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A survey of 340 trainee and qualified solicitors practising in England and Wales has found solicitors experience poorer psychological well-being when compared to the general population of England, GPs in Northern Ireland, vets in the UK, and teachers in England.
The research, conducted at the University of East London, was led by Lucinda Soon, a former practising solicitor and current PhD researcher at the Department of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London.
“This is the first study to benchmark the well-being of solicitors in England and Wales against existing data. By using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale, we were able to capture the well-being scores of those surveyed and compare them against population data published by the NHS and previous research on other UK occupational groups,” she said.
Solicitors displayed a lower average well-being score of 44.3 on the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale, over five points lower than the national adult average of 49.9 as reported by the most recent NHS Health Survey for England (NHS Digital, 2017).
In common with all other surveys, the results represent estimated values in respect of the population of solicitors in England and Wales based on the sample surveyed.
“Looking at the data as a whole, we estimate that the average well-being score of solicitors would be within the range of 43.4 and 45.1 in 95 cases out of 100. In general, the larger the sample size, the narrower the estimated range, so it would certainly be beneficial for future research to be conducted on a larger number of solicitors, to build on the data we have”, Lucinda explained.
Female solicitors were found to have significantly poorer well-being compared to male solicitors, but both female and male solicitors demonstrated lower well-being averages of 43.7 and 46.2 respectively when compared to equivalent national means for adult females and males, being 49.6 and 50.1 respectively (NHS Digital, 2017).
Well-being was lowest in solicitors with between 5 to 15 years’ experience (40% of respondents). Junior solicitors including trainees and up to 5 years’ post-qualified experience (34% of respondents) averaged slightly higher than their mid-level colleagues, but senior-level solicitors with over 15 years’ experience (26% of respondents) demonstrated the highest well-being.
When the data was compared against previous studies on other UK occupational groups, solicitors displayed an average well-being score lower than UK veterinary surgeons (48.9) (Bartram et al., 2011), GPs in Northern Ireland (50.2) (Murray et al., 2017), and teachers in England (47.2) (Kidger et al., 2016).
The survey also measured solicitors’ levels of mindfulness and resilience, as well as the degree to which they felt their basic psychological needs at work were being met.
The concept of ‘basic psychological needs’ was drawn from Self-Determination Theory, a theory of motivation and well-being developed by psychologists Deci and Ryan in 1985, which suggests we all have three basic psychological needs which we need satisfied in order to be fully functioning and well. From a work perspective, these are the need for control and choice in our work (autonomy), the need to feel effective in the work we do (competence), and the need to feel socially connected, supported, and cared for by those we work with (relatedness).
Higher levels of mindfulness and resilience were found to predict higher levels of solicitors’ well-being. But the strongest predictor of well-being was not mindfulness nor resilience; rather it was whether solicitors felt autonomous at work, effective in their jobs, and socially supported and connected with people at work, in other words, whether their psychological needs were satisfied.
Lucinda said: “These findings present a case for looking beyond individual-level factors of mindfulness and resilience. Psychological needs satisfaction in the workplace was the strongest predictor of solicitors’ well-being, so the question arises: how can firms and organisations improve satisfaction of those needs? To answer this, we need to start looking at the bigger picture, encompassing the work environment and culture in which solicitors practise.”
Nick Bloy, founder of Wellbeing Republic, who worked closely with Kayleigh Leonie to produce best practice wellbeing guidance on behalf of the Law Society said: “The results expand upon the worrying trends seen at the junior end of the profession and provide new insights into how we might be able to better support the wellbeing of lawyers beyond resilience and mindfulness training.”
Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare, added: “This research confirms that lawyers experience poorer wellbeing than others. The time is now to address the culture and working practices in law that can lead to poor wellbeing, and build the social capital in the legal community to create positive change.”
Detailed findings from the study will be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal in due course.
Notes to editors:
Lucinda Soon qualified as a solicitor of England and Wales in 2009 and completed her MSc degree in Psychology in 2019. Lucinda is currently a PhD researcher at the Department of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, where she continues to research mental health and well-being in the legal profession.
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