Mental health: time to walk the talk
By Amy Clowrey
It is one thing to discuss mental health issues affecting younger lawyers, but stakeholders now need to take more decisive action, urges Amy Clowrey
More is needed to provide greater protection for junior lawyers, and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) should be calling firms to account for toxic work environments, regulating training contracts and training principals and setting a mandatory minimum salary for trainee solicitors. The Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) has noticed an increase in the number of junior lawyers reaching out due to a decline in their mental health. In 2017 we began surveying our members annually on their resilience and wellbeing and preparing good practice guidance for employers. We have been actively fighting for changes in the workplace including, for example, the introduction of mental health first aiders.
Despite this, our third resilience survey, which took place this year, received the most responses to date (more than 1,800) and produced very worrying statistics. Not enough is being done to support positive mental health in the legal profession.
The keynote findings from our 2019 survey are as follows:
—— More than 93 per cent of respondents reported feeling stressed in their role in the month before completing the survey, with almost a quarter of those individuals being severely/extremely stressed as a result of their work.
—— The key stress factors for junior lawyers were high workload, client demands or expectations, lack of support and ineffective management.
—— More than 77 per cent of respondents said that their firm could do more to support the levels of stress they were experiencing at work.
—— One in 15 junior lawyers (6.4 per cent) experienced suicidal thoughts as a result of stress at work, in the month leading up to taking the survey.
—— The number of junior lawyers experiencing mental ill health increased significantly from the previous year, with nearly half (48 per cent) experiencing mental ill-health in the month leading up to the survey.
Likewise with regard to training contracts – their regulation and a requirement to pay a minimum salary, both of which were scrapped in 2014 – the JLD is concerned that firms are able to provide less than satisfactory training, including poor management and support, and that this is not picked up by the SRA until something goes wrong, which is too late. Take for example the case of Emily Scott – had the SRA regulated her training contract then there would have been a higher chance that the firm’s fraudulent activities would have been identified sooner, rather than after the event when Emily Scott effectively blew the whistle.
According to our survey, a lack of support and ineffective management is found to be one of the main factors attributing to mental ill-health in junior lawyers. This, combined with financial struggles, is likely to have a huge impact on an individual’s ability to cope. The SRA’s own impact study revealed that the abolishment of the minimum salary had led to a fall in average pay (by £560 on average) and seen the gender pay gap widen.
The results of this study also revealed that, on considering the median salaries, both Black and Asian trainees still earn less than White trainees. In addition, the 2019 Salary and Benefits Benchmarker conducted by legal recruiter Douglas Scott revealed that 25 per cent of trainees are still being paid below the Law Society’s recommended levels. While the JLD is hugely grateful to Chancery Lane for stepping up and recommending a minimum salary for trainee solicitors, it is quite apparent based on the above statistics that a recommendation alone is not enough.
It also begs the question why, when the SRA’s own research shows that the removal of the recommended minimum salary for trainee solicitors has resulted in a negative impact, are the SRA not taking action? It’s all very well talking about these issues but as we can see with the minimum salary for trainee solicitors, recommendations alone are not working and we need the SRA and organisations employing solicitors to take action. The SRA has seemingly taken a backseat in overseeing and regulating junior lawyers. It’s about time our regulator started regulating again.