Building resilience as a profession
By Nicola Laver
Kayleigh Leonie summarises the findings of a recent workplace wellbeing study by Newcastle University Law School, identifying eight key themes affecting resilience
Research by the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) this year revealed that more than 90 per cent of junior lawyers experience stress at work, with more than 25 per cent experiencing severe or extreme levels of stress.
Moreover, one in 15 reported experiencing suicidal thoughts as a result of stress at work during the month leading up to taking the survey.
The Resilience and Wellbeing Survey 2019 also found that 48 per cent of junior lawyers reported experiencing mental ill-health (whether formally diagnosed or not) in the month leading up to taking the survey – a significant increase on the 38 per cent reported in 2018 and 26 per cent in 2017.
In a bid to address an evidently growing issue, the JLD published best practice guidance for employers in February 2018, focusing on three core pillars: support; culture and education/training,
In June professor of law and social theory at the Newcastle University Law School Richard Collier produced a briefing report summarising the key findings of his own research, which explores a set of issues affecting anxiety among junior lawyers.
Funded by Anxiety UK’s Katharine and Harold Fisher Anxiety Research Fund, Collier’s research included in-depth interviews with 12 practising solicitors who work for a range of firms.
He aimed to answer three core research questions:
- How is anxiety experienced and understood in relation to the debates now taking place around lawyer wellbeing? What practices and cultures in the workplace and legal education are linked to anxiety difficulties in law for these junior lawyers?
- What organisational attempts are being made to promote improved awareness of anxiety and support for staff who do face difficulties?
- What is, and might be, the role of law firms and professional bodies such as (among others) LawCare, Law Societies and the Solicitors Regulatory Authority in this area?
- What knowledge exists of charities such as Anxiety UK regarding support provision and information on anxiety?
The research sought to flesh out the results of the JLD’s 2017 to 2019 resilience and wellbeing surveys.
The findings highlighted the distinctive pressures associated with client demands and well-documented concerns around competitive workplace cultures.
Issues of vicarious/secondary trauma and the impact of the way legal work is billed were seen as more acute in some areas of law than others, with differences between large corporate firms, high street practice, in-house and law centre and legal aid work.
Notwithstanding such diversity, eight recurring themes emerged from the interviews:
- Challenging stigma and speaking out;
- Law as an anxiety-inducing profession – competition and the route to qualification;
- Legal education and the role of university law schools;
- Work-life balance, long hours and client demands;
- The people we are: reflecting on anxiety;
- Intersections and the question of gender;
- Understandings of anxiety and self-care; and
- What works – and what doesn’t: the importance of management and the limits of resilience.
In his research Collier explains: “The idea that poor lawyer wellbeing should be accepted as ‘just how things are’ is being increasingly challenged in the legal profession.
"This is a core business issue for law firms raising significant questions not only about the links between mental health and the workplace and need to work in more effective ways but also, looking to generational shifts in attitudes, and the implications of a greater willingness to be open about mental health issues.”
The research suggests that pressures and concerns relating to anxiety are shaped not only by the stages of life and career of junior lawyers but also the understandings of legal professionalism that shape the distinctive practice areas in which lawyers work.
The JLD is extremely grateful to Professor Collier for undertaking this research and continuing to raise awareness of these important issues for junior lawyers. It would like to also extend its thanks to those junior lawyers who participated in the interviews.
[biog] Kayleigh Leonie is a Law Society Council member
If you are affected by any of the issues in this article you can contact LawCare’s free and confidential helpline for support on 0800 279 6888 or find more information on its website www.lawcare.org.uk