Change is an excursion into the unknown.

(Isabel Menzies Lyth)


When I told one of my lawyer friends that I was thinking of writing a book about mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession, his terse encouragement was, “Good luck!”

Words are imprecise labels and meaning is always conveyed by context, intonation, and assumptions of common understanding. I knew his encouragement was shot through with scepticism, if not cynicism, and his view was that I would be wasting my time. 

Perversely, it was the most useful feedback I received and has informed much of my approach to this book.

Lawyers are far too busy running their practices, ensuring that the work keeps coming in, earning money, keeping overdrafts under control, supervising staff, looking after clients, keeping up-to-date with law and regulation, and juggling work and family life to be distracted by practical psychology. 

Maybe the aspiration for a mentally healthy, or even happy, legal profession is an unrealistic impossible fantasy?

A few years ago I attended a graduation ceremony at Newcastle University. I was surprised that the Chancellor Sir Liam Donaldson, former Chief Medical Officer, gave an address which in the main seemed unduly gloomy for an occasion for celebration. He spoke about the high incidence of depression in young graduates and encouraged students to seek help, rather than suffer in silence. That was in 2009 when the effects of the recession were starting to bite. Unemployment and employment both carry different pressures.

The benefits of good mental health in the workplace impact on practically every area of practice in law firms including the ability to think clearly and objectively, efficiently, profitably, productively in teams and effectively in advocacy and negotiations.

In 2015 the Solicitors Regulation Authority in England and Wales published a revised Competence Statement. Principle five of the statement requires that solicitors provide a proper standard of service for clients. This is approached from four perspectives: ethics, technical skills, self-management and working with other people. Competence is defined as ‘the ability to perform the roles and tasks required by one’s job to the expected standard’.

Put simply, lawyers are expected to practice law skilfully with personal and social integrity. Integrity involves ethics and health, both mental and physical. Good mental health underpins all four domains of competence.

A recent survey demonstrated that more than two in three legal professionals (73 per cent) are either concerned about or are currently suffering from burnout [1]. The main causes of workplace unhappiness include long hours (58 per cent of respondents), difficult clients (38 per cent), high levels of interruptions each day (35 per cent) low pay (23 per cent), deadline pressure (19 per cent), a lack of autonomy (15 per cent), and the lack of authority (15 per cent). Additional areas of complaint included strained working relationships with superiors, partners and other colleagues. 

The high incidence of mental illness in the legal profession is a ‘wicked problem’. It is complex, multifactorial, dynamic, and interconnected. I have attempted to outline a number of the factors, both personal and institutional, which interact and combine to create a professional psychopathology that is so distressing for so many in law.


Wicked problems

In November 1942 Sir William Beveridge presented his report to Parliament outlining the principles necessary to banish poverty and ‘want’ from Britain. His motto throughout the report was ‘abolition of want’. His report proposed a system of social security that that would be operated by the state and put into effect whenever the war ended.

When the Labour party came to power after the war and the welfare state was introduced, much had been outlined in Beveridge’s report. Wicked problems of poverty, unemployment, poor education, bad housing and physical disease were addressed by a new government.

It is possible to address massive social problems.

In his 2013 report for the Centre for Economic Performance, Professor Richard Layard acknowledged that since Beveridge’s report most advanced countries had made huge strides in addressing the social ills that it had outlined, except at times unemployment. He observed additionally that there was still ‘widespread misery’.

What surveys we have on happiness and misery suggest things have changed little since Beveridge wrote. Layard wondered what Beveridge and his fellow reformers had missed.

His conclusion is that they overlooked ‘the human factor – the problems that come from inside ourselves (and not mainly from externals)’. In short, mental health.

He argues that mental health is a major factor of production.

It is the biggest single influence on life satisfaction.

It affects earnings and educational success, employment and physical health.

In advanced countries mental health problems are the main illness of working age, amounting to 40 per cent of all illness under the age of 65.

Mental health accounts for over one third of disability and absenteeism in advanced countries [2].




[1] Manglani, M. (2015) Two in three UK lawyers are facing burnout Managing Partner, 18, 9-10.

[2] Layard, R. (2013) CEP Discussion Paper No 1213. Mental Health: The New Frontier for Labour Economics. London: Centre for Economic Performance.


(This is an edited excerpt from my book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)

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