Mental Health Awareness Week: the issues for lawyers

A career in law is rewarding, but also fast-paced and at times dramatic. So it’s no wonder that sometimes lawyers suffer from mental-health issues. We shine a spotlight on the reasons behind poor mental health in the legal sector, and the organisations working to combat it.

  • Last updated Jul 4, 2018 10:11:25 AM
  • Becky Kells, Editor, AllAboutLaw
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Image by Josh Krohn

Anyone whose guilty pleasure takes the form of Netflix legal drama Suits will have come across Harvey Specter. Specter is unflappable, always impeccably dressed, undaunted by personal and professional pressures, and never lacking in a witty comeback. Harvey Specter is, of course, a fictional lawyer, existing in a fictional law firm. But the stereotype he borrows from is very real – one where lawyers work long hours, flirt with professional danger, drink heavily, and never take holidays – all without suffering any mental repercussions. 

In early 2016, Doctor Rebecca Michalak published research on white collar workers in Australia. Her findings revealed that out of everyone in this group, lawyers have the worst mental health. Australian lawyers not only reported problems with depression, anxiety and acute stress, but were also the biggest abusers of alcohol and nicotine. Of Michalak’s respondents, substance abuse was twice as high among lawyers than in the other professional groups.

Around the time that Michalak published her Australian study, a different investigation suggested that the problem may extend to law students. In America, 42% of student respondents indicated that they may need some sort of mental health treatment – be it for depression, anxiety or alcohol abuse – but only half of this group went on to receive help in the form of counselling or other treatment. The students who did not seek help mostly indicated that this was because they feared academic or professional repercussions if they were to do so. 

The international poor mental health within law is jarring. There are entire legal areas devoted to mental health, advising the NHS and other health bodies, as well as individuals - yet lawyers themselves are working at the expense of their mental health. Here in the UK, LawCare – which works with legal professionals who need advice on mental health issues, as well as working to spread awareness – found that there was a 12% increase in calls from 2015-16. Out of those callers, 38% were calling about stress-related matters.

Just as mental health problems are wide-ranging, so too are their sources. However, when examined within the context of a single profession, such as law, certain patterns emerge. With long hours and high-pressure targets, it’s understandable that lots of lawyers suffer from stress – but it should not be taken as commonplace, or part of the job. There’s also an issue of bullying. Out of all bullying allegations made within law firms, 74% are made against male colleagues, and 63.3% are made against older colleagues, the Lawyer reported.

Alongside the office culture, and the strenuous nature of the job – two factors that aspiring lawyers are well aware of – psychologists suggest that the personality features of aspiring lawyers may have a play in mental health. Lawyers tend to be perfectionists, as well as overachievers – it’s what makes them good at their jobs. People with these qualities can also be susceptible to mental illness. This is fine where a system of support is in place, but in law firms, the pressure is often turned up high, with no outlet.

Another damaging factor is silence. The stereotype of the lawyer as an unflappable, Harvey Specter-esque character does not leave much room for any mental health problems – which can make lawyers reluctant to disclose their issues for fear it could be seen as a weakness. While much has been done in recent years to promote openness around mental health, the leap in which it becomes acceptable to mention it in a work context – or indeed seek time off for a condition – has not quite been completed yet.

For aspiring lawyers or people currently working in firms who suspect they might be struggling, this can all seem bleak. But in identifying where problems prevail in law, it becomes easier to work out the solutions. Law firms themselves are starting to take on the gauntlet - Slaughter and May have trained 10 of their HR staff as mental health first aiders, and a number of other firms have provided similar training. A relatively recent introduction to the UK – with 10 years of history compared to traditional first aid’s 120 – mental health first aid can be vital in responding to urgent as well as chronic symptoms of mental health issues. The skills imparted on these first aiders allow them to “listen, reassure and respond” – a trio of small characteristics that can go a long way for someone whose mental health is suffering. 

One important development is the recognition of career-specific challenges for lawyers when it comes to mental health. In the UK and Ireland, LawCare has been championing this. The charity works to change attitudes to mental health within law, to encourage a culture of asking for help when it is needed. Their website collates testimonies of people who have been open with their employer about mental health issues, and in return have received positive and constructive help. One person recounts how their employer – a major law firm – provided counselling when it emerged that he was suffering from mental health problems, and another was granted time off from work and a flexible re-admission to work when he felt ready. 

While practical solutions are slowly being rolled out – for example, LawCare, and Wellbeing at the Bar – an important milestone is a change in attitude. While intense hours and challenging work are markers of the legal profession, lawyers need not sacrafice downtime and should be allowed to acknowledge their stress.

A few seasons into Suits, Harvey Specter’s veneer slips, when he starts suffering from panic attacks and seeks help from a psychiatrist. This plot development marks a change in attitude – relentless work at the expense of mental health is unsustainable. Entering a career in law should not mean sacrificing your mental health. From changing damaging working practices, to encouraging a culture of openness, the profession is improving. In recognising the specific problems pertaining to lawyers, firms and individuals can look out for warning signs. In understanding mental health, lawyers can be sympathetic to each other, and – most importantly – to themselves. 

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