Peer support: why it’s good to talk
Mental health in the legal profession globally, as of May 2023: a 71% prevalence of anxiety, 38% of depression, 31% incidence of other mental health issues, 60% suffer from mental overwhelm and fatigue, and 30% feel helpless, trapped and isolated. (ALM and Law.com Compass's annual Mental Health Survey)
Why does the mental wellbeing of lawyers remain so difficult to tackle?
By Marion Baker and Suzanne Jacobs, Co-founders, Balint Legal.
In the high-pressured world of legal practice, where long hours, rigorous deadlines, and intense client demands are the norm, the mental wellbeing of lawyers has historically taken a backseat. Those choosing law as a career, and staying within the profession, understand the resilience and dedication that the work requires. Emotional health has not been top of the list of priorities, either for the practitioner or for the workplace. This has come at great cost, as plentiful recent research into mental health across the profession, including LawCare's Life in the law report (2021) and the IBA's Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession, has demonstrated.
Despite greater recognition of the need to support practitioners in ways other than pay and benefits, the legal sector continues to show worryingly high rates of mental ill-health. Lawyers experience greater levels of stress, anxiety and depression than most other professionals and compared to the general population. There is no other sector where individuals have to cope with so much pressure without adequate support. Harmful coping mechanisms have become ingrained and normalised as part of legal culture.
The changing work patterns and increased isolation of the pandemic, much of which has continued with hybrid working, lack of connection between colleagues and separation from organisational culture, has brought these issues into sharp relief. Despite greater focus now on the mental health and wellbeing of lawyers than ever before, current initiatives are not sufficiently curbing lawyer stress and ill-health. This has significant consequences both in terms of professional risks and personal fallout.
The SRA, in its Workplace Culture Thematic Review (2022), noted the disconnect between the actions of senior leaders and the culture they promote.
Firms may state that they support their people and prioritise their mental health, but anecdotally, it seems that too often organisations, perhaps unintentionally, are providing wellbeing measures which miss the mark. There may be a number of reasons why these measures are failing to meet the current needs of practitioners. These include lack of leadership buy-in to their importance (initiatives are often siloed off to HR or L&D), people being precluded from accessing the initiatives because of work pressures or practice area ambivalence, or provisions being reactive to crisis rather than proactive.
Curiously, many firms do not seem to be measuring the impact of the mental wellbeing provisions that they are offering to their workforce, and so are not informing themselves about what is working, what is not, and what additional support is needed. The IBA report suggests that while 73% of firms have mental wellbeing initiatives in place, only 29% measure their impact and only 27% collect wellbeing data more generally.
It is not only ethical issues and the need to create safer systems which are relevant where people interact in the workplace. But as several recent disciplinary cases and SRA guidance have shown, there are also regulatory and legal implications. Legal insurers are increasingly alert to the culture and working environment created within firms and organisations and the impact which this has on the mental health of the workforce, and commissioners of legal services likewise are keenly aware of the importance of how teams are supported.
We believe that the best and safest systems provide a portfolio of mental wellbeing resources, backed by leadership and prioritised within the organisation. People need and should have available a range of alternative provisions to support their emotional health in the workplace; it goes without saying that different measures suit different people. Importantly, everyone should have the opportunity to access them - including support staff. These initiatives should not just be responsive to practitioners flagging up mental health concerns; they should be in place and normalised as part of the way in which healthy lawyers can be supported to do their work.
Studies have shown that peer support is one resource which is sought after and valued, but much underused within the profession.
Our work involves developing and adapting for the legal sector a unique peer support model used widely across the medical profession to support doctors in becoming better and healthier clinicians. Talking to colleagues and sharing experiences in a facilitated setting can provide very powerful relief. There is much to learn from other sectors, and indeed other countries, on the mental wellbeing resources available to professionals.
Peer support groups facilitated by expertly trained professionals provide a valuable forum for lawyers to discuss the stresses and challenges of everyday work. They also help develop essential emotional and relational intelligence skills, increasingly recognised as important in professional relationships. The ability to understand and regulate one's own responses, as well as empathise with others, is crucial for effective work and productive working relationships. Supported group work of this kind not only promotes mental wellbeing, providing relief and allowing new perspectives, but also improves client and colleague relationships, and overall professional effectiveness. By fostering interpersonal connection, reducing isolation and creating a compassionate culture, specialist facilitated peer support can help alleviate some of the pressures and strains of legal practice and contribute to a healthier, more resilient profession.
Collectively, we need to keep working to change the culture of legal practice. Not just what is said, but what is done to support lawyers in this pressurised and often challenging environment. The focus on mental wellbeing is not just a matter of current best practice, but as the world changes, and the regulators, insurers and purchasers of legal services will increasingly demand, essential next practice.
If you want to know about LawCare's peer supporters programme read our peer support page.
Balint Legal brings a powerful and innovative mental wellbeing resource to the legal profession. We provide expert facilitated peer support groups (Balint groups), adapted for the legal sector from a model used successfully across the medical profession for over 60 years.
These groups have been re-designed for legal practitioners and others working across the sector. Their purpose is to support emotional health in the workplace, by providing a unique place in which to talk, entirely confidentially, with like-minded peers, about the impact of work and working relationships. Research shows that lawyers particularly seek peer support as a critical and underused mental wellbeing resource, and benefit from the ability to share experiences with colleagues who understand the specific challenges they face.
Balint groups offer a structured but informal forum in which to discuss, in a confidential setting, issues and impasses faced in day-to-day practice. Through this process, participants develop the capacity for reflection about their work, greater insight into client and colleague interactions, better self-awareness, and a stronger ability to navigate work and professional relationships in often stressful situations.
Our aim is to promote positive and sustainable wellbeing in law, by helping lawyers and those working in the sector to feel supported, and develop better ways of managing, thinking about and being at work.
Real stories of people in the legal community who have experienced stress, depression, anxiety and more.