Firms “putting profit ahead of lawyers’ mental health”

Mental health: Structural problems in profession

The cultures of some law firms and other legal workplaces mean that well-being is “often not a concern” while they chase increased profits, researchers have found.

They also said lawyers engaged in emotionally demanding work were experiencing burn-out.

The four researchers from the Open University are currently engaged in the LawCare-funded research which will result in e-learning resources to support skills to help deal with challenging legal workplaces.

They are Emma Jones and Neil Graffin, respectively senior lecturer and lecturer in law, Mathijs Lucassen, senior lecturer in mental health, and Rajvinder Samra, lecturer in health.

The team has been conducting focus groups with legal professionals in Belfast, Cardiff, Dublin, Edinburgh and London from a variety of professional backgrounds.

Writing on The Conversation – a website enabling academics and researchers to deliver their views direct to the public – they said: “Participants have disclosed a number of issues which they felt had arisen from their work, including experiencing high levels of stress or witnessing it in others,” they recorded.

“Our interviewees have been saying that many of the issues facing lawyers appear to be structural, meaning that wider reform may be required to ameliorate some of the problems.

“For example, they often speak about the long hours they do, the high billing requirements they have, their large caseloads and the negative effect that these have on them.

“They also speak of the alienating cultures in which they work and which put them in competition with their colleagues, as well as how cuts to legal aid in the UK have impacted on the service that they can provide.”

The researchers said many practitioners spoke “directly of how the cultures of some legal environments mean that well-being is often not a concern”, with the focus for many firms on fee-earning, growth and productivity.

“Well-being is therefore viewed as irrelevant. For example, practitioners have told us that there is of culture of ‘you have got to get on with it’ when dealing with stressful or emotionally demanding work.

The focus groups heard suggestions that there was a stigma within the profession with regards to mental health and that highlighting well-being issues “could be perceived as a sign of weakness and become a barrier to promotion”.

Participants also discussed a traditional lack of investment into supporting the mental health of lawyers.

Other lawyers spoke about the negative impacts of working with traumatised individuals, hearing traumatic narratives, or working with distressing evidence, with some saying they experienced burn-out from emotionally demanding work.

“So additional mechanisms may be needed to support lawyers who undertake cases of a distressing nature – for example, making free professional counselling available…

“Poor well-being within the profession is a real risk. There is a moral duty to care for all professionals – but particularly lawyers, who need to be fit and healthy to look after their clients’ interests.”

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