Legal Minds - Thoughts on Mental Health in Legal

After our latest video series, 'Legal Minds', Eimear McCann sums up her thoughts and Summize's stance on mental health in the legal industry.
June 22, 2022
Last updated:
June 22, 2022

Looking at mental health through the legal lens highlights how little we talk about the issue. This glaring absence of dialogue has caused a “silent epidemic” within the world of law (cf. 2020 Survey by Liquid Legal Institute). An interim report from the International Bar Association describes lawyer wellbeing as a cause for global concern, with 41% of respondents indicating that they could not discuss their mental wellbeing with their employers for fear of judgement or tangible repercussions.

Why are mental health issues so prominent within legal?

As with any complex issue, there isn’t a simple answer to this question, but certain themes and sentiments do standout. The universal consensus is that law is a challenging and highly pressurised world. It can feel like a very lonely place, with perfectionism and significant levels of competition from academia upwards. It is also an industry that pivots around problem-solving and resolving conflict. Inevitably, lawyers absorb the associated stress (whether they are personal or corporate) but must remain impartial, professional, and forward-thinking.

Sam Jardine states, “People who go into the legal profession tend to be perfectionists and to want to get things absolutely right, absolutely certain the whole time.” These perfectionist traits are compounded by legal training that often has negative marking systems in place during assessments.

The pressure on lawyers comes from all angles, internally and externally. There is also a fear element. As Jodie Hill points out, “people are scared of getting things wrong, so they don't ask for help”, which only serves to exacerbate anxiety and feelings of isolation. To compound these feelings, there is also a lack of communication, which means these issues are never fully explored.

Jindy sees this as the crux of the decline in mental wellbeing, “We should be understanding what's going on with people. Getting real-time data…  making sure they're getting that downtime. Yet, we seem to run people as if they're assets that can just run seven days a week.”

Bob Levant reflects, “I think it's most importantly a lack of conversation. It's a lack of willingness to move toward the things that, quite frankly, I think are fairly obvious… the practice is hard, right? The work is born of conflict, right? So, there's always somebody on the other side of your case telling you you're wrong.”

There is a need for an open discussion about the reality of legal practice and an onus upon all who are involved in teaching, training, and employing to ensure that this is contextualised. They also must demonstrate a willingness to engage in those discussions.

What could, and should, we do better?

We need to talk more, but we also need to lead by example and manage expectations from the outset.

Jodie would like to see more open leadership in law, “You can't say to employees - be open about your mental health and talk to me - if you don't do that yourself. So again, you know that as part of our culture in law firms, we're strong and we don't talk about these things, when actually the reality is we are human, and we do need to talk about it.”

There may a feeling that we are getting better at talking more openly, as a profession and as a society, but Sahar Farooqi feels that cultural and social barriers still hinder progress:

“Historically, there's been a lot of stigma around mental health. I think that's well documented, and the willingness to have discourse is the starting point... But that doesn't mean that it's not still derided. It doesn't mean that people don't think that someone who says "I'm not coping", is being anything other than a snowflake… that kind of toxic machismo that permeates the way in which people need to project themselves, isn't helpful… What we're lacking still, I think, is an almost institutionalized approach to it… employee assistance programs are only there if first off, you recognize that you need help, which isn't a given. And second, that you're strong enough to actually seek out that help and take it, which also isn't a given. So, it's automatically two hurdles before you actually get to the help that they're offering.”

Do we need to start talking about these issues before lawyers start practice? Bob Levant believes that we do: “Certainly it would help to change the dynamic and the culture at the law school level, because… new lawyers entering the profession come into this kind of wagon rut culture... You get educated by the culture that surrounds you, whether it's from childhood or in your profession. And so, I think if you can see it and you're aware of it, then it's easier to change it.”

If we know we need to talk more openly and we know that we need to shift our thinking, how do we ensure these changes happen? How do we move from awareness to tangible change?

“I honestly think that when you have a major problem- and I would say mental health within the legal profession is a major problem - it's not just going to be one solution that answers it. It's going to be multiple solutions that can address it… we are still in the acknowledgement phase. It's not been easy to talk about these things and my own mental health issues. It's been very hard, and I was scared, but I do it because I am in a position to, and I think it helps other lawyers to hear someone else talk about their struggle.” Claire E. Parsons.

Aside from the importance of open dialogue, shouldn’t we also address the flawed time recording system that dominates work patterns? Jodie sees a direct nexus between the billable hour and the impact on mental health: “From a mental health perspective, what I would really like to see is firms looking at different ways of targeting staff to move away from billable hours. I think the billable hour is a really toxic way to work. It basically encourages people to work ridiculously long hours which is not sustainable in the long term.”

Positive steps towards change?

It would be wrong to say that nothing is changing. So many people share their stories and inspire others to open-up and do the same. We now also have platforms that allow us to have more of a voice.

We are talking about creativity, vulnerability, self-expression, and many other concepts that have, historically, been alien to the profession. There is a collective sense that if we can change the perception of lawyers by enabling them to be “themselves”, then we will move away from stereotypes, external (and internal) pressures, and dispel the heavy expectation on lawyers to be polished and professional from every angle.

Organisations like LawCare can make a big difference, and not just from a research perspective, but also in the support that they offer. As a LawCare champion, Jodie feels that “the work that they're doing is something that's really positive to follow because it's needed, and more and more firms will get on board with it.”

Ultimately, there is only so much that organisations like LawCare can achieve if the culture remains the same. The change must come from within. Mindsets need to change, and businesses need to embrace the shift towards a more human-focused, agile way of working. At a basic level, we need to see more trust and less focus on objectives and hitting targets.

“The smarter organizations are realizing that people are talented… People are driven. If we trust them and give them the right tools, they will do what needs to be done in the best way possible. They will find the best routes to results. And so, they probably won't need to work weekends and they will figure out what hours work best for them... It’s almost like we're talking about the old way and the new way.” Jindy

Setting realistic expectations, of ourselves and others, go along way in helping to alleviate stress and anxiety. We have all had a lot to deal with over the past 12 months, but we also have an opportunity to ensure we retain the sense of intimacy and connection that has been fostered, with the blurred lines between work and domesticity.

As Sam points out, it’s often the simple things that make people feel valued, “You know, some firms are giving people extra days holiday a year to deal with things that are coming up in their lives. And I think those kinds of initiatives and those kinds of things that are being done are really helpful because, at the end of the day, it's all about people and trying to make sure people are cared for at a time when they may well be struggling. So, I think maybe another thing is having realistic expectations of ourselves and of other people.

Where does legal tech fit?

We are living through a digital revolution. That is an inescapable truth. Within that, we need to find ways to retain autonomy and utilise tech to our advantage. Technology should be about removing frictions and the world of legal is no exception. As Sahar succinctly highlights, “There's got to be a way for the technology that we're using to service the work that we're required to do to assist our clients, to add value to people.”

Repetitive tasks can be stressful, mainly because we are always busy, and we recognise that our time could be better spent on more complex work. That sense of frustration alone can elevate anxiety levels. If we can automate at the right points in our workflow, we are alleviating some of that stress. This is something Jodie has focused on at Thrive, “I think that technology can help... I know one of the things that we've really worked on at Thrive is automating our processes… And actually, as a lawyer, you would want to be doing more of the complex stuff than the basic, admin reminder type things… but also support the firm from a profitability perspective.”

However, awareness is key, otherwise tech can augment anxiety, particularly as we are all so reliant on on-screen time. “I do think if you are doing this kind of thing, seven-eight hours a day, it's going to take its toll on you because you have to sit here…And if you're always on if you're on the screen the whole time, that's really tiring right?” Sam

This is one of my favourite quotes(from Claire E. Parsons) on where tech should slot into our professional lives; a simple philosophy we should all live by:  “Ideally, your technology should free up your time, or lead you to be able to have a more cohesive team, because when we are with people and when we are working co-operatively with others, we are happy.

Often, the simplest statements are the most powerful, and this one really resonates. If we are going to stop this silent epidemic, we need to come together as a legal collective and pool our knowledge, resources, and energy. We will all be happier as a result.


About the author

Eimear McCann

Eimear practiced as a lawyer for 11 years, focusing on litigation, immigration and public law, before moving into LegalTech with F-lex Legal. She has an LLC and worked at Summize as our Head of Strategy.
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