Under Pressure: Toxic work cultures are seriously damaging lawyers’ mental health

May 19, 2021

4 min read

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What's going on here?

There are growing concerns about law firms’ ‘toxic’ work cultures and the dangerous impact this has on lawyers’ mental health.

What does this mean?

In recent years there has been mounting criticism of the highly pressured work environments in law firms, especially in the most prestigious London firms. Firms with work cultures which value high performance, long hours and task completion over employee mental wellbeing are failing to look after their lawyers’ mental wellbeing.

In 2019, between January and March, 1,803 members of the Junior Lawyers Division took part in an online survey answering questions about negative professional stress and their experience with work-related mental ill-health. Among the junior lawyers who took part, 58% had considered taking time off work due to mental health concerns such as anxiety, fatigue and depression, but chose not to; 60% reported negative impacts of work stress on their physical health (feeling sick, chest pains) and 75% experienced disrupted sleep; only 19% said their employer was aware they were experiencing mental ill-health while 87% thought that their firm should be doing more to improve employee mental health; 14% reported suicidal thoughts. 

The principal factors causing stress included high workloads, client demands and expectations, lack of support, and ineffective management. 

Since March 2020, the start of the first coronavirus lockdown in the UK, many of these problems have been exacerbated. Junior lawyers have felt the pressure of their high workloads, while also managing the anxiety and isolation of a national lockdown. Many of their previous coping systems, such as sports, social activities and the chance to chat about problems informally with their peers, were removed by lockdown restrictions. According to recent research by Douglas Scott, a third of junior lawyers and a quarter of senior solicitors felt that their mental health had suffered as a result of working from home in lockdown. 47% of those affected felt that their employer had not provided them with enough support. 

What's the big picture effect?

There are a number of questions raised by such findings as to the 2019 survey and recent reports of lockdown stress:

  • Does this problem affect everyone within the legal profession equally? 

The 2019 survey was aimed at junior lawyers specifically, a group that is recognised to suffer the most due to long hours and less experience in such a high-pressure environment. In the 2019 survey, 50.2% of women reported mental health concerns compared to  41.4% of men. This might show that more women experience mental ill-health, or that men are less prepared to admit the fact that they are struggling. 64.2% of respondents identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender reported mental ill-health, compared to 47% of those identifying as heterosexual. 

  • Are there any benefits to be found in a high-pressure working environment? 

Many lawyers admit that they thrive in the high-pressure environment of their firm. They enjoy the intensity and thrill of deadlines and high expectations and find great satisfaction in the completion of a challenging and stressful project. However, this too can be toxic. It feeds into a dangerous idea that intense stress is a necessary part of the job and that a ‘good lawyer’ is someone who is resilient and can handle the pressure. As a result, lawyers may feel that any mental health problems are a sign of personal weakness rather than evidence of the firms’ toxic culture or their unreasonable workload. So, in order to encourage their employees to speak openly about their issues, firms need to dismantle the idea that feeling stressed makes someone a less competent lawyer.

  • What can be done to improve work-place cultures and lawyers’ mental health? 

Work needs to be done to remove the stigma about mental health so that people feel able to discuss how they are feeling and flag any concerns when they first appear. Firms need to work towards removing their obsession with targets and work hours in order to remove some of the extreme pressure experienced by lawyers. Firms need to foster a more supportive culture where people are less afraid of showing weakness or making mistakes. Firms need to promote support systems to help boost mental well being such as supportive holiday allowances, social activities and sports. However, there is a concern that too much emphasis on ‘coping schemes’ such as these can cast the problem as one that needs to be resolved by personal change, rather than a more systemic problem for which the firm itself is responsible. Finally, firms need to find better ways to support lawyers who are struggling with mental ill-health such as counselling services, mindfulness or meditation courses, spaces to discuss problems, open and supportive relationships at work and regular check-ins. 

If firms don’t address this problem, they face large scale burnout among lawyers and a decrease in interest in joining the profession. But most importantly, firms have a moral duty to care for their employees and make sure that they are happy and supported at work. 

Report written by Elizabeth Ambrose

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