Burnout is cited as a growing concern by many in the legal profession with increasing evidence of dissatisfaction with the law as a long-term career. We examine the factors that are driving this trend and how firms can respond.
At the beginning of 2022, The International Bar Association confirmed that all is not well in the legal profession. It’s research revealed that more than half (54%) of the 3,000 young lawyers surveyed were “somewhat” or “highly likely” to leave their current employer in the next five years; a third wanted to move to a different area of the legal profession; and one fifth were thinking about leaving the profession entirely. 
This data came hard on the heels of LawCare research showing that more than two-thirds (69%) of the 1,700 legal professionals it polled in 2021 experienced mental ill-health in the 12 months before completing their survey. Moreover, respondents averaged a score of 42.2 on the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory, which corresponds to a “high risk of burnout”.
A blend of factors is contributing to this. Undoubtedly one is a societal shift whereby mental health is more readily discussed, and the stigma over speaking out is being eroded. In parallel, the global pandemic provided many with a pause for reflection, exacerbated by the fact that it also stripped away the camaraderie and support of the office.
In addition, the law remains a pressurised, challenging job with strict deadlines, demanding clients and sometimes distressing cases that give rise to vicarious trauma. Lawyers themselves are often hard-charging, competitive individuals, vying to reach professional milestones first and to post the firm’s highest billable hours.
Meanwhile the law may have been slower than other sectors to acknowledge the issues: more than two in five (43.5%) of the lawyers in the LawCare research didn’t disclose their mental health issues at work in 2021 because they feared being stigmatised, with resulting career, financial and reputational repercussions. That said, there are growing signs that change is happening.
The war for talent
It has to be said that a key driver of this change is the so-called “war for talent”. Stoked by people leaving the profession, this is turbo-charging a salaries arms race. Hence in 2022 newly graduated lawyers are earning £150k in London, and US firms are recruiting students with guaranteed contracts a year before they graduate, while those who stay the course to become equity partners can expect to earn around £2m a year at the moment. 
But still the supply of high-quality lawyers is inadequate, perhaps because of a new metric: “full earnings”, which takes account of job satisfaction as well as financial rewards. Recent research concluded that, despite the money, the law was an occupation where a lack of happiness brings full earnings down. As a result, those who tile walls for a living are more contented. So, what’s the answer for firms that need to retain lawyers and prevent burnout?
A concerned culture
Firms have begun to recognise that action needs to be taken to signal and create a more concerned culture. Hence international law firms are launching wellbeing programmes and hiring “burnout advisers”. Firms can also train their line managers in mental health literacy and join support schemes such as Mental Health First Aider.
Senior managers can also move the cultural dial by, for instance, changing the ways that performance is measured, and being up-front about their own mental health. LawCare also found that regular catchups or appraisals were surprisingly helpful at maintaining good mental health, as is building more autonomy into roles, wherever possible.
A second component that can stem burnout is deploying better technology that makes the job easier or more attractive. Apart from anything else, technology-forward firms present a more appealing prospect to young lawyers. To attract and retain motivated lawyers, it’s also now important to enable and offer the flexibility to work from home. But in addition, firms should make sure they’re enabling it well, with slick, modern, user-friendly systems that are cloud-based for reliability, speed and security; and integrated so that people can get through their work as efficiently as possible.
Firms should also give their lawyers the best tools for streamlining their work. For instance, real-time legal speech-recognition transcription software is now powerfully accurate and can be a huge time-saver. Automation technologies can relieve the burden of dull, non-value-adding tasks like document filing. Today’s state-of-the-art, and highly automated time recording software can be used anywhere on any device, turning a wearisome chore into a simple, quick job for fee earners. Firms have a moral, as well as a business imperative to do all they can to make life better for their lawyers and better technology can help.