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Ethics and Well-Being: Legal Work Culture, Well-Being and Unethical Behaviour

The first article of this series demonstrated the link between ethics and well-being that has existed at least since ancient Greece and posited that the legal profession’s codes of ethics, conduct and rules include provision for well-being as an indicator of professional competency to protect the integrity of the profession and the safety of clients. The current article explores workplace culture as a key aspect that has emerged from recent reports about the profession’s well-being. These reports highlight what may be considered a toxic workplace culture being an important systemic issue that the legal profession needs to address from the perspectives of well-being and ethics. This article will explore toxic workplace culture, its relevance to legal professional culture and its impact on mental well-being and unethical behaviour.

Toxic Workplace Culture and the Legal Profession

Legal Work Culture

Workplace culture includes consistent beliefs, attitudes and practices that occur within the broader workplace environment. Research confirms that legal practitioners experience a pressured work environment, which has been identified as a contributor to the profession’s well-being challenges. This work environment is characterised by hyper-critical practices, poor management, money and status over well-being, competition, long work hours, bullying, harassment, and discrimination. These characteristics represent some of the prevalent beliefs, attitudes and practices in the legal profession and, thus, its workplace culture. The reports suggest that lawyers’ mental health and well-being is negatively impacted by this culture. Thus, understanding the work environment and culture experienced by many lawyers is important to improve the legal professions’ well-being.

A toxic workplace environment is defined as an organisational environment that causes harm, is painful for and cruel towards employees. Such an environment results in low employee morale, decreased motivation, diminished productivity and impacts employees’ sense of agency and connection to their work and workplace. Kasalak highlighted four elements of a toxic work environment: rigidity, narcissism, aggression, and unethical behaviour. This study of workplace culture within tertiary educational institutions indicated that the elements manifested within organisations as poor communication and cooperation within the organisation, high levels of competition amongst employees, expectations of working beyond the terms of employees’ job descriptions, unfair rises in workload, and contravening organisational, professional and legal requirements. These manifestations of toxic workplace environments are reflected in many of the characteristics of the workplace culture of legal professionals, suggestive of a toxic workplace culture in the law.

Toxic Workplace Culture and Wellbeing

Toxic workplace environments, by definition, are detrimental to employee health, wellbeing and safety. Research suggests that environments of increasing pressure due to tighter deadlines and expectations of long working hours become increasingly more detrimental and toxic to employee health and wellbeing. Stress has been shown to increase as toxicity rises in the workplace and employees have been shown to experience insomnia, anxiety and depression as a consequence. In addition, workplace toxicity is linked with employee disengagement from the workplace and poor productivity. Thus, toxic workplace environments are unsupportive of employee optimal functioning and organisational efficiency.

The literature has consistently reported very high rates of mental health issues within the legal profession in Australia and notes that the pressured workplace culture is a key systemic contributor. The pressure experienced within many legal organisations due to a focus on meeting billing targets, expectations of long working hours, critical practices, uncivil behaviour, and a competitive environment places high job demands on lawyers. These types of pressures concur with the characteristics of toxic work environments studied in the literature that are associated with stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Thus, it appears that changing prevalent cultural practices within the legal profession may be fundamental to sustainable improvement of the profession’s well-being and contribute to a more productive and engaged profession.

Toxic Workplace Culture, Decision-making and Unethical Behaviour

Ethical decision-making may be challenged by the effects of a toxic workplace culture. When people are under stress their decision-making may be more biased and the quality of their decisions compromised. Further, reliance on psychological shortcuts for decisions that introduce bias can lead to the inability to notice one’s behaviour as unethical. Unethical behaviour in the workplace undermines core psychological needs, such as autonomy and relatedness, and violates employees’ assumptions they will be treated respectfully and professionally. Baron suggests that toxic characteristics of the Australian legal profession’s workplace culture, such as high work pressure, competition, intolerance of diversity, abuse of power and position, can lead to unethical behaviour, such as bullying, harassment and discrimination. Poor well-being amongst victims, perpetrators and third parties has been associated with unethical behaviour. Thus, the organisational repercussions of unethical behaviour may be widespread, particularly in toxic workplace environments.

It appears that there may be a self-perpetuating feedback loop within legal organisations whereby a high-pressured work environment may become toxic and result in poor employee health and well-being. As a consequence, leaders’ and employees’ decision-making may be compromised. Increases in unethical decision-making, which may condone uncivil behaviour and consolidate toxic workplace characteristics, may ensue and become the organisation’s beliefs, attitudes and practices. Hence, the organisational culture becomes toxic and the well-being of all staff in the organisation may suffer as a consequence. Thus, it appears to be imperative that the legal profession acknowledge toxicity within its organisational culture to make effective change to its well-being.

Whilst there is now greater recognition that toxic workplace practices are not acceptable, the legal profession has been slow to change these cultural norms. It appears that the Australian legal profession needs to attend to structural issues to ensure it has a productive, engaged and well membership that can effectively and ethically serve the community. The third in this series of articles on ethics and well-being of the legal profession will provide an overview of ways to address systemic barriers to the profession’s well-being, including the role of ethical behaviour in addressing toxic workplace environments.


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  2. Brady, M. (2019). VLSB+C lawyer wellbeing project: Report on legal professionals’ reflections in the legal profession and suggestions for future reform. Victorian Legal Services Board and Commission.
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  10. Wang, Z., Zaman, S., Rasool, S.F., uz Zaman, Q., & Amin, A. (2020). Exploring the relationships between a toxic workplace environment, workplace stress and project success with the moderating effect of organisational support: Empirical evidence from Pakistan. Risk Management and Healthcare Policy, 13, 1055-1067.

Support for Lawyers provides legal professionals with confidential counselling by practitioners who have experience work with the legal profession or within the Law. Our counsellors are able to discuss lawyers’ wellbeing issues and assist exploring strategies to support mental health, deal with challenging work environments, attend to work life balance and improve engagement and productivity.

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