Junior lawyers wellbeing - this is a crisis issue

Richard Martin




Around half of respondents said that they had experienced mental-ill health (whether formally diagnosed or not) in the month before completing the survey and under 20% of those individuals had made their employer aware of it. As a result of mental ill-health, one in fifteen respondents stated that they had experienced suicidal thoughts, 74% reported disrupted sleep and just under 60% report a negative impact on their physical health (feeling sick, chest pains). Over 87% felt that their employer could do more to provide help, guidance and support in relation to mental health in the workplace.

Lots of data gets published all the time on all sorts of things.  Something goes up a bit or down a bit year on year and we nod and carry on as if nothing has really changed.  Sometimes, however, data gets published that just cannot be ignored and calls for urgent action.

A couple of weeks ago the Junior Lawyers division of the Law Society published its annual wellbeing survey report.  You can find details here - http://communities.lawsociety.org.uk/junior-lawyers/news/jld-resilience-and-wellbeing-survey-report-2019/5067323.fullarticle 

To pick out one headline, in the previous month - yes month - nearly 50% of respondents experienced mental ill health.  Please just pause for a moment and reflect on that number.  

If you are running a law firm or legal department, and if this data is truly representative (and of course there may be some self selection in terms of who completed the survey), a half of your junior lawyers experienced mental illness last month.  This is not other people in other teams and other firms or businesses, this is every other of your junior lawyers.  By way of context, across the population as a whole, which is bad enough, the equivalent figure is one in four people experiencing diagnosable mental illness in a year. 

This is a crisis.  It is a health crisis first and foremost.  It is also a crisis in terms of the impact this will have on the quality of work product being generated and, without wishing to be overly dramatic, it feels very much like a crisis for the sustainability of the profession.  If this were any other profession, we would be crawling all over them with law suits.

This is the picture for junior lawyers.  We do not have reliable large scale data (yet) for the profession as a whole but we certainly have the anecdotal data of a constant stream of reports of breakdown and suicide at the senior end of the profession.

Not all of these problems will be caused by work, of course, but we can be sure work will be playing a significant role and, whatever the cause, the impact will be felt at work.  

I know I go on about this stuff quite a bit, and can get quite passionate about it but...

There will be other things that are on the agenda for law firms and legal departments, other priorities, (I know, I used to help run one) but surely, surely, in the face of this kind of data, the single most important strategic business priority for every leader (perhaps every member) of the profession should be to address this crisis.  Every other agenda item should be being seen and addressed in the context of this issue.  How much worse are we going to allow the issue to get, until we make it that priority?  To use that well worn slogan, if not now, then when - if not us then who?

We are holding an event for members of our law firm forum on mental health on the evening of 13th May, kindly hosted by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.  The intention is to gather senior leaders from those firms to hear from the inspirational Geoff McDonald on the subject.  You do not need to be a forum member to come along, or to get a senior leader from your organisation to come along.  If you are interested please email Anna.Csepanyi@byrnedean.com for more details. 

We are also delighted to be helping support the Mindful Business Charter which is an initiative (initially within the legal profession but with ambition to extend well beyond) to change the way we work and make it more respectful, sustainable and healthy.  For more information on that then please email Anna again or get in touch with me.  

Thank you, and take care. I will now go and breathe a little.

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