When we talk of the legal profession, there tends to be this aesthetical mindset of it being glamorous, well-paying and an epitome of excellence. A spot-on illustration of this ideology would be the legal drama series, Suits. It has such an alluring storyline and in it the lawyers went to Ivy League institutions, are paid extremely attractive salaries and bonuses, handle top-notch transactions, ooze class (because they can afford luxury), pay immense attention to detail and are perfectionists.
This perception idealises the legal profession and a lot of people compete to join prestigious institutions to be a part of this honorable profession to make an impact and at the at the same time enjoy the perks that come with it.
Unfortunately, this is the general public’s expectation but the sad reality is that this is not what happens in real time. There is a high level of expectation towards legal professionals. Lawyers are deemed to be the image of perfection and strength, unbreakable and invulnerable to stress. Society is not aware of the mental implication of the work lawyers do but the bigger problem is lawyers not admitting or saying out loud that the work they do takes a toll on their mental health.
What is the definition of mental health?
Mental health refers to cognitive, behavioural, and emotional well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. The term “mental health” can also be used to mean the absence of a mental disorder.
In a recent report by the World Health Organisation, one out of four people are likely to have a mental health condition in their lifetime. This vividly portrays mental health as a prevalent issue that requires open conversation and awareness and the legal profession is not immune to it.
Mental Health & The Legal Profession
The legal profession is diverse and people can work in any sector, from advertising, banking, and insurance, to law firms, audit firms, the government, non-profit organisations, the health sector and many more. However, the legal workplace is not considered a sensitive one especially law firms.
According to research by John Hopkins University, lawyers are, on average, 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression as people in other professions. A study done by the American Bar Association in 2016 found that 28% of licensed and employed American lawyers suffered from depression, 19% demonstrated symptoms of anxiety and 21% qualified as problem drinkers.
This vividly illustrates the unhealthy levels of pressure and the stressful environment in the profession.
Delving deeper, these are the reasons that portray the susceptibility to mental health issues in the legal profession:
The adversarial nature of our profession aggravates the stresses of practise, while encouraging lawyers to keep any and all suffering under a cloak of secrecy rather than addressing them in a healthier manner.
Reality for most lawyers is that the quality of their work and the degree of their effort is not necessarily reflected in the outcomes achieved. For persons in litigation, one can do an incredible job arguing a case and still lose. A business transaction may fail to go through, irrespective of the value of work done. Yet, the measure of a lawyer’s success is cast in terms of the very outcomes that are beyond our control, rather than how good a job one has done on a matter. This in itself may be very discouraging to a lawyer.
The emphasis in law schools include good grades, honours and potential career income and cut-throat competition discarding the importance of a lawyer’s mental well-being.
There is immense stigma around mental health and that it is perceived as a sign of weakness and a barrier towards promotion. Additionally, there is lack of investment around mental health in the legal profession.
There is something I would like to call the “struggle mentality” which is a vicious cycle that is rampant in the Kenyan legal profession especially with the seniors; the mantra being, because I suffered you suffer as well. Therefore, young and upcoming lawyers are subjected to deplorable working conditions including low pay, heavy workload and an abusive environment because the senior was subjected to the same and therefore, you have no choice but to go through it.
The rampant sexual harassment of lawyers (both male and female) is appalling. The high unemployment rate in Kenya forces those going through it to suffer in silence as there are limited options. Additionally, the lack of neutrality in law firms curtails young lawyers to pursue redress.
Some lawyers tend to work with traumatised individuals, hearing traumatic narratives, or working with distressing evidence. These cases have a lasting effect on them due to their traumatising nature. This also affects their mental health.
Some law firms tend to have unhealthy/cut-throat competition in the legal sector in order to emerge the best to the detriment of their employees; the employees are subjected to long working hours, less rest and no social life therefore affecting the state of their mental health and reducing productivity.
A lot of legal firms tend to have more men as partners and women are paid less compared to their male counterparts. Therefore, the women get depressed as their hard work goes unnoticed. This disillusionment affects their mental health and their perception of the legal profession as well.
How can we remedy the situation:
Create awareness: There is saying that “information is power”. To dismantle the stigma around mental health, the legal profession must be educated on mental health. This can be done through courses and organisations and firms creating an information portal on mental health. The Law Society in Kenya could develop standard courses around mental health that are mandatory and that should be taken by all lawyers.
Firms and organisations need to develop a response when a colleague is faced with a mental health condition ie by creating employment assistance programmes, having counselling sessions and mental health “first-aiders” in the office to assist and they should ensure that it is a safe space for employees who are lawyers.
Creation of a work-life balance for lawyers; law firms and organisations should not expose lawyers to long working hours, no rest and a non-conducive environment. Lawyers should work within the usual working hours and also be given time to interact with family and friends. This reduces depression and shields them of a rampant drinking culture that is meant to be a pressure outlet or a self-coping mechanism yet does more damage.
There should be a helpline for lawyers who are in mental distress. An example is the Charity Law Care in the UK that has a helpline designated to assist lawyers.
Ensure the element of gender equality in firms. Partnerships and promotions should be done on merit and not just be about men securing the top positions and slots such as partners. Women can be partners too. This is an area that needs to be looked into. Also women in similar positions need equal pay.
Mental health is a conversation that needs to be louder within the legal profession. To ensure optimum productivity and a less-stressful environment, perceptions around mental health need to be changed and we, as lawyers, need to embrace the fact that we are not bullet proof or impervious to weakness. Vulnerability is strength.
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