Support for Lawyers

Ethics and Wellbeing: Approaches To Structural Change Supporting Lawyers’ Wellbeing

Wellbeing Lawyers

The second article of this series highlighted the link between ethics and wellbeing in the workplace by discussing the characteristics of toxic workplaces, their effect on employee wellbeing and ethical behaviour, and some structural attributes of legal organisations that enable workplace toxicity. The literature on lawyers’ wellbeing consistently highlights the need for systemic and structural change to address the profession’s high levels of ill-being. The current article explores strategies that may address structural attributes leading to a toxic workplace environment and improvement of employee wellbeing.

Organisational support

Organisational support has repeatedly been mentioned as a key strategy to improve employee wellbeing. The research suggests that organisational support ameliorates the effects of toxic workplace culture and is associated with increased employee engagement and productivity. Meidav suggests that organisational support includes leaders demonstrating and requiring ethical conduct, which may be evidenced by leaders listening to employees, enabling employees to provide feedback safely, and intolerance of rule breaking. Thus, organisations that support employee wellbeing are taking measures to minimise unethical conduct and foster organisational integrity.

Bradey suggests that lawyers experience isolation at work manifested through high workloads, many practitioners working alone, such as barristers, and a culture that views mental health as weakness. Organisational support would increase lawyers’ connection within the workplace and open up channels to discuss issues of concern. For example, lawyers work in environments that stigmatise mental health and wellbeing and, unlike other helping professions, are not usually provided with follow up support after dealing with traumatised clients. This can result in substantial numbers of lawyers experiencing unidentified vicarious trauma. However, lawyers who may experience vicarious trauma would be less isolated if legal organisations provided information about dealing with traumatised people and vicarious trauma together with regular wellbeing check-ins. This support would signal to staff that mental health is a human phenomenon that everyone experiences and normalise help-seeking for mental wellbeing issues.

Organisational support may further address stigma associated with mental health through regulators, peak bodies and employers clearly communicating that adverse career consequences will not occur if members of the legal profession and employees disclose that they have been experiencing mental health difficulties. This includes increasing the legal profession’s general mental health literacy to raise understanding of mental health and mental illness, encouraging supported return to work for people who have experienced mental health issues similar to the approach for employees who have experienced physical illness, and documenting plans to support employee recovery and wellbeing. These forms of organisational support may be bolstered by codified ethical requirements for wellbeing as an indicator of professional competence, which would enable wellbeing CPD to increase of the profession’s mental health literacy.


Leadership is central to improving wellbeing and changing toxic workplace culture, as research shows that leadership is the best predictor of toxic workplace culture. Thus, leaders need to increase their awareness of their own behaviour and be accountable for uncivil behaviour so they are better able to model desired ethical behaviour to staff. Leaders overtly demonstrating desired behaviour shows employees what behaviour is acceptable and expected, which can influence the social norms within the organisation.

Engaging staff in the cultural change process enables leaders to better enable and maintain cultural change. This can be effected by encouraging employee feedback on cultural change, such as enabling employees to provide feedback safely and visible action in response to feedback, and supporting teams to develop their own social norms. Since individuals tend to follow the actions of other group members, work groups may be used to implement change through a co-design process of brainstorming, implementing, testing, and evaluating new group social norms appropriate to the circumstances of the group. This process would enable middle managers and supervisors to lead cultural change at the work group level to reinforce the importance of the change process.

Job redesign and training

The literature suggests redesigning the way lawyers work is likely to substantially improve the profession’s wellbeing. Sull and Sull suggest that reducing workplace stress includes removing nuisance work, ensuring employees work reasonable hours, and enable employees to exercise greater autonomy over how they work. Bradey notes that lawyers need to work differently to stay well, which includes removing the system of billable hours. This system is associated with the imposition of unrealistic timeframes on lawyers’ work, micro-managing, and de-valuing non-billable but necessary parts of legal work, such as training, self-care, and research. Thus, billable hours could comprise a large part of nuisance work lawyers routinely undertake.

Training is a core part of addressing lawyers’ wellbeing issues. Bradey suggests that openness to new learning over a range of topics encourages mental flexibility and strengthens brain plasticity that supports practitioner wellbeing and mental acuity. Wellbeing training would include practising reflection on one’s experiences and behaviour to assist individuals to manage their wellbeing and support ethical legal practice. Reflection would enable legal practitioners to explore and identify their core values and note where these may conflict with workplace values. The research suggests that values conflicts are a key reason employees are dissatisfied and stressed at work. Thus, CPD requirements that encourage learning more about mental health and wellbeing and developing supportive skills, such as reflection, would assist the legal profession to improve its overall wellbeing, support legal practitioners’ technical and complex work, and create highly functional and positive workplaces.

There is no single way to address the structural and systemic issues that underpin the high incidence of mental health issues in the Australian legal profession. This means that all facets of the profession can play a valuable role in the shift towards a more positive and optimally functional profession. Regulators and societies have a key leadership role to not simply report the challenges experienced by the profession; but to structurally support the professions’ wellbeing through regulatory measures, such as including provisions in codes of ethics and conduct linking competence to wellbeing and requiring a portion of annual CPD be focused on wellbeing. Leaders within legal organisations, including firms and the courts, can implement a range of strategies to eliminate toxic culture, including modelling acceptable behaviour that supports mental wellbeing, removing billable hours, providing psychological safety and organisational support for employees who experience mental wellbeing challenges, and actively encouraging training in mental health and wellbeing to raise mental health literacy. All members of the legal profession and industry can support their own and each other’s wellbeing by being open to discussing and owning their mental health and wellbeing experiences through increasing their mental health literacy, engaging in reflection on their own experiences and undertaking regular wellness check-ins. As all parts of the profession contribute, increases in wellbeing are more likely to result, which will lower stress, increase respect, encourage positive relations between members of the profession and normalise support-seeking. This self-sustaining positive feedback loop supporting the Australian legal profession’s wellbeing has the potential to develop a more resilient and effective profession that serves with enhanced integrity.


  1. Baron, P. (2015). The elephant in the room? Lawyer wellbeing and the impact of unethical behaviour. Australian Feminist Lawyer Journal, 41(1), 87-119.
  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.
  3. Foley, T., Hickie, I., Holmes, V., James, C., Rowe, M., & Tang, S. (2016). Being well in the law: A guide for lawyers. Law Society of New South Wales.
  4. Bradey, R. (2020). Improving psychological wellbeing in the Law, can it be done? Pandora’s Box, 43-55.
  5. Meidav, N. (2021). Ethical behaviour is the antidote to toxic culture. Strategic HR Review, 20(2), 47-50.
  6. Rasool, S.F., Maqbool, R., Samma, M., Zhao, Y., & Anjum, A. (2019). Positioning depression as a critical factor in creating a toxic workplace environment for diminishing worker productivity. Sustainability, 11, 2589.
  7. Sull, D., & Sull, C. (2022). How to fix a toxic culture. MIT Sloan Management Review.
  8. 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. https://www.doi/org/10.2147/RMHP.S256155

Support for Lawyers provides legal professionals with confidential counselling by practitioners who have experience working 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.

Marina James GradDipPsychAdv GradDipPsych LLB BA is a counsellor and mental health professional with over 20 year’s experience working in mental health. After working as a solicitor, Marina worked in non-clinical mental health for a state-wide service provider and recently has been working on various projects, including social enterprise for women in leadership and mind-body strategies to deal with professional stress and burnout. Marina’s honours thesis (completed in 2021) covered the topics of wellbeing and perfectionism. She is currently a counsellor for Support for Lawyers.

Article Topics

Are you thinking of leaving law? Before you decide, try our service.

Latest Posts