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‘Firms need to address’ burnout in lawyers

Lawyers have been revealed to have one of the highest stress levels of any profession, which can result in burnout and poor mental health. But in terms of initiatives to combat these issues, “law is lagging behind”.

user iconLauren Croft 22 May 2023 Big Law
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A recent poll conducted by Lawyers Weekly confirmed that lawyers are “very exhausted”. This is a notion that a number of legal recruiters and legal professionals have agreed with. In July last year, Travis Schultz & Partners associate James Leggo said that “modern Australian work culture is not something to be envied” and that he has already seen many practitioners leave the legal sphere entirely in search of greater work/life balance. Burnout was also revealed to be of top concern to in-house legal teams.

This is an issue that the legal profession is all too familiar with — and something that nrol director Jesse Shah said was particularly prevalent post-pandemic.

Speaking on a recent episode of The Lawyers Weekly Show, in partnership with nrol, Mr Shah confirmed that burnout is a “complex” issue spanning all areas of law, which he said can start as early as from the completion of law school.

 
 

“If we start at that level, where law is a degree of high pressure compared to other degrees, which I’m not saying are easier, but the pressure and the stress levels are significantly less. It all starts at ground level, so coming through your university degree and then gets harder and harder as you progress, as the pressure to land your first role kicks in, and then as a junior lawyer, want to showcase your skills to get the attention of your seniors to be able to progress the ranks and work on better files,” he explained.

“I would say longer work hours within the legal profession is one of the main causes [of] burnout. If you look at recent surveys, most lawyers are working 50-plus hours a week, and 20 per cent of them even reported working 60-plus hours a week. Working those hours is naturally going to lead to burnout. The work/life balance is no longer there.

“COVID was a grave thing that happened obviously to highlight the importance of work/life balance. People coming back into the office, the firms that have adopted that hybrid work model are seeing productive workplaces and employees being more productive than they were being five days in the office.”

This hybrid working model, Mr Shah opined, makes those long hours feel less intense, as commuting times are being cut out completely.

“They’re more productive in the hours that they work because there’s less time to go and get a coffee, talk to your colleagues about what’s happening in your personal social life,” he said.

“That time they actually have to dedicate to work becomes more productive, and therefore from those 50 [or] 60-hour days, they’re bringing it down to 40 hours, 38 hours, which obviously is going to be more productive.”

Additionally, stress levels are extremely high in lawyers — and according to a 2020 survey from Clio, 55 per cent of lawyers reported that stress was one of the biggest impacts on their mental health.

“Another interesting point apart from the long hours and the stress would be substance abuse, which we don’t talk about enough, but we should. If you look at another survey by the Journal of Addiction Medicine, which I was reading a couple of months ago, lawyers’ alcohol abuse rate is around 20 per cent compared to the general population, which is 7.9 per cent,” Mr Shah said.

“I would say all these things, which burnout has resulted in the stress levels of longer working hours, that in obviously people want to relax and take things easier, so then the substance abuse, which is the alcohol, and trying to alleviate that stress by turning to these things, all are having significant impacts, which is only damaging their mental health.

“And that, obviously, leads to lots of other things; I’m glad that in the last five years or so, we’ve been highlighting mental health a lot more in the workplace. But within law, as a profession being so traditional, I still feel there’s a lot of work that needs to be done with regard to mental health. And we must start with the burnout factor,” he noted.

And as a recruiter, Mr Shah said that after speaking to up to 50 candidates a day, the main cause of lawyers leaving their current jobs or looking for a change is work/life balance.

“Listening to this daily is starting to get me concerned about the welfare of these lawyers because a lot of them don’t really take any action or put in place any sort of plans on how to alleviate this, which is impacting them and leading them to depression. Some are wanting to leave the profession, but when they first joined, they were so passionate about the profession,” he opined.

“On the ground, firms need to start taking this seriously, start talking to their employees, not just their lawyers, but their support staff as well, because they’re also feeling burnout. If you look at legal support, for example, there’s one legal secretary doing the job of three at the moment because of the talent shortage in the market. Firms need to address this and start thinking on what can we put in place to help with this sort of burnout, mental health effects that their staff are going through at the moment.”

Additionally, in other sectors, such as technology, digital and marketing, increased importance has been placed on work/life balance, burnout and mental health.

“Technology companies are very conscious of this, and they make their workplaces built accordingly. If you look at LinkedIn, for example, what they do at their offices here ... If you look at other tech start-ups, they really are doing a lot internally just within their office environment to help with these issues, where law firms need to really look and learn from them,” Mr Shah added.

“I can’t really refer to other recruiters in legal, but in terms of recruiters on the ground in other sectors and what they’re letting me know about these big issues, I can say that law is lagging behind.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Jesse Shah, click below:

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