The mental health crisis in the legal industry and what to do about it

The legal industry has a mental health issue. But how bad is it? And what are we to do about it?

January 18, 2021

The mental health crisis in the legal industry and what to do about it

The legal industry has a mental health issue. A study by the American Bar Association from 2016 found that a staggering 28 % of American lawyers suffered from depression, while 19 % showed severe anxiety symptoms and 11.4 % had had suicidal thoughts the past year. 21 % qualified as problem drinkers, and 25 % of law students were at risk of alcoholism.

This is not only an American problem. Surveys have shown that 63 % in the UK legal industry reports stress daily. Almost all solicitors in the UK Law Society reported negative stress with 17 % saying that it is extreme. 68,5 % of the junior lawyers reported disrupted sleeping patterns. In Denmark, half of the legal industryhas suffered from stress in the past five years and two out of three considers leaving the industry. 24% of the participants had stress symptoms at the moment the survey was conducted.

Furthermore, what unites all these surveys is that they were all conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, which most likely has only made things worse. At least, emerging studies seem to be showing that the pandemic has a negative impact on mental health across the entire society.

Of course, mental health problems are not limited to the legal industry. WHO estimates that up to 268 people suffer from depression and mental disorders are on the rise in almost every country on the planet.

But the numbers from the legal industry are extreme and should be taken seriously. As noted in an article by The Law Gazette: "According to research carried out by Dr Rebecca Michalak of the University of Queensland: 'Lawyers suffer from significantly lower levels of psychological and psychosomatic health wellbeing than other professionals'."

Why is mental health important?

First of all, for the sake of the people suffering from bad mental health. This is primarily en ethical and humanitarian issue. Promoting well-being is the right thing to do, and it has a value in itself.

And secondly, because good mental health is a precondition for peak performance. A company that wants the most out of their employees should care about this. The American Bar Association states in their The Path to Lawyer Well Being Report from 2017 that: “well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence”. When legal professionals are not performing their best, they are obviously more prone to make mistakes and put their clients at risk, so there is an ethical perspective here as well. Furthermore, surveys have shown that companies that prioritise the well-being of their employees perform better at a number of factors such as turn-over, client satisfaction, productivity and profitability.

And thirdly, this is also a concern for the general economy. Estimates show that these issues will cost the global economy 16 trillion dollars by the end of the decade and that up to 12 billion working days are lost due to mental illness - per year.


The causes to the legal industry’s mental health problem

So with that established, what is then the cause to these mental health issues - be they chronic stress, depression, substance use or even suicidality?

British surveys point towards high workload, high client expectations, lack of support and pressure related to meeting billable hour targets. Other have mentioned lack of appreciating, isolation, long hours and poor payment. Another important factor is the taboo that makes many feel concerned about reporting feelings of stress because of the stigma involved and the extreme performance culture connected to legal professionals. Nobody wants to be perceived as weak.

Interestingly, in our discussion about the O-shaped lawyer attributes from last month, Neil Campbell gave another explanation. He believes that lawyers lack resilience and the perfection culture in the legal industry forsters a bad psychological environment. You put up a professional mask instead of seeing failures as an opportunity to learn and grow.

That points towards the legal culture and the mindset of lawyers being the problem. The zero-mistake culture is not only a barrier to innovation - it also piles up an unhealthy pressure on people. This article explores a similar angle. It proposed that the cultural stereotype of lawyers as late-working suits that excels in everything creates a culture where lawyers believe that is how they are supposed to act. Like workaholic perfectionists, apparently.

To dig a bit deeper into the question on mental health in the legal industry, Legal Tech Institute contacted Ana-Maria Drăgănuță Briard. She has the podcast Legal Tale, where she tackles sensitive subjects such as mental health and work/life balance with other legal professionals. She is also CEO in the legal tech company Avoteca that runs a digital marketplace for legal services as well as the Romanian ambassador for the European Legal Tech Association.

“People look at lawyers as if they are robots. As if lawyers are here to deal with stuff, they are not there to feel stuff. So I wanted to find out how it influenced their personal life and what they do to counter-balance this pressure. I was interested in how we can help lawyers. It turns out people have some super interesting tips and tricks: some are doing meditation, sports or hobbies. Others are taking a cold shower in the morning, all kind of habits to keep a balance in their every day life,” says Briard about her podcast.

She believes that the mental health problem already begins in law schools where there is a performance pressure and you are expected to spend long nights studying: “It imposes a mindset where, if you don’t work overtime and you don’t dedicate 24 hours, then you are not good enough. That reflects in the grades. Then it continues it the entire legal society. So on top of the fact that you have to work a lot, you also have to take all the stress from the clients. They pour their problems onto you and leave, so you must know how to handle it. But what do you do? You stay overtime. It’s a vicious circle,” she elaborates.

So again, Ana-Maria Drăgănuță Briard points at a cultural issue, but could there also be more structural problems? Could it be that the billable hour-model incentives people to work more hours? That is suggested in a Financial Times article on stress, where a neuroscientist from Oxford University proclaims: “Billable hours pit people against each other, engendering a culture of competition.”

But Briard does not buy into that: “I don’t think the billable hour is the problem here. In Romania, only the big firms practise the billable hours. The smaller law offices work with project-based fees, and they still work a lot. And with the billable hour, you are at least paid for the hours you work, so the project-based overwork is even worse,” she says. She is focused on the number of hours lawyers put in: “You have to distinguish between working hard and only working. You should work hard in the hours you work, but you also need a life outside work. Hard work is not equivalent with long hours, because you can do good work in a few focused hours,” she says.

Mental health in the legal industry - What is the cure?

According to Ana-Maria Drăgănuță Briard, there are no easy way to cure the issue. It requires leaders of the industry to take responsibility and create a healthy culture. And it requires legal professionals to be more aware of what they want and actually speak up. Both the employer and employee should stopviewing stress as a weakness that must be suppressed or hidden away. It is something that can happen to everyone and it should be taken very seriously.

While technology might offer a solution because it increased the efficiency and thereby reduce the workload, it can also backfire by creating even more tasks, says Briard: “You can use technology to work more efficient and finish tasks faster, but it’s tricky. Technology can help you or harm you. You can use it to get more balance in your life, or you can use it to win more profit, so the technology can be either good or bad. You have to take responsibility for what you want in your life.”

The same goes for more gig-based work or remote work that is been more widespread the past year because of the pandemic: “Allowing people to work remotely and giving people the freedom to do their job as they like is great. But you have to be very structured and organised. It’s not for everyone, but it should be an opportunity.” So for Briard, the most important step is to envision the life you want and pursue that individually. There is not general solution, except people should be more self-ware and then pursue the direction they want to go, she concludes.

Meanwhile, the report from the American Bar Association offers a variety of solutions to the problem. One of the most important focuses in the report is their call for more role-modelling from the top. Leaders should help change the culture, destigmatise the problems and encourage help-seeking behaviours. That includes being able to recognise the symptoms, offering appropriate treatment and having a positive attitude about those conditions instead of offering negative, disbelieving opinions or even career repercussions. Seeking help early on and while the stress symptoms are mild, can prevent more severe depressions, so it is important to be on the forefront. They even suggest creating mental health committees inside the firms to research and tackle the problem.

Another important element is that the workplace should enhance the lawyer’s sense of control. Give them autonomy to control their schedules, their lives, whether they want to work at the office or remote. Lacking the sense of control can breed depression, so flexibility in working methods and on deadlines when possible is a good way to tackle it. Flexibility and self-control is already in demand by the younger generations of lawyers like the Millennials and the Generation Z’s, so here is one more reason to create a more flexible working environment.

When all that said, there is a lot to do for the individual person as well. Get a good night sleep, stay in good physical shape, eat healthy, meditate, rejuvenate however you like, but hold back in the alcohol and other addictive substances. And we cannot stress this enough:

Seek help! Talk to people about how you feel, take care of your self and find professional help. There is no shame in that. And if you are in any way suicidal: Search for help immediately. You are not alone!

The Contractbook take on mental health

We believe that emerging technologies are crucial to improving mental health in the legal industry. Technologies should solve all those mundane and tedious manual tasks that make lawyers busy without giving them a personal reward. By letting technology take care of these low complexity tasks, lawyers should get more time to work with the real complex legal work, find creative solutions and collaborate with the clients. To succeed with that, you cannot work as a factory worker at the assembly line. You need time, space and peace to perform - that should be a way to solve the issue.

Furthermore, technology creates a more transparent work culture. With the right tools, you can easily track the performance of each legal professional, so you can give away more freedom to decide when, where and how each employee wants to work. They can get a more balanced life without losing productivity. People should not be valued by the hours they work, but the quality of their work and the value they create. Some people might perform by spending the hours, others by grinding focused for a shorter time. We are all different, and with the right technologies, you can let people decide and express themselves without losing grip of the businesses.

Further readings

The American Bar Association’s report on lawyer well-being: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/ThePathToLawyerWellBeingReportRevFINAL.pdf

WHO’s paper on mental health and work
https://www.who.int/mental_health/media/en/712.pdf

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