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More awareness needed to combat ‘avalanche’ of mental health issues in the profession

Burnout and poor mental health go hand in hand and are both massive issues within the legal profession, something this legal recruiter has seen firsthand in candidates.

user iconLauren Croft 26 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. Burnout was also revealed to be of top concern to in-house legal teams.

Burnout and ill-mental health are issues that the legal profession is all too familiar with — and something that the managing director of Naiman Clarke, Elvira Naiman, discussed on a recent episode of the Lawyers Weekly Show, produced in partnership with Naiman Clarke.

New definitions of concepts like psychosocial hazards have also come into play within the profession in recent years, along with new legislative changes around mental health in the workplace. But according to Ms Naiman, mental health in the profession was a relatively silent issue until “the early 2010s” when people then realised it was “endemic”.


“Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to reconcile the way that law is practised in the modern day, with billable hours, and tight deadlines, and very high client service levels, with what can be described as good mental health. Combine that with the forever availability, we are all available 24/7, we’re all on 24/7. I think that’s so different to the way that the profession used to operate, historically,” she said.

“I entered the legal profession in the early to mid-90s, and I can remember one of my first principals saying to me, when I was having a bit of a stress about a letter that had come in. He said, ‘You know, Elvira, every letter will eventually answer itself.’ And I think that the world is such a different place now, and we see it, practically, in every candidate that walks through our door.

“There is an underlying level of anxiety, stress, stress about being good enough, stress about being at the right firm, stress about getting the right mentorship. It’s a very competitive, and a very fast-paced world that we all live in, and I think it affects lawyers, probably more than any other profession.”

In the last decade, various law societies have raised awareness for mental health in the profession — and more BigLaw firms than ever have mental health policies and initiatives at play. However, Ms Naiman said this hasn’t gone far enough yet.

“The raising of the awareness of mental health in the legal profession has definitely come out to the fore, but I don’t think it’s necessarily changed the way that the majority of lawyers see their life as lawyers, in the way that they practice law, and I think, particularly, as we all have come out of COVID, and to some extent, kind of the grief, and loss that some of us felt through that sort of period, it’s becoming, weirdly, an avalanche of an issue that I don’t think any service or body can keep up with,” she explained.

“I think there needs to be a profound structural change in the way that law is viewed, the way that law is practised, and I think that until it becomes an industry-wide pandemic, for use of a better word, I don’t think things on the ground are going to change, largely. Structurally, there are some new things that have come, and I think the awareness is there, but I think that it’s going to require much, much more to stem the avalanche of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues facing the profession.”

In her experience of speaking to legal candidates in the current market, Ms Naiman said that there can be a “real stigma and shame” attached to mental health, across a number of generations.

“I think, sometimes, those people that realise that [they’re] heading in that direction, I do get a sense that they really don’t know how to fix things, because if they’re in that kind of Millennial age group, the market’s very competitive, they’re on 24/7, they’ve been told that by their parents, and their teachers, that they’re perfect, and amazing, and great at everything they do, and so, some of these issues fly in the face of what they would view of themselves.

“And I think that the older generation, both men and women, suffer with a whole range of other things. My generation is the sandwich generation. We have to look after kids, and after elderly parents, because that age group’s life expectancy has got greater,” she explained.

“So, I think there’s one pool of people that just can’t see it and can’t face it, then, there’s another pool that can see it and can face it, but they’re almost waiting for a critical event to happen, the panic attack at court, needing to pull over on the side of the road as they’re driving to a client, and you hear all these stories, anecdotally. I think there’s a very, very small percentage of people that are prepared to, for a range of reasons, take the bull by the horns, and sort of say, ‘Look, listen, I have a problem. I need to stop what I’m doing now, and then, I need to deal with it’.”

For those who don’t do this, poor mental health can affect a lawyer’s day-to-day in a number of different ways, which, as a legal recruiter, Ms Naiman has seen in candidates.

“We’ve had quite a number of very tricky situations and tricky conversations with lawyers who you can tell from the outset that they’re not in a position to be looking for a new role. There’s either something very stressful happening in their current environment, which they can’t assimilate, or deal with, or there’s something happening on their personal front, which would, I think, preclude them from putting their best foot forward,” she added.

“And our approach has always been, well, if you can’t put your best foot forward now, don’t move. Fix whatever you can fix, deal with whatever you can deal with. Let’s regroup at a time when things are calmer, better, safer for you, and you can make that really wonderful transition to a role that you’re going to relish, and be wonderful, and enjoy, so be wonderful at, and enjoy.”

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