In 2018 we conducted five focus groups with a total of 29 legal professionals (mainly solicitors and barristers) across the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. This built on a growing body of research around mental wellbeing in the legal profession in the United States and Australia, together with a growing acknowledgment that similar issues were present domestically.
In our previous blog post, we discussed how our focus group findings indicated a number of causes for, and consequences of, poor levels of mental wellbeing within law. In this post, we consider some of the ways in which these issues can be tackled. These include:
Issues with mental wellbeing are not limited to the legal profession. There are increasing concerns over the mental health and wellbeing of students generally, as illustrated by the recent publication of Student Minds’ University Mental Health Charter. There is some evidence from the United States and Australia that law students in particular can experience higher levels of mental health conditions and lower levels of wellbeing than both the general population and other students.
This means there is a need for law schools to examine their teaching, learning and wider provision to ensure they are promoting good mental health and wellbeing for all students. For those seeking to enter the legal profession, there is also a need for vocational training, such as the LPC and BPTC, to incorporate advice and guidance on self-care and promote healthy ways of working. At both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, law students need to be encouraged to explore the notion of professional identity in law and develop a critical awareness ofhow to balance ideals like ‘thinking like a lawyer’ with other types of reasoning and skill development, including emotional reasoning .
Even within legal practice, there is a need for appropriate education and training to continue. For example, to equip individuals with appropriate emotional and communication skills needed to deal with the competitive commercial environments and to develop their capabilities to train, supervise and manage others appropriately.
Partly as a result of traditional legal education and training, many legal professionals are taught to disregard their feelings and emotions at work. This is despite the large body of scientific evidence showing that feelings and emotions are important in all aspects of life, including reasoning, decision-making and interacting with others (see, for example, the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio). Trying to suppress or ignore your feelings and emotions, particularly when dealing with upsetting or traumatic cases and subject-matter, is difficult and unhealthy. It can also lead to you ignoring early “warning signs” that you are experiencing poor levels of mental wellbeing. Therefore, it is important that legal professionals make time to acknowledge and reflect upon their feelings and emotions and use them in ways which enhance their work – in other words, develop emotional competence.
To assist with this, in conjunction with LawCare, we have created a course on Managing and Understanding yourself, as part of our wider Fit for Law project, which is aimed at legal professionals in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland.
Although it is important for individuals to look after their own mental wellbeing, it is vital to emphasise that they are not, and cannot be, responsible for many of the causes of poor mental wellbeing that exist in the legal profession. It is unfair and unsustainable to focus on developing individuals’ competencies and coping strategies without trying to tackle the broader underlying issues involved.
Tackling such issues requires buy-in from employers, regulators, representative bodies and other key legal stakeholders to challenge some of the conventions and norms that form such a significant part of the legal profession. For example, many law firms still rely heavily on the chargeable hours model, setting high (and sometimes unrealistic) targets for fee-earners. Whilst this type of model, with more realistic targets, may be appropriate in some settings, it should not be the automatic default. When considering fees and wider business models, the wellbeing of those involved in the process should be explicitly acknowledged and taken into consideration. The Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society of England and Wales has produced an employer’s toolkit for supporting wellbeing in the workplace which gives many other useful suggestions.
In other instances, for example, when considering self-employed barristers, it may be a wider look is needed at the way the profession recruits members, markets itself and manages client expectations,
At a regulatory level, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has called for the Solicitors Regulatory Authority to introduce a fitness to practice regime to deal with those cases where mental health and wellbeing are a contributory factor (or defence) within solicitors misconduct. More broadly, mental wellbeing could be incorporated into competence statements, codes of conduct and many other parts of the regulatory frameworks for the legal profession.
Last, but by no means least, alongside the suggestions above it is vital that the current efforts to raise the awareness of all those involved in the legal profession continue. Sharing research and using evidence-based information and interventions to highlight the importance of good mental wellbeing is key. There is a danger that what is sometimes referred to as the “wellbeing turn” in law can become too narrowly focused on individual resilience, or seize upon concepts or fads with little research to evidence their effectiveness. To prevent this, we need to ensure that there is an open discussion and dialogue around mental wellbeing and law throughout the legal profession in England and Wales and beyond. Only by doing this will the legal profession ensure that it is truly fit for law today and in the future.
Emma Jones, Neil Graffin, Mathijs Lucassen and Rajvinder Samra
The authors have worked with LawCare to develop Fit for Law, a set of free, online resources which use emotional competence and professional resilience to help foster good mental wellbeing and healthy working practices. Fit for Law can be accessed at fitforlaw.org.uk
The authors would like to thank the focus group participants for their time and valuable contributions.
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