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What Will It Take To Pull Down The Walls Blocking The Legal Profession’s Progress Toward Greater Wellbeing?

Well Being for Professionals

Legal professionals may have more awareness of wellbeing as an issue within the profession. But consider these findings…

“…law students and members of the legal profession exhibit higher levels of psychological distress and depression than do community members…” (p. 42, Kelk et al., 2009)

“Over a third of legal professionals…feel work negatively affects their mental wellbeing.” (p. 11, International Bar Association, 2021)

“Overall, the proportion of psychological distress observed among legal professionals is higher than in the working population…” (p. 30, Cadieux et al., 2022)

Why has the wellbeing of the legal profession been in a stasis chamber for over a decade?

Mental Wellbeing Principle 3 from the International Bar Association’s (IBA) 2021 report on the legal profession’s wellbeing states that awareness is crucial to improving lawyers’ wellbeing as it helps to normalise mental health and wellbeing. Greater openness to acknowledge and discuss mental health and wellbeing helps to reduce stigma (see The W Word). Less stigma is good for the profession’s wellbeing. Surely an understanding and appreciation of the importance of wellbeing helps to shift the profession’s experience of wellbeing. The recent reports suggest awareness is important but not enough.

So, what will it take to pull down the walls blocking the legal profession’s progress toward greater wellbeing?

The report on the mental health and wellbeing of the Canadian legal profession by Cadieux et al. (2022) investigated the explanatory factors for the high levels of psychological distress in the profession. These factors were categorised into Individual, Organisational and Social contexts, revealing a complex tapestry of barriers to lawyers’ wellbeing.

Human beings exist in context and their mental health and wellbeing is influenced by context. According to the theory of social constructionism, people create context through their interactions with one another. Thus, context shapes individual behaviour and beliefs. Consequently, placing the wellbeing problem within individuals and leaving the responsibility for wellbeing to individuals ignores the contexts that shape individuals’ thinking and actions. And according to the Canadian research this individualistic focus does not recognise two thirds of the factors that explain the legal profession’s state of illbeing.

Numerous papers on the legal professions’ wellbeing across the world consistently state that wellbeing is a profession-wide problem. Thus, it follows that the findings from the Canadian research confirm what “Courting the Blues” reported 15 years ago (p. 43, Kelk et al., 2009): “…this is not a problem for individuals. It is a problem for communities…”. This is supported by Principle 7 from the IBA Mental Wellbeing Principles, which emphasises that systemic problems need to be addressed as these are fundamental causes for the illbeing experienced by the global profession.

The systemic nature of wellbeing walls in the legal profession is now widely acknowledged and was a prominent theme at the 2024 Wellness for Lawyers Forum hosted by Melbourne and Monash Universities. In her keynote address, the Honourable Chief Justice Anne Ferguson noted that to ignore systemic contributors to illbeing is “just paying lip service to wellbeing”. The Chief Justice and the other keynote speakers at the Forum suggested that many participants and approaches are needed to chip away at the wellbeing walls. Once enough of the walls have been undermined there will be positive shifts in the profession’s wellbeing. Without consistent, diverse and effective action the legal profession will remain in the stasis chamber.

One way that legal organisations and firms can address wellbeing is to be proactive. Demonstrate support for wellbeing of all staff by enabling access professional support that regularly attends to their mental health and wellbeing, rather than ad hoc support used only in a crisis (if at all). By taking organisation-wide action for maintaining wellbeing organisations and firms actively remove systemic and structural barriers that enable widespread illbeing.

Support for Lawyers understands legal professionals. Our professionals can assist your legal organisation to provide consistent wellbeing support to maintain staff mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. At Support for Lawyers, What we believe that when whole firms or organisations engage with us wellbeing is embraced as part of normal workplace culture and business as usual. This is responsible business practice and is protective of everyone.

Talk to us about how our preventative approach to enhance wellbeing can support you, your staff and your legal organisation.

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