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“Holly” is on a mission to take control of her work situation – aiming to instil a feeling of Zen in her workspace.

This means, from a practical point of view, that she has often come to AJS seeking answers. And we are happy to oblige Holly. As always.

But this Blog is a little different.

You see, in the United States of America, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In South Africa it’s in October with World Mental Health Awareness Day being 10 October. It’s a topic worthy of attention, whether it’s in May or in October. Both is probably better. So, we thought, let’s begin the discussion on mental health now.

While we do not have definitive experience in this particular area, we are happy to discuss it from a general point of view in the hopes that mental health within the legal profession is something that Holly as well as other legal professionals across the globe take notice of. Make a priority.

Because pretending it doesn’t happen or turning a blind eye to the struggles many lawyers are facing is no longer good enough. Or safe.

The latest survey

The American Lawyer published it’s crucial annual Mental Health Survey on 18 May 2023 under the title “’There’s a Lot of Backlog to Address’:. And that title kind of sets the scene.

Nearly 3,000 lawyers were asked to answer questions related to well-being and their mental health. More than 50% of the respondents said they felt increasingly cynical and had a decreased sense of accomplishment. 60% of lawyers felt overwhelmed and exhausted and more than 75% revealed that their work environment contributed to their mental health issues. The top reasons?

  • The billable hour pressure,
  • The 24/7 pace of the work, and
  • The unrelenting client demands.

In fact, the survey further set out that –

“No Reprieve From Stress and Anxiety

In this year’s survey, 71.1% of lawyers said they had anxiety, an increase of 5% from 2022. Similarly, 38.2% said they were depressed, up from 35% in 2022. The number of lawyers who said they had another mental health issue more than doubled to 31.2% in 2023 from 14.6% in 2022….

 The profession’s perception of itself also got worse: 63% thought mental health and substance abuse problems were worse in the legal profession, up from 55% the prior year. Roughly one in two lawyers said they knew colleagues who were depressed or had another mental health issue, while 44% said they knew co-workers who struggled with alcoholism. And nearly 15% said they knew someone in the profession who died by suicide in the past two years”.

Those figures are alarming. Especially since they have increased in the latest survey.

These statistics paint a pretty grim picture of the state of mental health in law firms and with legal professionals in general.

Sure, we all know that the legal profession is slow to change. We saw that during the pandemic with the need to move – as quickly as possible –  to remote working in order to have an online system that could assist lawyers to be able to work form anywhere (such as the products offered by AJS). Despite the necessity caused by the pandemic, law firms were still slow in embracing legal tech.

But even in a work environment that is slow to change, something should have changed by now.  Yes, the survey does say that “At no point in the history of law firms has mental health and wellness been talked about as much as it was in the past three years.”.

But is just talking about mental health enough?

Especially since lawyers in general are still sceptical about speaking out about mental health issues, they, or someone they know may be facing. In fact, the survey (sadly) set out as follows –

“Although lawyers recognized their law firms’ efforts to improve mental health resources and destigmatize conversations about mental health, our survey still showed a lack of trust when it came down to lawyers asking their firms for help. Compared with the past few years, lawyers aren’t feeling any more comfortable using mental health and substance abuse programs, educational programs, extended-leave policies, or on-site wellness professionals. “It would be used as grounds for termination,” said one attorney at an Am Law 50 firm in response to a question about why they wouldn’t take extended leave”.

We acknowledge that while stress will always be something professionals in general and lawyers specifically will need to deal with, it is the inability of legal professionals to –

  • handle the unrealistic billable hour targets set by law firms;
  • handle the seemingly insurmountable workloads placed on legal professionals due to the increased pressure on law firms to provide more value at less of a cost;
  • properly dedicate funds to legal accounting and practice management software to ease workload because of the fear of capital outlay;
  • disconnect from their work and their clients because of the expectation that they will be available 24/7, and
  • focus any time on their own physical or mental health.

And that is extremely troubling. Because legal professionals still don’t access mental health support services, even if provided and needed because they are still affraid of the stigma that comes with needing help for mental health problems.

As clearly set out in the following statement taken from the AL survey –

“In a profession that fosters perfectionism, it can be difficult to feel safe and comfortable enough to access mental health-related services, even if they’re put in front of us,” says Mahr. “There is a threat, whether real or imagined, that we might not get promoted, or we might lose our job or not get a bonus if we aren’t 100% on our game 100% of the time. Historically, there has been a stigma in the field of law around getting mental health support. Many of us have come to believe that we will be seen as inferior, the weak link on the team, if we admit we need help, so we protect ourselves by pretending nothing is wrong.”

So, what can law firms do to help?

According to the Gitnux Blog The Most Surprising Lawyers Mental Health Statistics And Trends in 2023lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression compared to other professions”. And with those numbers in mind, it’s important some measures are taken to try relieve the massive load the profession is placing on lawyers’ mental health.

Gitnux further sets out that –

“Around 75% of lawyers who received treatment for mental health issues noticed an improvement in their well-being.

This statistic is a powerful testament to the effectiveness of mental health treatment for lawyers. It shows that with the right help, lawyers can experience a significant improvement in their overall well-being. This statistic is an important reminder that mental health issues should not be ignored, and that seeking help is a viable option for lawyers who are struggling”.

So, there is evidence to suggest that doing something and not just paying lip service to mental health issues is key when seeking ways to help lawyers address their mental health struggles.  

First and foremost, it’s becoming increasingly more important for senior legal practitioners or leaders within law firms to be honest about their own mental health issues. By keeping quiet and pretending everything is fine, it sends implicit messages to junior staff that they should “tough it out”, “keep a stiff upper lip” and struggle through their problems. And this is the exact opposite of what should be done. Because doing this just perpetuates the vicious cycle that is ploughing through mental health issues and pretending everything is fine. Junior attorneys will adapt this approach, teach it to their juniors one day and so the cycle will continue.

Not ideal.

Reuters suggests in their article Mental Health and Well-Being Challenges in Law Firms that law firms practice a “top-down modelling from leadership”. Essentially this means that when leaders within law firms are open, honest and show vulnerability around their own mental health issues, it creates a positive environment for other lawyers within the practice who are seeking support or looking for help around their own issues.

Leaders need to communicate – openly – that “prioritizing mental health is not only acceptable but required to be a successful attorney”.

Regular discussions should be held within legal practices where individuals come together to talk about and connect over shared experiences and perhaps common issues that may exist within their own law firms’ culture.

“Every time a person in power asks others how they are doing and genuinely listens to their concerns, they dismantle stigma”.

It’s also advisable to seek the support and assistance of mental health practitioners and coaches who can help a law firm navigate their team through mental health issues. Training around how to deal with and regulate stress and anxiety on a day-to-day basis is key when looking to sufficiently provide support to staff that need it.

Working with ICF-accredited coaches such as Frieda Levycky of Braving Boundaries who offers one-on-one coaching, corporate workshops and seminars as well as the Enneagram to better understand yourself (Explore Your Enneagram) or to help build a stronger team (Enneagram for Teams) can create an environment where “putting your money where your mouth is” is paramount. Where getting your employees the help they need is top priority.

Overcoming and managing mental health includes an array of things. The first is opening-up the communication channels to ensure no one feels isolated.

It then involves getting help for those that need it.

To read more about the latest Mental Health Survey you can read the following articles – ‘There’s a Lot of Backlog to Address’: Why Mental Health in the Legal Profession Is Getting Worse, Lawyer Strong®: The Legal Profession’s Journey Toward Well-Being, The Most Surprising Lawyers Mental Health Statistics And Trends in 2023 and Mental Health and Well-Being Challenges in Law Firms.

In addition, we acknowledge and thank the above resources for the information set out in this Blog.

If you or someone close to you is contemplating suicide or has voiced any thoughts about suicide, please don’t hesitate to call The South African Depression and Anxiety Group on 0800 567 567 “Mental Health Matters”.

It’s all easy. If you know how… Just ask us.

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