The Stress of Law in the US and Abroad

By: Max Matiauda

April 13, 2022

Lawyers are humans, and humans get stressed. American law students find themselves in a competitive atmosphere, guided by professors who take pride in the overwhelming burden of the field. More outwardly progressive institutions have acknowledged this and begun to offer self-care resources from bulletins to classes, though many struggle to alter the arguably toxic culture contributing to individual dysfunction. Attorneys entering the field often suffer from mental health issues and substance abuse, at rates of incidence far higher than the overall population. Self-reporting studies demonstrate this issue beyond the United States. Gaps in culture, work culture, and circumstance lead to differing manifestations of and approaches to these concerns, though much common ground exists between foreign lawyers.

The International Bar Association released an open, anonymous survey in 2020 to gather self-reported data on the wellbeing of legal professionals. The study has its limits—such as being released only in English and Spanish, and relying on self-reporting—but nonetheless samples over three-thousand individuals and nearly two-hundred institutions across six continents to produce impressive data. While worth reading in full, several brief conclusions illustrate the poignant dilemma facing attorneys. Nearly half of young respondents reported negative mental impact from their work, citing work-life balance and health detriment as the key driving factors for such dissatisfaction. Individual respondents on the WHO-5 mental wellbeing scale averaged out to a score suggesting that the average legal professional is a candidate for depression screening and formal mental health assessment. Different jurisdictions had different key dilemmas, with lower mental health in adversarial systems and greater mental health disparity among genders in Arab and African regions. COVID-19 exacerbated these issues both internationally and in the United States but may have improved awareness and therapeutic efforts among firms as a result.

Lawyer burnout and mental compromise have only reached the public discourse in recent years as problems to be solved. Even comprehending or learning the scope of the issue proves difficult, in part because of a lack of discourse. In fact, many jurisdictions lack literature of any sort on the topic of mental health in the legal profession. In certain places such as Germany, the conversation seems to be taking root. Despite this, progress is slow, with severe stigma still existing among German law firms against admission of mental health crises and many attorneys turning to substance abuse. One German lawyer likened the possession of mental health issues to “a broken leg” in the eyes of colleagues and supervisors. This is surprising given the well funded public efforts in Germany to destigmatize and address mental health, possibly showing a greater intractability among attorneys. Similarly, British Lawyers show signs of stress far beyond the national norm by profession.

The greatest obstacle to addressing legal mental health stems from the ubiquitous stigma surrounding its discussion. Work culture contributes significantly to attorney stress, including billing cycles and overwork. This ties directly back to the mentality cultivated in law school that overwork and tremendous stress are to be lauded in the field, and the individuals able to survive it celebrated as worthy. Some jurisdictions are seeing shifts in institutional perception of the mental states of legal professionals, which the IBA study may indicate—though self-reporting from organizations may represent a more public relations-oriented answer than a factual one. For instance, several major law firms in Canada have begun hiring more employees and expanding their workforce to cut down on burnout of chronically overworked associates. Smaller firms led the charge in the IBA study, however, in reprioritizing the wellbeing of legal professionals. Many countries have little to no literature on mental health issues specifically in the legal field, despite—or because of—having high incidences of adverse mental states and stigma surrounding such.[21]

While work culture certainly contributes to the issue, studies from the United States tell a story of law schools as a breeding ground for despair and breakdown. Precious little literature exists on such scholastic culture internationally, making comparison difficult. Nonetheless, law school ought to be the starting point for psychological reform of the legal field. Some rigors of the legal field will never depart but many can be avoided, including overbilling, normalization of self-abuse, and erasure of the individual. Culture is made up of people, practicing the lessons we’ve learned from our trusted institutions. What we’re taught—and how we’re taught it—matters.

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