Legal Life - Time for an MOT?

Date: 
12 December 2018

If we are serious about addressing the mental health and wellbeing of legal professionals then we need to look at the culture and practice of law, says Elizabeth Rimmer writing in our special supplement on how to travel well in the law

We all have mental health, just as we have physical health. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing, and affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.

Mental health issues range from the worries we all experience as part of everyday life, to serious long-term conditions. It can be easy to dismiss mental health problems as something that happen to other people, but research shows that one in four of us will experience them each year. And the legal community is no exception.

It is known from research in the US that lawyers have higher rates of anxiety, depression and stress compared to other professions. Why is this? It’s not that lawyers are genetically predisposed to poorer wellbeing than other people, there is something about the about the culture and practice of law that can have an impact. The culture of the well-known poor worklife balance, the long hours and presentism, the competitive environment, the fear of failure and the driven and perfectionist personalities that can be drawn to law. All of this contributes to an environment that can compromise lawyer wellbeing.

Some think there is no place for emotion in the law and believe emotions interfere with rational thinking. Law students are trained to ‘think like a lawyer’, suppressing and ignoring their emotions which is not beneficial to wellbeing. In fact there is a huge body of scientific evidence which proves cognition and emotion are intertwined. If we consider that emotions affect your actions, decision-making, reasoning, thought processes and judgement, we can clearly see the relevance of emotion in the law.

Emotional competency

We believe that often lawyers enter the workplace without the emotional competencies needed to meet the demands of an evolving profession. Emotional competency is about how we understand and handle our emotions as well as identifying and interpreting emotional responses around us. These skills, often known as ‘soft skills’, are not traditionally valued or developed within legal education and training, which is focused on developing the ability to think, reason and analyse.

“The goal is to foster enhanced wellbeing, to support legal professionals to not just survive, but to also thrive, within a challenging work environment”

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.

We want to encourage legal professionals to proactively recognise and identify factors that put a strain on their wellbeing at an early stage, rather than responding retrospectively once issues with mental health and wellbeing have arisen.

LawCare and the Open University are collaborating to develop and pilot a range of online resources to proactively encourage legal professionals to engage with issues around recognising and regulating their emotions. The goal is to foster enhanced wellbeing, to support legal professionals to not just survive, but to also thrive, within a challenging work environment.

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, to encourage those in need of support to feel able to come forward and 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 then we need to also 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.

Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive, LawCare (Helpline: 0800 279 6888; www.lawcare.org.uk)

 

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