The law - it's just mental
The Word of Gold: with stress such a major factor for practising lawyers, all firms should have a published policy encouraging people to ask for support
"Reality is the leading cause of stress among those in touch with it." (Lily Tomlin)
It’s an easy life, the law, and no mistake. LawCare, the lawyers’ support charity, recently reported a 36% annual rise in cases across the UK. It opened 515 files last year and made 1,810 follow-up calls. Stress was the most common problem, affecting nearly 75% of callers, followed by depression (12%) and alcohol (6%).
What should one make of these figures? As a LawCare volunteer, my first reaction was that 515 seemed a remarkably low number. Every case is dreadful for those affected, their families and friends, but if this was the whole iceberg, things could be a lot worse, given that there are around 180,000 practising UK lawyers. However, I suspect it is just the tip, concealing thousands of bright, good people who find themselves in various stages of exhaustion and quiet desperation. Every year, one in four of the population will experience a mental health issue. If lawyers are representative of society as a whole, that means 45,000 of us suffering from depression, anxiety or more serious problems.
What are the causes? You will not be surprised that more than one in five identified excessive workload, while 17% identified financial problems. No surprise either that this has led to an increase in bad behaviour. There has been a marked rise in bullying, up from 14% in 2012 to 19% in 2013, while 16% identified disciplinary issues. Young people are disproportionately affected; two fifths were trainees or had been qualified for five years or less.
We like to think that we epitomise strength, intelligence, high achievement and resilience, but lawyers are more than usually vulnerable to workplace stress. We are fantastically averse to the idea of personal failure. We resist sharing our anxieties, or owning up when we find the going tough. The problem is exacerbated by a post-recession environment in which we are constantly under pressure to deliver more for less, where reward is down and unevenly distributed. The most recent Cost of Time Survey discloses median equity partner income in Scotland of £64,000 a year (many in smaller firms earn less), for which they will have worked long hours, often six or seven days a week. This represents a lower hourly rate than a London Underground driver, whose job has been characterised, perhaps unfairly, as little more than pushing a red knob.
Leading firms, recognising the serious risk of burnout and that prevention is better than cure, have put in place a raft of policies and support services such as counsellors, psychologists and GPs to help their people. But what of smaller firms, where the problems can be just as acute? It is unrealistic to expect them to do the same on their own, but nor is it acceptable to expect their staff just to soldier on.
There is a valuable role here for faculties and the Law Society of Scotland to supplement LawCare’s great work by establishing local panels of specialists able to provide rapid, skilled support.
Further, I believe there is a strong case for it to be compulsory for all firms to have a published policy on this issue, which positively encourages staff to seek help. Light is always the best antiseptic. The message must always be: “It could be you, there is no stigma, and we are here to catch you if you fall.”
Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds Solicitors, which grew from a sole practice to UK leader in its sectors. He is now a consultant, non-exec and adviser to firms nationwide.
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