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Stress: the common enemy

18 April 16

Stress is the biggest single issue affecting Scotland’s young lawyers, wherever they work. That clearly emerges from research by the SYLA, whose committee now calls for a full debate on how to tackle it

by Scottish Young Lawyers' Association

Earlier this year, the Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association (SYLA) reported on a trend which emerged from our survey of members last summer. The survey suggested that many young lawyers were concerned about the impact of stress and workload pressures on their long-term physical and mental wellbeing.

A difficult and tricky subject, the issue receives (perhaps unsurprisingly) little attention in Scotland. No major survey or qualitative research has been conducted on the impact of stress on Scottish lawyers. Often unacknowledged, the issue remains one bubbling under the surface and, we suspect, having a negative impact on the profession as a whole.

Following our initial appreciation of the issue last summer, we have since been speaking (on a confidential and anonymous basis) to our 2,000-strong membership, which ranges from students to solicitors of up to 10 years’ PQE. We wanted to ask: is the profession burnt out and stressed out, and how can we manage this?

The impact on young solicitors

While there is nothing to suggest that this issue is prevalent only among new solicitors, our initial inquiries suggest that the future of the profession – its new and recently qualified entrants – feel the effects of stress acutely. Our research suggests that many within the future of the profession are both concerned about their prospects for progression, and simultaneously concerned about the long-term impact of the lifestyle many young lawyers devote themselves to, in order to guarantee that career progression later down the track.

Becoming a young lawyer these days is a hard grind. Securing a traineeship in the first place can be a brutal and unforgiving experience (for example, in 2015, 540 traineeships were registered with the Society; this year, over 700 students are matriculated on the Diploma, with no signs of the economy creating the surplus needed to meet this demand). Thereafter, an intense two years of training follows, during which young lawyers undertake a steep learning curve, before the competition for newly qualified positions ensues – at which point, their numbers will typically be cut by a further 20% across the profession.

Of course, becoming a solicitor in society is a privileged position – there can be no doubt that it is, and ought rightly to be, competitive and demanding. It will, we suspect, always carry with it some degree of “stress”. But what we are concerned about is “negative stress” – recognising the harmful impacts of long-term acute stress and the effects it can have on the minds and bodies of young people.

A study conducted last year on behalf of the Law Society of England & Wales concluded that 96% of respondents were experiencing “negative stress” – that which impacts on health and day-to-day life. That study also found that 39% of young lawyers had required to take some time off work due to stress – a higher proportion than older lawyers.

We are not alone

Other jurisdictions have been grappling with the concept and impact of “negative stress” for some time. The US in particular and Australia have a long history of monitoring and researching the issue among their legal professionals. Evidence from Australia suggests that legal professionals exhibit significantly higher proportions of psychological stress than the general population. That jurisdiction has also found that experience of depression among lawyers is disproportionately high. It is described publicly and openly far more than in any of the UK jurisdictions. That said, the same attitudinal barriers exist: just as our experience has been in Scotland, lawyers overseas suggested that seeking help for stress was the exception, not the norm.

Having the courage to speak up

In trying to understand the issue better, one aspect which struck us is how reluctant the Scottish profession is to talk about the issue. Finding a place for open and frank discussions to take place on mental wellbeing in the profession was tricky. Defining what stress is and speaking openly about its prevalence in the profession was even more difficult.

Young lawyers in particular seem to be caught between the inherent conflict of speaking up on this issue, which they feel is important and worthy of further investigation, but also not wanting to seem incapable or vulnerable. They are reluctant to discuss something which they feel is perceived by many in the profession as a “weakness”. When the young lawyers we spoke to felt comfortable enough to open up in an anonymous setting, the trends and common experiences shared were remarkable.

Should “making it” in the profession come at the cost of health?

We found that acute stress and burnout are live issues for almost all of the young lawyers we spoke to. There emerged a theme of having “clung on” or “white-knuckled” through long periods of intense stress and anxiety in order to secure a position and then retain it after qualification. In these early years of practice, in what could potentially be a 30-40 year career, many young lawyers were already reporting instances of depression, anxiety and breakdowns. Sleep deprivation was cited as a common symptom of life as a young solicitor, together with long hours. As well as affecting the young lawyers, it impacted on their families and friends and deeply affected their personal lives.

Young lawyers reported feeling overwhelmed at times with responsibility and the need to be available round the clock:

  • “I don’t know anyone in the profession who doesn’t have a stressful job – it’s just life now, as everyone is expected to be available 24/7.”
  • “Stress isn’t really addressed in the workplace – you are expected to perform in client work and business development, regardless of what it takes. It can be a sign of not managing with those work levels if you say you can’t do it all, so most people are unlikely to admit if they are stressed.”
  • “There can be too much pressure, too early on, to hit financial targets which junior fee earners don’t see the benefit of, or in order to achieve promotion. There can be too much focus on the financial aspects of the business in the early years of a career, rather than rewarding innovative ideas, hard work etc, which can be demoralising.”
  • “The problem is that once you start to feel stressed there are very few things that can help you get rid of that without outside help. For instance, recently my caseload ballooned and I felt like I was struggling to breathe under the pressure of having to cope with that and a continuous stream of new clients every week. I worked late every night and came in at the weekend but still didn’t feel like I was coping.”

While many might assume that the issue is most acute in “big” law firms (those with 20-plus partners), in reality some of the most acute stress was reported from those working in-house or in small firms. A trend emerged that while life in the big firms is stressful, there are more support mechanisms and colleagues around to help redress the balance, whereas life as a young solicitor at a small in-house team or small private practice firm, can be an isolating experience:

  • “People think and assume that life in a smaller team means less stress. In fact, it can involve a great deal of stress due to lack of supervision. You can be ‘thrown in at the deep end’ rather than having the support you probably need, which puts a lot of pressure on at trainee level.”
  • “I think one thing I notice is that more senior members of staff might feel their work is more important, so don’t appreciate the stress younger lawyers are under. It is all relative, though, and the younger members of staff may take longer to do something that senior lawyers take for granted. This can be quite stressful and daunting for junior lawyers who are still learning. Often junior lawyers can have quite high volumes of work, especially admin-related work, which can take quite some time despite it not being hard law, but the work they have done is not fully appreciated.”

The long-term impacts of stress among many young lawyers were sobering:

  • “I feel, as a young solicitor, you have something to prove and that being stressed is just seen as an inability to manage time, cope with normal work and like you’re weak.”
  • “Over the long term, you can end up with a skewed mentality about what constitutes normality. I have experienced colleagues with burnout as a result, and at the extreme end of the spectrum, people leaving the profession altogether.”
  • “I have struggled with stress (and at one time depression) during the early years of my career. I think a major aspect of that has been down to different team dynamics. I have worked in teams where I have been micro-managed and I have worked in teams where I have been flying solo. At the extremities of each I have found it very difficult to cope and think that is an issue for many young lawyers in the profession.”
  • “When I feel stressed my productivity goes down dramatically because I panic that I am going to do something wrong, but then the work piling up makes it worse.”

Common to all we interviewed was a perception that acknowledging the issue might be seen negatively by peers and colleagues:

  • “My view on it is that, much like most mental health issues, it is not treated like a real issue.”
  • “I have concerns over the stigma attached with letting people know that I struggle. Within the profession I feel that mental health isn’t taken very seriously.”
  • “I think that it is seen as weak to need time off due to stress and/or depression, and in this profession it is considered part of the job and we should ‘get on with it’. It isn’t discussed in an open and frank manner and I don’t think this is conducive to creating resilient young lawyers.”
  • “Ignoring the issue doesn’t make it go away – it exacerbates the problem.”
  • “I was scared to speak to my boss because I thought he would think that I was unable to cope with a normal workload and that I would then not be kept on.”
  • “LawCare is a positive service for the profession – it provides an independent person to speak to if you want to talk to someone about stress. However, there are far more stressed lawyers out there than call LawCare! A lot of lawyers experience stress but many either don’t consciously label it as stress, or if they are aware that they are stressed, they think it is a normal part of the job.”

Helping the profession retain its talent

A further theme which emerged is that many young people are leaving or eventually will leave the profession, due to the long-term impact of stress. For some time, the SYLA has been aware that comparatively few of our members have aspirations to become partners in private practice, because of a perception that this position carries with it the most acute of pressures. An aspiration to move in-house at three to four years’ PQE is common among many of our membership (though one might question whether the role of an in-house general counsel is any less acutely stressful than life as a partner in private practice, in reality).

Guidance suggests that monitoring stress in the workplace and raising awareness of the issue can be the first step towards normalising the stigma associated with it. If there is increased general awareness of the issue, that may in turn help to prevent the isolation many young lawyers reported. As lawyers, it is often in our psyche (and indeed, training) to be self-sacrificing. However, we asked ourselves during our discussions with members, is acute negative stress and depression ever an acceptable part of someone’s job? Ought it to be time we all start taking our mental health seriously? If a majority of the profession reported that they had broken their backs as a result of their jobs, we’d all take notice, so why doesn’t mental health get the same air time? We provide important services to the general public. The competence and quality of the service we provide matters. Should there be a recognition that your health, whether physical or mental, isn’t something you can sacrifice for the job?

While this article does not offer answers, it tries to ask some questions of a profession, from its future – its young lawyers. Is there an urgent problem in our profession, and how ought we to address it? We suggest that a conversation needs to commence, involving stakeholders from across the profession and those with an interest in the area, both to understand the issue further and to see if consensus on best practice can be agreed. We suggest a round table be convened in the coming months, involving representatives of all stages of the profession (including the young lawyers), the Society and LawCare, for a full and frank discussion on how prevalent the issue is in Scotland and what can be done to address it.

Our tentative view is that too much of this issue is swept under the carpet in Scotland. Starting to talk about it is the first thing we hope to change.

Contributed by the SYLA Commitee
Wellbeing – why it matters

LawCare’s Trish McLellan calls for more openness about stress at all levels of legal education and practice, in order to remove the stigma and improve wellbeing

We all know that law can be a stressful career, and there are probably very few in the profession who have not had some experience of what it can be like when they or a colleague feel things are getting on top of them. Wellbeing also matters in a professional context – it makes sound business sense to try to reduce the sickness leave, impaired productivity and potential for errors which are often associated with staff under stress.

Despite this, comparatively little has been done to address the welfare of those working in the legal community. Recent research found that employees in the sector were among the least satisfied with current levels of wellbeing, compared to those working in accountancy, IT, the media and advertising.There is a significant body of published international research that shows that lawyers have higher
rates of anxiety and stress compared to other professions.

Why is this? It’s not that lawyers are genetically predisposed to poor wellbeing; it’s about the culture of law, legal education and professional practice – poor work/life balance, long hours and presenteeism; the competitive environment; the fear of failure; and the driven and perfectionist personalities that can be drawn to law.

We know, and this is supported by evidence from the US, that students, those in training and newly qualified practitioners are a particularly vulnerable group. A third of calls to our LawCare helpline are from students, those in training or practitioners up to five years qualified.

Tackling the stigma about the impact legal careers may be having on wellbeing is something all of us in the legal community need to work together to achieve.

Talking openly with colleagues about how you may be having a tough time coping with the pressures of work isn’t easy. It’s much easier to say that you are having time off for a knee operation than because your GP has signed you off with stress. Lawyers are expected to deal with the demands of the job, and not coping can be seen as a weakness. Even firms that provide employee assistance programmes have relatively low levels of takeup due to concerns about confidentiality or career impairment.

We need to foster an open culture and encourage those who have overcome a difficulty such as stress, or doubt their suitability for law, to share their stories: the lived experience is extremely powerful. We should offer education about how to support a colleague who may be in need of help.

Every organisation should genuinely address wellbeing as part of its management responsibilities rather than merely paying it lip service.

To really make a difference, work needs to start in universities. A recent comparative study of mental health and wellbeing of professional student populations in the UK showed that law students had greater levels of psychological distress compared to vets, medics and pharmacy students.

In the US and Australia, some law schools now teach wellbeing, promoting the message that wellbeing and performance are intricately connected and that good mental health is important for success and performance, so that people entering the profession are more resilient and better able to manage the expectations of them.

But most of all we need to encourage those in the legal community to value wellbeing and raise its status as something that everyone needs to know about, so that lawyers can have fulfilling and healthy professional lives.

Trish McLellan is LawCare’s co-ordinator for Scotland and Northern Ireland
LawCare offers a free and completely confidential helpline to anyone working
in the legal sector. 0800 279 6888 (free from landlines) or 0808 800 0023 (free from mobiles), 9am-7.30pm weekdays, 10am-4pm weekends.
www.lawcare.org.uk

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