John Hopkins University research in America recorded that lawyers top the list for depressive illness: they are 3.6 times more likely to suffer than the general population, with one in three lawyers suffering from clinical depression, alcohol addiction or drug abuse. Startling figures, albeit in the US. 

Closer to home, Legal Futures magazine, reporting on an ongoing survey by LawCare, noted that the most common reasons given for stress were being overloaded with work (60 per cent), feeling isolated and/or unsupported (52 per cent), poor management including lack of appreciation (51 per cent) and long hours (39 per cent). 

Further, despite this, 63 per cent of respondents said that they would be concerned about reporting their stress to their employer, generally because it would be viewed as a sign of weakness or inability to do the work, the employer wouldn’t care anyway, and it might negatively affect their future employment prospects. 

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development Employee Outlook survey illustrated how mental ill health can impact on performance and productivity. In all, 97 per cent of respondents with poor mental health said it affected their performance in the following ways: 

  • Finding it difficult to concentrate (80 per cent) 
  • Taking longer to do tasks (62 per cent) 
  • Finding it more difficult juggling a number of tasks (57 per cent) 
  • Putting off challenging work (42 per cent) 
  • Being less patient with customers or clients (50 per cent) 
  • Having difficulty making decisions (60 per cent) 
  • Being more likely to get into conflict with others (37 per cent) 
  • Finding it more difficult to learn new tasks (33 per cent) 

Bringing that all together results in some worrying statistics. Each of the above performance issues could easily translate to mistakes and missed deadlines in the context of a law firm, as well as potentially a propensity to compound the position by not bringing the mistake to someone’s attention, for fear of what may then unfold. 

We have seen a number of claims against law firms that result from exactly the above scenario – the exposure can be significant, particularly where the first mistake has been compounded, such that the potential damage is far more difficult to limit. Most clients can cope with a mistake, particularly when it’s promptly notified and a solution is offered. Clients are far more likely to pursue a claim where the mistake has been covered up and where it’s beyond remedy, particularly as they are then likely to have lost all confidence in the management at the firm. 

As lawyers, rather than trained mental health professionals, we do not seek to assert anything other than a common sense view. Given this it is surely good practice for law firms to offer: 

  • Training and support aimed at preventing the issue arising in the first place, eg, some firms have systems that raise an automatic alarm when someone is working excessive hours. 
  • Training in how to look out for symptoms, and what to do. 
  • A culture that allows anyone who makes a mistake to quickly inform the right person. 
  • Resources, such as helplines and access to health professionals. 
  • Awareness programmes, that attempt to breakdown the taboo and encourage people to confide and seek the assistance needed. 
  • A “safe” environment that would allow those suffering from mental illness to obtain the support they need, which in turn means they are more likely to be able to function at their usual performance level.

Conversely if a law firm does not appear to have any such policies and resources in place, insurers may well form the view that their absence poses an extra risk of claims. A law firm’s approach to mental health is certainly worth thinking about.