Manchester Metropolitan University

An education in professional resilience

Dr Kryss Macleod explains how the legal sector is responding to the greater visibility of mental health in young lawyers

Law firms and educators are working together to support students

Law firms and educators are working together to support students

Originally published in Solicitors Journal

By Dr Kryss Macleod, Director of Undergraduate Programmes at Manchester Law School.

Issues surrounding mental health and well-being in the legal profession have increased in visibility in recent years.

Most strikingly, there have been a number of recent Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) hearings, in which clear links have been made between toxic organisational cultures, mental health and solicitor wrong-doing. Issues of culture and environment are also referenced in the Solicitors Regulation Authority's (SRA) Enforcement Strategy published in February 2019.

What are the underlying reasons around the increased visibility of these issues; and what are the responses that have taken place within and between legal education and the legal profession?

The concerns

In 2017 LawCare, the charity dedicated to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of lawyers, received 900 phone calls, 27% of which related to stress. This covers a range of issues, including a lack of suitable training coupled with an unavailable supervisor, through to a toxic work atmosphere and unrealistic billing targets.

Elsewhere, more than 90% of respondents to the Junior Lawyers Division's (JLD) annual resilience and wellbeing survey reported experiencing stress in their role; and more than 38% had experienced a mental health problem in the previous month.

Professor Richard Collier’s recent research on anxiety and well-being among Junior Lawyers highlights the range of pressures on young lawyers from an early point in their legal education and career; including accepted norms on a lack of work/life balance, tendencies towards perfectionism and a lack of support for well-being and self-care.

He also highlights the way in which younger lawyers were inhibited from speaking out. Similar findings have been identified in further academic research such as Andrew Francis’ and Lydia Bleasdale’s  work on ‘Millennial Lawyers’, which highlights the ways in which younger lawyers perceive raising concerns about stress to be ‘unnatural.’

Legal educators have a responsibility to take a lead in shaping curricula to equip students with resilience skills

A team of lecturers working on a LawCare project agree and say that “many of the issues facing lawyers appear to be structural, meaning that wider reform may be required to ameliorate some of the problems."

They also reveal cultures focusing on fee-earning and productivity, which mean that well-being is not a concern and suggests a stigma attached to mental health within the profession.  Francis and Bleasdale have also highlighted the close and reciprocal relationship between cultures established in law schools and the wider legal profession and their effect on student and, indeed, lawyer wellbeing.

Responding to the challenge

In tandem with the focus on mental health and well-being, there has been increasing attention within legal education and the legal profession (and other professional sectors) paid to resilience as a necessary part of a professional skill set.

Resilience - and related ‘traits’ such as ‘grit’ - have received positive attention for their professional and educational benefits in recent years. Implicit within this, is that through the development of these characteristics as professional attributes, lawyers entering the profession will be better able to cope with the organisational and professional challenges they face.

Professional skills and identity development form a key part of effective legal education - whether that be in a university setting or as part of continuing professional development. There are already a number of tools available to  help students establish techniques that can increase resilience in education and later professional life.

These approaches are increasingly been seen across a number of legal education providers as they respond to the greater flexibility accorded to them under recent regulatory reforms. The legal profession is also exploring a number of interventions, both through individual firms and through representative bodies such as local law societies or the JLD. This has been supported through partnerships, not only with LawCare, but the increasing expertise located in a number of law schools.

Instilling in students and young lawyers the importance of reflecting on reactions to prior disappointments or obstacles can support ongoing evaluation and goal setting. Appropriate techniques can be found in, for example, Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset. This can provide a model for dealing with future setbacks in a more productive manner, which is a dimension of resilience.

In the face of the reports of perfectionism and fear of failure (which was highlighted in a number of the SDT decisions), teaching students how to ‘fail well’ could help increase their ability to respond effectively to criticism and resist the pressure of professional images of infallibility.

From an academic point of view ensuring active learning in lectures, and combining feedback with purposeful and informed practice, can help develop an objective, flexible way of problem-solving under pressured conditions.

The scale of the challenge leaves little room for complacency

The idea of self-care has also been advocated as an essential skill for lawyers, which would change the dynamic of traits usually seen as desirable within the profession and echoed in higher education. As self-care is a package or series of habits, this would need to be instilled first during higher education to ensure endurance, as explored by Lydia Bleasdale and Sarah Humphreys in their work on Resilience across a number of undergraduate disciplines.

One of the key lessons from academic research on resilience is that it exists on a continuum and, crucially, will vary across differing environments or contexts including professional, personal and educational - each impacting differently on levels of resilience. This recognition is part of an overall shift in understandings of mental health away from a ‘deficit-based model’ of mental health towards models focussing on prevention.

Working together

Given the multifaceted and developing understanding of mental health in the legal profession, legal educators have a responsibility to take a lead in not only shaping the curricula that will equip students with these skills, but the way in which soft skills - particularly resilience - is viewed by students and the profession.

Presenting resilience as a trait or skill that is seen as binary, highly desirable and decontextualized risks exacerbating the issues noted by Richard Collier regarding ‘solving’ the well-being issues presented throughout the legal profession with interventions “framing the responsibility to tackle problems at the level of the individual” rather than addressing the broader issues that contribute to poor well-being across the sector. 

There is an increasingly open dialogue with the legal profession surrounding both the balance of responsibilities for addressing well-being and mental health. As well as ensuring that our understanding and treatment of resilience takes into account the contextualised nature of how resilience is both developed - alongside realistic understandings of the challenges of an uncertain and fast-moving legal services landscape.

Huge strides have been made within legal education and the legal profession in recognising the existence of these challenges and in starting to work together to address them.

Undergraduate and professional legal education is rapidly changing, drawing on genuine inter-disciplinary expertise across university campuses to design innovative programmes, informed by close dialogue with the profession.

However, the scale of the challenge leaves little room for complacency. Both legal education and the profession may need to do some genuine, potentially painful, ‘resilience-building’ introspection of our own. We need to understand the underlying expectations and values within our own organisational and educational cultures that can present challenges for mental health and well-being. As with many other areas of legal education policy and practice today, constructive, mutually supportive dialogue with the profession is key.

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