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Kryss  Macleod

Director of undergraduate programmes, Manchester Law School

An education in professional resilience

An education in professional resilience


Dr Kryss Macleod examines how legal educators and the profession are responding to the greater visibility of mental health in young lawyers and how building resilience is vital

Issues surrounding mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession have increased in visibility in recent years.

Most strikingly, there have been a number of Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) hearings in which there have been clear links between toxic organisational cultures, mental health and solicitor wrongdoing.

Issues of culture and environment are also referenced in the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) enforcement strategy published in February 2019.

What are the underlying reasons around the increased visibility of these issues; and what responses have taken place within legal education and the legal profession?

The concerns

In 2017 LawCare, the charity dedicated to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of lawyers, received 900 phone calls, 27 per cent of which related to stress. This covers a range of issues ranging from a lack of suitable training together with an unavailable supervisor, to a toxic work atmosphere and unrealistic billing targets.

Elsewhere, more than 90 per cent of respondents to the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) annual resilience and wellbeing survey reported experiencing stress in their role; and more than 38 per cent had experienced a mental health problem in the previous month.

Professor Richard Collier’s recent research on anxiety and wellbeing among junior lawyers highlights the range of pressures on young lawyers from an early point in their legal education and career.

These include accepted norms on a lack of work/life balance, tendencies towards perfectionism and a lack of support for wellbeing and self-care.  He also highlights the way in which younger lawyers were inhibited from speaking out.

Similar findings have been identified in further academic research such as Millennial Lawyers, by Andrew Francis and Lydia Bleasdale, which highlights how younger lawyers perceive raising concerns about stress to be unnatural.

A team of lecturers working on a LawCare project agree and say that “many of the issues facing lawyers appear to be structural, meaning that wider reform may be required to ameliorate some of the problems”.

They also reveal cultures are focusing on fee-earning and productivity, which means wellbeing is not a concern and suggests a stigma attached to mental health within the profession. Francis and Bleasdale have also highlighted the close and reciprocal relationship between cultures established in law schools and the wider legal profession, and their effect on student and lawyer wellbeing.

Responding to the challenge

In tandem with the focus on mental health and wellbeing, increasing attention has been paid within legal education and the legal profession (and other professional sectors) to resilience as a necessary part of a professional skill set.

Resilience – and related traits such as ‘grit’ – have received positive attention for their professional and educational benefits in recent years. Implicit within these is that through the development of these characteristics as professional attributes, lawyers entering the profession will be better able to cope with the organisational and professional challenges they face.

Professional skills and identity development form a key part of effective legal education, whether in a university setting or as part of continuing professional development. There are already a number of tools available to help students establish techniques that can increase resilience in education and later professional life.

These approaches are increasingly being seen across a number of legal education providers as they respond to the greater flexibility given to them under recent regulatory reforms. The legal profession is also exploring various interventions through individual firms, and representative bodies such as local law societies and the JLD. This has been supported through partnerships – not only with LawCare but with the increasing expertise located in a number of law schools.

Instilling in students and young lawyers the importance of reflecting on reactions to prior disappointments or obstacles can support ongoing evaluation and goal setting. Appropriate techniques can be found in, for example, Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset. This can provide a model for dealing with future setbacks in a more productive manner, which is a dimension of resilience.

In the face of reports of perfectionism and fear of failure (highlighted in a number of SDT decisions), teaching students how to ‘fail well’ could help increase their ability to respond effectively to criticism and resist the pressure of professional images of infallibility.

From an academic point of view ensuring active learning in lectures, and combining feedback with purposeful and informed practice, can help develop an objective, flexible way of problem-solving under pressured conditions.

The idea of self-care has also been advocated as an essential skill for lawyers which would change the dynamic of traits usually seen as desirable within the profession. As self-care is a package or a series of habits, this would need to be instilled initially during higher education to ensure endurance – as explored by Lydia Bleasdale and Sarah Humphreys in their work on resilience across a number of undergraduate disciplines.

One of the key lessons from academic research is that resilience exists on a continuum and, crucially, will vary across differing environments or contexts, including professional, personal and educational – each impacting differently on levels of resilience. This recognition is part of an overall shift in understanding mental health from a ‘deficit-based model’ of mental health towards models focusing on prevention.

Working together

Given the multifaceted and developing understanding of mental health in the legal profession, legal educators have a responsibility to take a lead in shaping the curricula to equip students with these skills; and the way in which soft skills – particularly resilience – is viewed by students and the profession.

Presenting resilience as a trait or skill that is seen as binary, highly desirable and decontextualised risks exacerbating the issues noted by Richard Collier regarding ‘solving’ the wellbeing issues presented throughout the legal profession. Interventions are “framing the responsibility to tackle problems at the level of the individual” rather than addressing the broader issues that contribute to poor wellbeing across the sector.

There is an increasingly open dialogue with the legal profession surrounding the balance of responsibilities for addressing wellbeing and mental health. As well as ensuring our understanding and treatment of resilience takes into account the way in which resilience is developed – alongside realistic understandings of the challenges of an uncertain and fast-moving legal services landscape.

Huge strides have been made within legal education and the legal profession in recognising the existence of these challenges; and in starting to work together to address them.

Undergraduate and professional legal education is rapidly changing, drawing on genuine inter-disciplinary expertise across university campuses to design innovative programmes, informed by close dialogue with the profession.

However, the scale of the challenge leaves little room for complacency. Both legal education and the profession may need to do some genuine, potentially painful, resilience-building introspection of our own. We need to understand the underlying expectations and values within our organisational and educational cultures that present challenges for mental health and wellbeing.

As with many other areas of legal education policy and practice today, constructive and mutually supportive dialogue with the profession is key.

Dr Kryss Macleod is director of undergraduate programmes at Manchester Law School

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