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Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Legal Profession

Dr Emma Jones, University of Sheffield

I was fortunate enough to be part of the Advancing Wellness in Law Network’s second ‘digital conversation’ in September 2020. Together with my colleague, Dr Neil Graffin of The Open University, we discussed the findings from our newly published book ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Legal Profession’ (co-authored with Rajvinder Samra and Mathijs Lucassen).

The idea for the book originated in the wider body of international research on lawyer mental health and wellbeing, much of it based in the USA and Australia. This has consistently indicated that a substantial minority of legal professionals experience concerning issues with mental health and wellbeing. Research into the Bar of England and Wales and the Junior Lawyer’s Division’s 2019 ‘Resilience and Wellbeing Survey’, has indicated that similar issues are likely to exist in the UK.

To investigate legal practitioners’ perceptions of wellbeing within the legal profession, we conducted five focus groups across the UK and Republic of Ireland. The findings of these are discussed in detail in our book and also form the basis for the free online resources we have developed for legal professionals, titled Fit for Law.

A key theme within the findings was that it is deeply ingrained cultural and structural practices within law that often contributed to issues with mental health and wellbeing. The focus on chargeable time and billable hours in law firms, the competitive nature of entry into and progression through the legal profession and a culture of needing to appear strong and ultra-resilient were all heavily implicated. Some such practices were specific to individual sectors, for example, self-employed barristers particularly spoke about the precarious nature of becoming established at the Bar. However, overall, there was an emphasis on the relentless and hyper-competitive nature of law.

Other themes that emerged include the impact of interactions with clients, colleagues and others, the way in which professional identity was formed (with a particular emphasis on the sense of a lack of preparedness during legal education and training) and the way in which stress is conceptualised.

The conclusion to our book (and of our ‘digital conversation’) emphasised the need for long-term change, with input from a wide range of key legal stakeholders. Although much progress has been made, cultural and structural change is often slow and there needs to be an emphasis on sustaining and building upon the work that has already been done.

Following our discussion, we handed over to Chris Owen to provide a ‘view from the profession’. Chris is a corporate partner at 150 partner law firm Penningtons Manches Cooper. He has an MBA in legal practice management. He is also a mindfulness coach where he works both in the UK and internationally. He was able to talk about the particular challenges that arise from working at the level of senior management within the profession, in particular, the need to manage team members in an appropriate and sensitive manner and the on-going financial pressures which partners must face.

The ‘digital conversation’ also involved questions and comments on topics including the incorporation of mental health and mindfulness training in law schools, the need to build community and the issue of legal professionals not recognising potentially harmful patterns and habits. The very diversity of such contributions demonstrates just how much there remains to explore and discuss to ensure that legal professionals can not only survive, but also thrive.

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