Now, let’s take a breather.

Statistics, data, percentages, have a way of inducing yawns and causing the eyes to glaze over.

Stats can also be like a ventriloquist’s dummy or case law – you can get them to say anything you like, as long as they agree with you.

However, you may care to skim over them again.

One can reasonably be sceptical about one stat in isolation.

When so much data all point in one direction we should take particular notice. 

Let’s go back to thinking about wicked problems.

Rittel and Webber contrasted the notion of ‘wicked’ problems with ‘tame’ or ‘benign’ ones.

Scientists and engineers generally focus on tame or benign problems, for example, solving a mathematical equation, a chemist analysing an unknown compound or a chess player trying to get to checkmate.

For each the mission is clear. It is also clear whether or not the problem has been solved.

In contrast, ‘wicked’ problems nearly all relate to public policy issues such as poverty, redistribution of wealth, public health, confrontation of crime and the like.

They use the term ‘wicked’ in a way akin to ‘malignant’ (in contrast to ‘benign’) or ‘vicious’ (like a circle) or ‘tricky’ (like a leprechaun) or ‘aggressive’ (like a lion, in contrast to the docility of a lamb).

To sort things out a little, I’ll break down Kolko’s description of wicked social problems and apply this to the legal profession.


(1) Incomplete / contradictory knowledge
How to tackle mental illness in the legal profession is one which has attracted a great deal more attention in the UK and worldwide over the last decade.

A number of thoughtful and thorough reports have been produced. Policy makers are now more informed. Wellbeing strategies are being thought about and have begun to be implemented in some of the larger law firms.

Reports are being considered and strategies tested, but the alarming statistics are clear evidence that practising lawyers and law students may be given technical competence in law, but, to a significant degree, have limited awareness of the personal foundational skills which provide the basis for mentally healthy (and consequently competent) legal practice.


(2) Number of people / opinions involved
Sometimes however, the more information we have, the more complex the problem appears and the more effort that is required to tackle it.

It becomes difficult to see the wood from the trees.

We can be overloaded and overwhelmed by data.

Studies have been undertaken by representatives of different branches of the legal profession.

At times lawyers regard themselves as colleagues of those in other branches of the profession, but at others competitors for different slices of the market. (I suspect this may have something to do with sibling rivalry as well as self-protection.)

Any competitive element must to some extent undermine shared vision and motivation to work together. I’ll say a bit more about how groups can function and dis-function in another post. 

Because of the vast amounts of information (and sometimes contradictory opinion) it is difficult to know where to start.

The answer to this question is always “from here”.


(3) The large economic burden
Addressing mental illness in the profession costs money, time and effort.

Up until recently there was very little in the way of guidance as to how to consider the problem.

In general, little or nothing is taught about mental wellbeing in law colleges and training institutions.

Students are expected to have the necessary life skills to cope with what professional life throws at them. 

There is no clear short term financial gain for firms to address the issue. In view of this, costs targets and paying the bills inevitably take priority for the majority of law firms.


(4) The interconnected nature of these problems with other problems
Mental illness is a problem of society at large. It is clearly not limited to the legal or other professions.

It is said that one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem in the course of any year [1].

It is interesting that the one-in-four statistic correlates with approximately the same proportion of barristers experiencing enormous stress levels. This may be purely co-incidental, but it may be a warning bell. 

For some, the illness is minor and transient; for others, deep-rooted and lifelong.

Lawyers are not exempt from this. We are people.

400 years ago Shakespeare’s Dick the Butcher said, “… the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Attitudes to lawyers have not changed greatly. 

Despite public perception, stereotype and urban myth, lawyers are human.

We bleed too.

Work related stresses and strains interact with other aspects of our lives, the intra-personal, the inter-personal and the non-personal.


The ‘intra-personal’ is what happens inside us: what we think and feel, what we aspire to and what we dream about.

The “inter-personal” deals with the ways we relate to other people and the teams and groups that we work and live with; what happens between us. 

The “non-personal” relates to events and external pressures, the things that have been done to us, what goes on around us and events that we may or may not be able to control in the future; the stuff that happens …



[1] McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. et al (2009) Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: Results of a household survey. Leeds: The NHS Information Centre.


(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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