Desi Vlahos is a Lawyer Mentor in the Leo Cussen Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice and Mental Health First Aid Instructor for the legal profession. She helps lawyers gain Mental Health First Aid accreditation for their workplace. She is also an ambassador for mentally healthy workplaces and advocate for implementing best practices to ensure a happier and healthy workforce. Sitting on the International Bar Association (IBA) Wellbeing Taskforce, Desi shares why wellbeing for lawyers has become an important issue for collaboration at an international level.
We know that one in three lawyers will suffer a mental health illness at some stage in their career. The reasons for this have been researched for some years now. Lawyers share the familiar burden of long work hours, high stakes work, stressful billing targets and managing client expectations, all within an increasingly competitive and rapidly evolving technological marketplace. There are also internal stressors common to the personality types that are attracted to the law. The pandemic has only added to these pressures, presenting challenges including disrupting working patterns with mass remote work now the default.
In April 2020, a webinar hosted by the European Regional Forum of the IBA explored the challenges facing law firms in developing working practices in response to the COVID-19 outbreak:
“Overnight, working patterns were upended and pre-existing barriers broken down. The physical and emotional divide between work and family lives also shattered.”
This session catalysed the realisation that there is global wellbeing crisis in the legal profession. These challenges did not emerge in response to the pandemic alone, but rather had a long history and were exacerbated by COVID-19. The session highlighted that stigma in relation to mental health and wellbeing was so omnipresent in the profession, that for some jurisdictions there was little to no talk of any initiatives or support networks available to assist.
Steps taken by IBA
This discussion propelled then president of the IBA Horacio Bernades Neto into action convening a Wellbeing Taskforce led by Steven Richman and Deborah Enix-Ross. I had the privilege to be invited onto the Wellbeing Taskforce, together with Mary Digiglio representing Australia in our collaborative efforts to address:
- the pressing mental health concerns of legal professionals;
- the support they can expect to receive from their workplaces;
- how the wellbeing of lawyers and other stakeholders in the legal profession is affected by their work and working environments;
- identifying problems that each might have faced in getting the help they needed; and
- what law firms, bars and law societies should be doing to support those in distress.
The work undertaken was organised into two phases. 1) research and evaluation and 2) provide recommendations for the legal profession.
Phase one of the project involved a bifurcated approach using two surveys – one for individual lawyers, the other for legal institutions. Completed by the widest possible number of potential participants, they provide a useful and unique snapshot of the global views of a range of legal professionals and institutions. The IBA has now published the interim results from the surveys. In summary, the findings show us the following:
- Confirmation that lawyer wellbeing is a cause for global concern: lawyers’ levels of wellbeing are below the global average in every regional forum.
- Stigma is a major problem: 41% of respondents said that they could not discuss wellbeing issues with their employer without worrying that it would damage their career or livelihoods.
- Awareness about local and international wellbeing support and services available is low.
- Employers may think that wellbeing is a priority but most employees think their employers need to do more in this area.
- 28% of respondents specifically cited the need for increased levels of awareness to be fostered in the workplace, with 23% explicitly calling for more resources for professional support and direct intervention.
- Wellbeing issues have a disproportionate impact on the young, women, those who identify as an ethnic minority and those with disabilities.
Unmanaged mental illness can impact significantly upon one’s personal health, their relationships with colleagues and clients, and has the potential to undermine public confidence in the legal profession. For example, there is an indicator in some jurisdictions that mental health impairment and substance abuse can contribute to alleged misconduct involved in disciplinary proceedings. This finding is in line with the research in Australia in the Beaton Consulting and beyondblue study in 2007, highlighting that 80% of disciplinary matters involving lawyers have an underlying mental health condition.
The way ahead & recommendations
The IBA believes working together at an international level will provide greater impact to provide recommendations. It aims to provide a holistic picture of the legal profession and identify the risks associated for business neglecting to address their employees’ wellbeing. Reference to the following key studies are instrumental in these findings: The World Health Organisation, a 2020 Deloitte study and a 2014 Price Waterhouse Coopers return on investment analysis.
The IBA will focus on the following two key areas of activity:
- Raising awareness and destigmatising discussions around mental health and wellbeing, particularly within jurisdictions where recognition of these issues within the legal profession is not well-developed, and
- Investigating how institutions can translate awareness into effective interventions to improve workplace culture and tackle relevant structural issues in the profession to prevent the many suffering alone or in silence.’
A webinar with global experts on legal wellbeing issues is planned for October 2021 to coincide with World Mental Health Day.