The lawyers’ welfare charity LawCare has reported an upsurge in the number of callers complaining about bullying, with reports almost doubling last year.
However, the charity was careful not to draw the conclusion bullying was necessarily on the rise, citing myriad reasons why people may be more willing to speak about the topic than previously.
Over 900 people contacted the service in 2019 – primarily by telephone, but also by email and online chat – an annual rise of 8%.
The largest cohort was suffering stress (26%), with 12% citing depression. Some 80 spoke of bullying, up from 47 in 2018 and comprising 12% of all contacts.
About two-thirds of callers were women, while just over half were trainees or pupils, or had under five years’ PQE, and a further 5% were law students.
Calls averaged 15 minutes, with a small number having ongoing support provided by “peer supporters”.
LawCare chief executive Elizabeth Rimmer stressed the increase could be “possibly because of a lot more attention on this issue in the media over the past couple of years”.
She added the charity would be conducting detailed research later this year to “discover exactly how the culture of law is impacting on wellbeing and mental health”.
A spokeswoman echoed Ms Rimmer’s caution in drawing the conclusion bullying in the profession was growing.
She told Legal Futures the growth was “probably a combination of things”, explaining that the problem identified was anecdotal because callers were not asked why they had come forward now, and the service was “anonymous and confidential”, meaning it did not record detailed reasons.
She continued: “Maybe people are realising that behaviour is less acceptable. I don’t know you can say bullying per se is on the rise, but maybe people are more willing to talk about [it].
”It’s difficult to know whether people are less willing to put up with it, because we don’t know what happens after people call us; only very rarely does someone come back to us and tell us what’s happened.
She thought it significant that many callers were younger people, who were less accommodating of poor treatment than earlier generations of lawyers.
“I think certainly younger people coming into the profession are looking for more of a healthy work/life balance and to be treated with respect.
“People entering the law are asking firms ‘what are your wellbeing policies?’, or ‘do you have opportunities for flexible working?’.
“People are more switched on to this now and want to be happy.”
She said it was positive that people were discussing bullying more often than before: “It’s definitely healthy the people are talking about it.
“Talking always helps and a lot of people just want to be listened to. Offloading is very cathartic for people and sometimes helps them work out what the next steps are going to be.
“Just acknowledging to another person how you’ve been feeling is very therapeutic.”
Last week, LawCare launched  an online resource on emotional competency and professional resilience, in conjunction with the Open University.
Funders donated almost £336,000 to maintain LawCare’s services last year.