How are our lawyers? Mental health in the legal industry

"Lawyers consistently rate in the top two occupations with the highest prevalence of mental health problems," says Law Society

How are our lawyers? Mental health in the legal industry

Mental health issues are common in the high-stakes, competitive industry that is the legal profession. The Law Council of South Australia found that a career in law is consistently among the two occupations that have the highest prevalence of mental health issues, with the heavy workloads and competitiveness of the industry being the two main factors exacerbating such issues amongst legal professionals.

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” However, in an industry focused on productivity and growth, issues such as personal wellbeing are often seen as unprofitable and therefore irrelevant.

Causes of mental health issues in the legal industry

Traits that often define lawyers include meticulous attention to detail, perfectionism and an unwavering work ethic. While these qualities are essential to the job, they also predispose these individuals to issues such as stress, depression and anxiety. Four senior law lecturers at The Open University summarised the central causes of these issues in an article in The Conversation and pointed out that lawyers often speak of the negative impacts of long hours, high billing requirements and large caseloads.

Nonetheless, many lawyers wear stress like a badge of honour, as a symbol of productivity and a strong work ethic. Further, common stigmas held by the legal industry often lead professionals to dismiss or hide mental health concerns. As former Wallmans Lawyers managing partner Trevor Edmond explained to the Law Society of South Australia, “Because of the historically adversarial nature of the legal practice, an admission that you have high levels of stress or depression could be seen as a sign of weakness, allowing others to use that adversarially against you.”

Common mental health issues affecting lawyers

One of the most common, and often underestimated, mental health issues affecting lawyers is stress, with exceedingly high levels of it often brought on by the demands of the profession.

“Lawyers typically do a great job consuming ourselves with our clients’ issues and the next deadline, but we often forget to take a minute and look after ourselves and our peers,” Chamberlains legal director Alison McNamara told Australasian Lawyer in a recent interview.

In the report Being Well in the Law: A Guide for Lawyers, the Law Society of NSW said that, while stress can be an important source of motivation, there is an optimal level that lawyers should aim to achieve.

“Psychologists refer to the Yerkes-Dodson law, which suggests a bell curve-like relationship exists between stress and performance. Both too much stress and too little stress negatively impact overall performance and wellbeing,” the Law Society said.

Thus, bringing expectations in line with reality is crucial to minimising stress among lawyers.

“One of the most effective ways we can reduce psychological and workplace distress is by finding a better balance between encouraging high performance and having realistic expectations about workload and outcomes,” former NSW Mental Health Commissioner John Feneley told the Law Society of NSW.

The negative impact caused by working with traumatised individuals is another mental health issue many lawyers experience. Practising in areas such as family law, criminal law, immigration law, personal injury law and laws relating to Aboriginal Australians can generate heightened emotions referred to as “secondary trauma” or “vicarious trauma,” and lawyers have experienced burnout from undertaking such emotionally demanding work.

In the Being Well in the Law: A Guide for Lawyers report, the Law Society of NSW detailed common signs of secondary trauma for lawyers, which include:

  • having intrusive memories of client stories or material
  • being unable to switch off from a matter
  • a sense of hopelessness at not being able to help the client
  • questioning professional competence
  • vulnerability to ethical violations from wanting to help the client beyond what is permissible and professionally appropriate
  • increased detachment, insensitivity and emotional callousness

A Canadian study cited by the Queensland Law Society revealed that 63% of judges had reportedly experienced one or more symptoms of secondary trauma, and a study conducted by Lila Vrklevki and John Franklin in NSW found that criminal lawyers generally suffered from increased distress, depression and anxiety compared to other groups of legal professionals.

How COVID-19 has exacerbated mental health issues

Changes to the workplace brought on by COVID-19 have further intensified the mental health issues in the profession. Hamilton Locke lawyer Amelia Schubach pointed out that 74% of lawyers reported having trouble focusing as a result of the transition to remote work, as per the results of a survey in The Australian Financial Review; further, some legal practitioners often feel compelled to respond immediately to emails that are not urgent and are sent outside working hours – blurring the line between work and personal life.

Coping strategies to boost mental health among lawyers

In response to the mental health concerns plaguing the profession, the Law Society of NSW has provided a number of strategies to help legal practitioners cope with stress and other mental health issues, both during COVID-19 and beyond. The organisation said lawyers should engage in self-care activities to enhance wellbeing in four crucial areas: professional, emotional, physical and spiritual.

These strategies are:

  • professional wellbeing – building your peer network to reduce professional isolation, managing your workload, having boundaries between work and your private life and taking time away from electronic devices to detach from work outside of work hours
  • emotional wellbeing – engaging in regular self-reflection, mindfulness or meditation practice, taking regular breaks, connecting with nature, allocating time to hobbies, limiting use of alcohol/drugs and seeking professional support if required
  • physical wellbeing – regularly exercising, eating a balanced and healthy diet, accessing medical care if required and focusing on healthy sleep patterns
  • spiritual wellbeing – religious or spiritual practice, mindfulness or meditation and other acts of kindness

Mental health resources for lawyers

The major professional legal bodies in all Australian states and territories have also established the following support services for lawyers:

  • BarCare – provided by the NSW Bar Association
  • LawCare – provided by the Queensland Law Society
  • Vic Lawyers’ Health – provided by the Law Institute of Victoria
  • LawCare – provided by the Law Society of South Australia
  • LawCare – provided by the Law Society of Western Australia
  • LawCare – provided by the Law Society of Tasmania
  • LawCare – provided for NT professionals through Employee Assistance Service Australia
  • BarCare – provided by the ACT Bar Association

Other support services:

  • Solicitor Outreach Service – 1800 592 296
  • Lifeline – 13 11 14
  • Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636
  • Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800
  • 1800RESPECT – 1800 737 732

“By promoting mental health literacy, we create environments that are more understanding of and responsive to distress. We also encourage individuals to recognise when they are experiencing distress,” Feneley said.

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