Mental health in the legal profession

In connection to the International Work Environment Day, April 28, Proceedy will mark the day by focusing on the work environment in the legal profession. According to a report from Karnov in 2021, it turns out that 62% of Scandinavian lawyers have experienced work-related stress or anxiety.

Karnov's latest industry report “Future Lawyer 2021” specifically focuses on mental health in the legal industry. The percentage of work-related stress or anxiety is higher if you look at the answers from lawyers working in law firms, where 69% of the respondents in the survey experience a feeling of stress or anxiety in connection with their work.

While we at Proceedy want to become wiser on the legal profession and the workflows of lawyers, we also want to gain insight into future lawyers and their views on the industry. In that connection, we interviewed Johanne who is a law student on her 4th semester at Aarhus University. Before Johanne started her studies, she worked a full-time job as a piccoline at a law firm, where she now, after starting her studies, works as a student assistant. 

Therefore, Johanne has gotten to know the legal industry. In her experience, there is a big difference in the organizational culture depending on which office you work in and, at the same time, which area you work with.  In relation to the two workplaces Johanne has been a part of, she has very different perceptions of these cultures that she experienced. She says the following about her previous workplace: 

"I experienced a very competitive and crackling organizational culture where only the best was good enough, and with unreasonably high expectations of the employees - and that included both lawyers and all administrative staff."

Johanne's experience with her previous workplace and its organizational culture is reflected in the culture perception described in Karnov's industry report. The report highlights the struggle of poor mental health in the legal profession. "The industry must realize the negative effects of making target revenues for each employee, and reward working overtime." Long work days and high demands are often recognizable aspects of the profession, and as Karnov points out, they affect the organizational culture and the mental health of the employees.

The orginizational culture in the legal profession also stems from what students in law school experience.

During the interview, it was clear that Johanne was carefully reflecting on the state of the legal profession and its organizational culture. She mentions how she does not want to work in an environment in which wanting to go home will give her a bad conscious or feel a constant pressure to perform more than her best. Johanne's previous workplace stands in contrast to her current one where the atmosphere feels more relaxed and the discourse less formal. Furthermore, in her current workplace, the lawyers also normally only work during the day, whereas her previous workplace which rarely ever had the lights turned off - someone was always in the office. Despite Johanne working in what feels like a healthier organizational culture in her current workplace, people still call in sick for short and long periods of time due to stress.

Karnov's report is not alone in its focus on organizational culture in the legal industry. In the article, "The legal industry's tarnished reputation hinders top executives from hiring", from AdvokatWatch, it is presented that the law industry is no longer perceived as being attractive. Many lawyers want better working conditions, which is why more and more people are looking for work outside the legal profession.

In another article from AdvokatWatch, "Two out of three lawyers are considering leaving the industry", Mathias Krarup, chairman of Djøf Advokat, claims that the law industry does not keep up with the development of society. He sees this as problematic, as the industry still has the distorted expectation that an ambitious lawyer works 60-80 hours per week.

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Johanne can recognize Krarup's claim, and she understands why so many no longer perceive the industry as being attractive. She sees a resemblance in the organizational culture of the legal industry with that of the students of law. 

“A small part of me thinks that the way we learned to work during school characterizes the way we will work when we come out on the other side. It is the high expectations of oneself and a generally competitive environment, which I believe is the main cause of illness.”

The younger lawyers create change

It may seem hard to fathom how one can change a culture that has endured for so many years and is so embedded in people's perception of what the industry is. This is where the younger generation comes into the picture, as numbers from Karnov's report show that the younger lawyers are the ones who are the most discontent with how the industry is handling the problem. Kristian Cedervall Lauta mentions in the report: "As study shows, the lawyers of the future will be expressing differently about their well-being in comparison to the previous generations - and thank goodness for that!" 

Again, Johanne recognizes the statements. Due to a growing focus on mental health in society and an increased focus on work-life balance, she mentions that it is no surprise that a profession, such as the legal profession, has one of the highest dissatisfaction rates with its organizational culture. She adds:

"Change must come from the younger lawyers as they are the ones that will shape the future. The demands we see today will slowly dwindle away as the sick leaves increases and people start moving from big offices to places where work hours are more reasonable."

Karnov's previous reports from 2019 and 2020 also concluded that younger lawyers present new values to the industry, with focus on work-life balance, diversity, and sustainability. The younger generation will be the ones who can help change and improve the industry and its organizational culture. 

Johanne wishes deeply to break the distorted perception that a good lawyer must always work late. During her work in the two different law firms, she has become more aware of her own priorities as she also wants time for her hobbies, her friends, and her family. 

Like Johanne, future lawyers show hope for a healthier organizational culture in the time to come.

Read the report here: “Future Lawyer 2021”

Read our article: “Digital solutions in the legal profession”

Read the two articles from AdvokatWatch:

"The legal industry's tarnished reputation hinders top executives from hiring"

"Two out of three lawyers consider leaving the industry" 

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