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Avneet Baryan

Senior Associate, Mills & Reeve

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While progress has been made, the legal sector must continue its efforts to prioritise mental wellbeing

Mental wellbeing of junior lawyers: are we there yet?

Opinion
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Mental wellbeing of junior lawyers: are we there yet?

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Avneet Baryan, president of the Junior London Solicitors Litigation Association, provides an overview of the progress made within the legal profession in regard to the mental wellbeing of junior lawyers

The legal profession has come a long way in recognising the importance of mental health and to find ways in which to discuss and foster a healthier and more compassionate legal environment. However, in a recent survey conducted by LexisNexis of more than 500 associates and senior leaders, it was found that there was a reluctance among qualified solicitors to pursue promotions. Nearly half (49%) of leaders had also noticed a decline in the number of associates aspiring to make partner. At large firms, that figure was 63%.

LawCare, a charity that exists to support and promote mental wellbeing across the legal community in the UK, conducted a survey in 2020/21 about life in the law. The results were astonishing in that:

  • 69% of participants said they had experienced mental ill health in the 12 months before completing the survey;
  • participants between the ages of 26-35 displayed the highest ‘burnout’ scores, as well as the lowest autonomy, psychological safety and highest work intensity scores; and
  • participants who identified as female, belonging to an ethnic minority group and/or having a disability reported higher levels of burnout compared to their counterparts who are male, white and/or without a disability.

Over 64% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that they have to check emails outside of regular work hours to keep up with their workload. Further, the Junior Lawyer Division’s ‘Resilience and Wellbeing Survey Report 2019’ found that one-fifth of respondents reported regularly feeling unable to cope.

So, what challenges do junior lawyers face?

  • High stress levels result from demanding workloads, tight deadlines, and high-pressured cases and situations;
  • Long hours are often common as a result of tight deadlines and billable hour targets. This results in the balance between work and one’s personal life inevitably becoming a constant struggle;
  • Navigating a lawyer’s career path is difficult. The path to qualification is often uncertain as is promotion from associate to senior associate. This can take its toll;
  • Social factors like social class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and health intersect with wellbeing. These aspects shape how mental health is understood at different career stages and within specific workplace contexts; and
  • Digital wellbeing, as the legal profession is no exception to the ‘always on’ culture that remote technology has created, meaning it can be difficult to establish healthy digital habits and boundaries.

What progress has been made?

  • Awareness among the legal community is clear. Initiatives like Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA) have gained traction. MHFA training equips legal professionals to address colleagues’ immediate mental health needs and direct them to further support;
  • Organisations like LawCare and Jonathan’s Voice actively promote mental health awareness. Research studies, such as LawCare’s ‘Life in the Law’, provide valuable insights into wellbeing in the profession;
  • Law firms are taking active and ongoing steps to educate and train staff about stress management, self-care and resilience; and
  • Flexible work arrangements are promoted by law firms, which will assist here and ensure a diverse pool of talent.

What more can we all do?

  • There should be senior role models who actively model and communicate the right work/life balance;
  • Those senior role models should consciously challenge client-set deadlines when appropriate;
  • Conversations and open dialogue about mental health should be normalised. Create safe spaces where junior lawyers can share their struggles without fear of judgment and the stigma that often seems to be associated with mental health issues;
  • Workloads should be proactively managed/balanced to prevent burnout, for example through work allocation managers;
  • Ongoing training and education should be provided to all staff, not just MHFAs, to promote a growth mindset;
  • Support networks within firms should be promoted and backed so that junior lawyers can benefit from connecting with experienced colleagues who understand the challenges; and
  • Firms should offer digital wellbeing training to staff – it is a non-negotiable aspect of a healthy workplace. Organisations like Live More Offline help provide practical guidance.

Concluding thoughts

While progress has been made, the legal sector must continue its efforts to prioritise mental wellbeing. The key to achieving this is by legal firms fostering a supportive and compassionate environment, change has to come from within organisations to ensure that junior lawyers thrive both personally and professionally. A healthy work–life balance is important, particularly for the next generation of lawyers. They don’t want to adhere to the norms, they want to challenge and change the state of play for the better.

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