The fact that junior lawyers suffer from anxiety and depression due to long hours and hefty workloads is unfortunately nothing new. What is new, however, is that these lawyers have become more vocal in their discontent.
Covid-19 has intensified the mental health crisis facing associates. Remote working, seclusion and financial insecurity due to a pandemic-induced recession are contributing to poor mental health and affecting concentration, workflow and productivity. At the same time, the pandemic has also shone a spotlight on these problems.
Prolonged isolation has prompted junior lawyers to speak out: all-nighters are easier to handle with a sense of camaraderie in the office, but access to colleagues as a source of support and validation has been more limited.
As UK restrictions ease, law firms need to better understand the contributing factors to stress and poor mental health. As well as addressing billing pressures and client demands, a broader view is needed. Many junior lawyers suffer from imposter syndrome and feel harshly judged or penalised for mistakes – could they be being intimidated by their superiors? Might some feel isolated due to their ethnicity or socioeconomic background? Are teams adequately staffed? Are mentoring schemes fit for purpose?
To prevent burnout and toxic environments, firms must eliminate the stigma still attached to mental illness so that lawyers can disclose concerns without fear of being labelled as weak. Some firms are trying to be more empathetic, offering on-site psychologists, training staff to detect problems and introducing mental health support as well as other wellness initiatives. But there is a long way to go.
Paradoxically, although remote working may have accentuated their mental health problems, associates are increasingly demanding flexible working, so that they can find a better work-life balance.
Firms who listen and promote self-care will have their pick of the best talent, and a more productive, efficient and profitable team. In contrast, those who drag their feet or rely purely on token gestures, will come across as old-fashioned, valuing control and presenteeism over good mental health.
Associates have proved their worth over a challenging year. Law firms ignore their achievements, and their mental health needs, at their peril.