, but they were not struck off as there was recognition that they were experiencing mental health problems. However, on appeal to the High Court by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the court ruled that the pressure of work or extreme working conditions “cannot either alone or in conjunction with stress or depression” justify not striking off dishonest solicitors. The court did acknowledge the serious consequences for these individuals that may arise from poor workplace culture, but poor mental health attributed to working in a ‘toxic’ environment could not in itself amount to exceptional circumstances to avoid a strike-off, the seriousness of the dishonest conduct was the most important factor.

69% had experienced mental ill health, including stress, anxiety and depression

There has been an employment tribunal case this year about the consequences of working long hours. A partner from a leading law firm, who worked 15 hours a day, was the highest billing equity partner in the firm for five consecutive years, routinely charged 2,600 hours a year against a target of 1,400, and managed a further several hundred hours a year on business development. He was diagnosed with burnout and recently won a disability discrimination claim about the way he was treated by his firm.

In the culture

These cases have sparked considerable debate on the culture and practice of law, and how this can undermine mental wellbeing. It seems unfair that those working in toxic environments with poor supervision, who make mistakes and cover them up, can be struck off for dishonesty, where the predominant culture in law tends to invoke fear and panic as the first response to a mistake, rather than early acceptance and recognition. Had these firms had effective supervision and a positive, open working culture, perhaps these cases would not have arisen, as the struggles these individuals were experiencing may have been picked up earlier and support provided, or if they felt able to admit their mistakes, steps could have been taken to try and fix them. Our sector approach to mental wellbeing can’t be about pulling people out of the river when they are drowning, we need to stop them falling in.

Ultimately, mental wellbeing gets to the heart of the reputation of the legal profession. The public place their trust and confidence in the legal profession every day to deliver effective and ethical legal services, from representation in criminal proceedings, to buying a home to selling a business. If lawyers are burned out, sleep deprived, and being bullied at work, this is going to undermine their competence. It’s a risk to any firm’s bottom line not to safeguard the mental wellbeing of their staff.

As we emerge from the pandemic, with greater insights into the benefits of flexible working, we have a great opportunity to start taking steps to change the way we work, to create a culture in law that is more human and puts its greatest asset, its people, first.

Many have reflected during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on their lives and what makes them happy. When you can’t see family and friends, or travel, or take part in leisure activities, what is left is work and when there isn’t much else to do, people start asking themselves, “do I enjoy this?”. We are seeing a salary war for junior lawyers in city law firms, reflecting the power and opportunity some junior lawyers have in choosing where they work. Legal professionals will increasingly be able to demand more flexibility in how they work and will be seeking to work in organisations that provide this.

The British Academy was asked by the Government Office for Science to produce an independent review on the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19, one of their findings was greater awareness about the importance of mental health. With this greater awareness, though, will come a pressure for action, it’s not going to be enough to just talk about it. The International Bar Association (IBA) has recently undertaken a global study into lawyer mental wellbeing. One of the most striking preliminary findings was that 82% of legal institutions surveyed said mental health was a priority, yet only 27% collected relevant data and only 16% had mental health and wellbeing training for all managers. The talk is being talked, but it isn’t being walked.

Culture change happens when people take action; it’s not words, mission statements, or values on a website that define a culture – it’s about those everyday habits of how things get done, rooted in purpose and shared goals that everyone understands.

What does a mentally healthy workplace culture look like?

A mentally healthy workplace is one where people feel safe to speak up about concerns or mistakes or opinions, knowing they will be listened to, where there is effective supervision and regular catch ups to talk through concerns, where career opportunities are fair, and value growth and development, where decision making is consistent and transparent, where there is social connection and collegiality, where everyone is treated with respect and where leaders model positive behaviours.

It is clear from this research that we need to work together to make the law a healthier, happier place to work. Participants in the study agreed that mental wellbeing in the profession is a collective responsibility – whether at an individual level in looking after ourselves, maintaining boundaries, and treating our colleagues with respect, or at a more senior level in setting out the values and culture of the organisation and having systems in place monitor this. Regulation, professional bodies and legal educators also have a crucial role to play too, in raising awareness, education, showcasing good practice, signposting to support and providing skills training. All of this matters for the future sustainability of the profession.

Key steps to developing a mentally healthy legal workplace.

  • Raise awareness and share insights to challenge stigma, to promote a culture of acceptance and encourage people to seek help if they are struggling.
  • Embed mental wellbeing into your firm’s policies and procedures, and put it on the agenda for senior management meetings.
  • Mental wellbeing of staff is a leadership duty, get senior leaders on board and be role models for healthier working practices.
  • Provide mental health and leadership skills training to everyone with management responsibilities.
  • Provide good supervision – it’s an opportunity to monitor workloads and solve problems. Good line management can help manage and prevent stress, provides a space to reflect, develop skills and build confidence. Ensure those with management responsibilities are supported and have the time for regular supervision sessions. Good supervision encourages a positive culture and leads to better working relationships.
  • Be mindful of staff who may be working in emotionally difficult practice areas such as family or immigration, they may need additional support to manage the emotional impact of this work.
  • Signpost to support.
  • Encourage colleague to treat each with respect, say hello, thank you, not raise their voices, ensure clear and effective measures are in place to report and address bullying, harassment or discrimination.
  • Monitor workloads and encourage healthy working habits – taking lunchbreaks, regular holidays, avoiding weekend working.

The above steps require commitment and investment, but adopting them will lead to legal workplaces that are truly inclusive, diverse, where people thrive, and can still meet the needs of their clients without personal cost. Now is the time to start making those positive changes.


LawCare is an independent charity offering emotional support, information and training to the legal community in the UK. You can contact them for free, confidential, emotional support on 0800 279 6888, email support@lawcare.org.uk or visit www.lawcare.org.uk to access webchat and other information and resources.