Law, an emotional process
To mark Mental Health Awareness Week (14-20 May), LawCare trails some new resources being developed to support stressed legal professionals
All lawyers, like all human beings, have emotions. Emotions can be defined scientifically as a set of evaluative and motivational processes in our brains that help us understand and react to stimuli such as other people or situations.
Our emotions are formed, interpreted and communicated in a social and cultural context. They influence the way we interpret information, influence our evaluation of others, and help us decide what is important or valuable. They drive us to care about the decisions we make, and motivate how we respond to situations (Susan Bandes and Jeremy Blumenthal, “Emotion and the Law” Annu.Rev.Law.Soc.Sci 2012 8:11-81).
You may think there is no place for emotion in the law and regard emotions as occasional, intense, unpredictable moods that interfere with rational thinking. You may believe that your legal professional training enables you to put your emotions to one side, but emotions do affect how people feel and act at work, and the legal profession is no exception.
Cicero, the Roman politician and lawyer, writing more than 2,000 years ago, recognised the power of emotion in decision making: “Men decide far more problems by hate, or love, or lust, or rage, or sorrow, or joy, or hope, or fear, or illusion or some other inward emotion, than by reality or authority or any legal standard or judicial precedent or statute.”
We can’t remove emotion from the practice of law, but what we can do is help lawyers to understand and manage their emotions.
The need for emotional support
The legal profession has become increasingly commercialised. The need to attract and retain clients and maximise profits has led to a growing emphasis on client care and the accompanying “soft skills” required. These are skills which are not traditionally valued or developed within legal education and training, which is focused on developing the ability to think, reason and analyse, leaving legal professionals without the emotional competencies needed to meet the demands of an evolving profession.
Providing legal professionals with resources to enable them to understand and develop key emotional competencies such as emotional self-awareness, self-reflection and better strategies for emotional self-regulation is one way in which to equip them more effectively for practice, enhance their wellbeing and potentially reduce levels of stress, anxiety and depression.
LawCare and the Open University are collaborating to develop and pilot a range of online resources to encourage legal professionals to engage proactively with issues around recognising and regulating their emotions. The goal is to foster enhanced wellbeing, to support legal professionals not just to survive, but also to thrive, within a challenging work environment.
We want to encourage legal professionals proactively to recognise and identify factors that put a strain on their wellbeing at an early stage, rather than respond retrospectively once issues with mental health and wellbeing have arisen. We know from our work in supporting lawyers for over 20 years, how difficult it is for lawyers to admit they are struggling with the pressures of work, which often leads them to seek help only when they are nearing crisis. We want to change this.
At the same time, the challenges of legal practice cannot and should not be addressed only at the level of individual legal professionals. There is great work going on across the legal community to raise awareness and to challenge the stigma of mental health, and to encourage those in need of support to feel able to come forward, along with greater recognition within legal practices of the value of mental health. But if we are serious about addressing the mental health and wellbeing of legal professionals, we need also to look at the culture and practice of law. There needs to be a sustained effort to promote wider cultural and institutional change within the profession.
So in addition to providing resources aimed at individual practitioners, the resources we are developing will include a toolkit for employers, to encourage positive organisational and cultural change in the legal workplace.
These resources will be available later in the year, but we want to start the conversation in the legal community now about why emotional competencies matter.
Elizabeth Rimmer is chief executive of LawCare