Different experiences of lawyer wellbeing
The newly published Life in the Law report by the charity LawCare looks at the wellbeing of over 1,700 legal professionals across the UK, Republic of Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey and Isle of Man. The findings clearly demonstrate that wellbeing is an issue for many in the profession, demonstrating high levels of burnout across the board, together with 69% of respondents experiencing mental ill-health in the preceding 12 months.
One striking aspect of the report is the different experiences of specific groups within the legal profession. The report’s findings demonstrate that individual characteristics have an influence upon the wellbeing of legal professionals, with specific groups seeming particularly vulnerable to burnout. In other words, a state of mental and emotional exhaustion.
The important of individual characteristics
‘Our data shows that multiple factors shape the experience of wellbeing’ (LawCare, Life in the Law Report).
Younger professionals who responded (in the 26 to 35 age bracket) displayed the highest levels of burnout. They also experienced the highest level of work intensity, in other words, working the longest hours and putting in the most effort during those times. In contrast, these age group experienced the lowest levels of autonomy (feeling they had control over, and choice in, their work) and psychological safety (feeling safe and supported in the workplace).
The youngest age bracket surveyed (18 to 25) consisted mainly of paralegals and trainees. The fact they displayed lower levels of burnout than their 26 to 35 year old counterparts suggests that the level of training, supervision and support provided upon initial entry into the legal profession may be a positive influence upon wellbeing. At the same time, it highlights that such support cannot simply be removed upon qualification or following an initial period of supervision. There is a need to think carefully about how to balance support and independence as younger professionals begin to gain more experience.
Despite similar levels of work intensity, females also displayed higher levels of burnout and lower levels of autonomy and psychological safety than their male counterparts. It was also notable 80.2% of respondents who indicated they had caring responsibilities were female. A similar pattern in terms of burnout, autonomy and psychological safety was identified amongst respondents who identified as part of an ethnic minority group and participants with a disability.
Respondents who had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination at work within the preceding 12 months also demonstrated a higher level of burnout and lower levels of autonomy and psychological support. They experienced higher levels of work intensity as well. Individuals who were female, of ethnic minority or with a disability were disproportionately represented amongst respondents who had experienced such issues.
The impact of Covid-19
The onset of the Covid-19 global pandemic had a significant impact across the legal profession. LawCare’s report indicates that it led to particularly high concerns around work-life balance and financial security.
Once again, when considering the impact of Covid-19, individual characteristics influenced the experience of respondents. Those who were female, of ethnic minority, or who had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination reported being more concerned about their work during the pandemic. For example, one respondent noted that:
‘As a woman also expected to undertake child care when schools closed. Not viable to work as a barrister whilst caring for a primary age child’ (Barrister, Life in the Law Report).
Those with a disability had an increased concern over how, when and where they would work during that time. Fears around career progression and isolation were particularly expressed by younger respondents.
One size doesn’t fit all
‘…we need a sector-wide commitment to why wellbeing matters and to start redefining the culture in law in the positive, to what it could be: a workplace where people have a positive work-life balance, feel valued, respected and supported and thrive.’ (LawCare, Life in the Law Report).
The findings of Life in the Law demonstrate that there is no single ‘one size fits all’ solution to the issues which exist around wellbeing in the legal profession. Whilst it is (or should be) the collective responsibility of all stakeholders in law to promote better wellbeing and flourishing, this may require different strategies, initiatives and forms of support for different groups of legal professionals.
Of course, it is important to remember that no individual or group can simply be defined by one single characteristic. Instead, there are likely to be numerous intersectionalities between individual characteristics and the experiences of different groups. However, what these findings emphasise is that there is a need for nuanced and reflective dialogue and discussion around lawyer wellbeing, to ensure all voices are heard and acknowledged. A common phrase used during the Covid-19 global pandemic has been ‘we are all in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat’. This is worth remembering as we consider how best to develop a post-pandemic legal profession which values wellbeing for all.
View the full report here.
Dr Emma Jones is senior lecturer in law and director of student wellbeing for the School of Law, University of Sheffield and member of the LawCare Life in the Law research committee