The recently published Life in the Law study into mental health and wellbeing in the legal sector by the charity LawCare, the first of its kind in the UK, was carried out from October 2020 to January 2021 during the Covid-19 pandemic.
With over 1,700 professionals taking part the research provides a unique snapshot of the mental health and wellbeing of the legal profession and seeks to help inform future steps the sector must collectively take to improve the culture and practice of law to better support lawyer wellbeing.
The findings reveal high levels of burnout and suggest poor wellbeing is endemic across the legal sector, with 69% of respondents experiencing mental ill-health in the preceding 12 months.
Life in the Law exemplifies a growing interest across the legal community with the intersectional nature of wellbeing; that is, how multiple factors shape the different experiences of individuals with regard to their wellbeing and mental health. Alongside surveys such as the International Bar Association's global study and the Bar Council’s 2021 Barristers’ Working Lives Report, the report draws attention to how certain groups appear particularly vulnerable with wellbeing issues having a disproportionate impact on women, younger and early career lawyers, those who identify as an ethnic minority and disabled. Female participants, for example, averaged higher in burnout compared to their male counterparts. They also reported having lower autonomy and lower psychological safety at work.
Digging deeper, however, this engagement with the intersectional nature of wellbeing casts light on an issue around which there has been a striking silence to date – the role of men and the relationship between men's lives, gender equality and attempts to change the culture of law.
More female participants (72.6%) took part in Life in the Law than male (26.4%), a gender disparity common across research studies of wellbeing in the law.
The majority of these responses therefore, if certainly not all, are from female lawyers and the data reveals much about the experiences of female lawyers, especially within the context of the pandemic e.g., around juggling the commitments of work, home and caring and the challenges of lockdown, with almost 60% reporting being more concerned about increased pressures around work life balance.
The Law Society's Women in Leadership in Law project and Male Champions for Change roundtable and toolkit reveal a renewed focus on the role of men in advancing gender equality in the legal profession. Yet there has been a relative absence of studies of men as men – that is as gendered subjects - with distinctive experiences that evolve through the life course. This is an issue as relevant to the area of wellbeing and mental health as it is to studies of work-life balance.
So, why the absence of men? We know men in the law can and do struggle with the competing devotions of work and family; that problems around wellbeing and mental health affect both women and men. Yet research suggests gender differences and cultural norms around masculinity can shape men’s experiences of mental health in distinctive ways, with men more reluctant than women to seek help at times of difficulty, admit to feeling vulnerable and more likely to express concerns about appearing ‘weak’.
Whilst men appear markedly less likely than women to participate in wellbeing research, however, this does not mean that men are not struggling with difficulties. Research also suggests that their problems can often be ‘under the radar’ only becoming visible at times of crisis. At a policy level Life in the Law draws attention to the need to target interventions in ways that will address the specific needs of groups of lawyers and promote equality, diversity and inclusion across the law.
There is no single ‘one size fits all’ solution.
The importance of engaging (and challenging) men: Changing the culture of law
Just over one in five participants in Life in the Law said they had experienced bullying, harassment, or discrimination in the workplace. In the Barrister’s Working Lives report nearly one in three respondents reported personal experience of bullying, harassment and/or discrimination, with female barristers three times as likely to do so.
These findings align with the International Bar Association’s 2019 Us Too? report and draw attention to the toxic nature of some legal workplace cultures. This raises questions about the responsibilities of men to change and challenge such behaviour and, for those involved in leadership, engage with how the gendered cultures of workplaces are reproduced in ways that can prove deleterious to women’s career advancement.
In calling for culture change in the legal profession Life in the Law suggests the ‘buy-in’ and commitment of senior managers is crucial to advancing the wellness agenda – senior figures who, for all the demographic changes that have taken place in the profession, still tend to be disproportionately male.
Initiatives seeking to promote training in mental health literacy for line managers are inescapably addressing the need to better engage men, encouraging senior figures to speak out, share personal stories, be role models and visible agents for change. In framing this as a matter of men ‘stepping up to the mark’, however, it is also important to recognise - and better understand - how inculcation into particular gender identities may mean that this can often be subjectively difficult for some men to do. Questions of wellbeing and gender equality are bound together.
Looking to the future
The growing recognition of intersectional differences around wellbeing takes place in the context of broader social demographic changes in the profession. This includes a greater willingness on the part of junior and early career lawyers, women and men, to be more open about mental health difficulties and express concerns around wellbeing issues; lawyers coming into the profession with new kind of mental health literacy often different to those more senior.
Men in legal workplaces are navigating the boundaries between traditional ideas of masculinity ('boys don't cry') and the emergence of more emotionally expressive ways of ‘being a man’.
In such a context there is a pressing need for studies of wellbeing in the law to ask the ‘man question’ to better understand the nature of the problems faced and how to bring about meaningful change.
View the full report here.
Richard Collier is a professor of law at Newcastle Law School, Newcastle University and a member of the LawCare Life in the Law research committee