10 October 2021 is World Mental Health Day, which seems particularly timely as we continue to confront Covid-19. The legal industry, both law firms and in-house departments, are increasingly seeking to promote the importance of an emotionally and mentally healthy workplace and at the same time demonstrate their respect for the rights, diversity, and individual needs of their staff. Most law firms have taken progressive initiatives to promote and support their employees’ mental health and well-being.
Covid-19, unfortunately, has had an impact on the mental well-being of many lawyers and has placed them in a potentially more fragile state. Despite the world slowly emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, under-pressure lawyers’ mental health is still at risk. The transition period of lawyers and law firm staff returning to the workplace after a long period of remote working should be identified and proactively managed.
Disruptions of Covid-19
The impact of the massive disruptions of 2020 and 2021 on the population’s mental health state is undoubtedly a severe issue, and legal practitioners are not immune from the impact. According to ALM’s 2021 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey results, 70% of respondents (lawyers and staff) said the pandemic worsened their mental health.  Lawyers are struggling with unprecedented challenges such as large-scale illness and loss of life that produce widespread grief. Social distancing and stay-at-home orders led to social isolation and loneliness, on the one hand, and rapidly reconfigured family roles and responsibilities on the other. Uncertainty over job security, online meetings, longer or more disjointed working hours for lawyers, additional childcare, and caring responsibilities as schools closed intensified feelings of anxiety and pressure.
Mass remote working was the default. The physical and emotional division between lawyers’ work and family lives has also been compromised, which substantially impacts lawyers’ emotional and mental health. The LexisNexis Bellwether Report 2020 revealed that 50% of firms cited staff morale and wellbeing as their top concern six months into the pandemic, compared to only 26% in the first couple of months after the first lockdown. Many law firm leaders are concerned that remote working has had a severe impact on the culture and operation of their firm. Morgan Stanley CLO Eric Grossman also shared the same idea and asked in July that the bank’s outside counsel push for in-office returns. The legal profession is dependent on a mentoring model for development and relies heavily on ingrained client teams interpersonal development and collaboration.
Although many global law firms planned to get their lawyers and staff to return to their usual place of work, there is uncertainty about the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The recent uncertainty regarding the return to work is further deteriorating the well-being of law firm staff. In the ABA Profile of the Legal Profession 2021, lawyers at large law firms were more worried about returning to the office. “Nearly 3 out of 4 attorneys at large firms with 250 or more lawyers said they were concerned that being inside an office building for a working day will not be safe in 2021 and 2022 for various reasons, including lack of good ventilation and poor security in public spaces. Similar percentages of lawyers expressed the same concerns at firms with 100 to 249 lawyers and firms with 50-99 lawyers (75%).” The worst is that more than 1 out of 4 lawyers in large firms said they were worried about expressing health and safety concerns to their employers.”
Law Firm Support
Employers have a statutory duty to ensure the health and safety of their employees. Also, systemic changes designed to support and provide appropriate resources to lawyers will avoid costs associated with lawyer mental health incurred further down the line and, more importantly, create efficiencies that will increase law firms’ long-term financial stability and growth. During the post-pandemic period, more and more employees of law firms have begun to return to the office. What can law firms and chambers do to support their legal professionals and staff?
Changing the discourse around mental health must be on the agenda. Law firms must communicate their intentions and details of returning to office policies transparently. When everyone prioritizes health and safety, it is best for law firms to allow their employees to share concerns about returning to the office after they have worked remotely for almost a year. Law firms should acknowledge that many of their staff will take time, and many may not wish to go back to offices as was previously usual. Tailor-made on-boarding policies for returning staff are a good start.
Law firms should introduce support networks. Facilitating personal connections is a way for law firms to support their staff during the pandemic and after. Law firms should also encourage senior colleagues to foster supportive relationships with junior lawyers so that they would feel comfortable talking to their supervisor about challenges or issues that arise day to day. Embedding network sharing and discussion into monthly meetings could normalize the conversations and reduce any anxiety regarding new challenges. Providing support and assistance to staff struggling with their emotional and mental health should be a priority. The availability of professional help should be stressed.
Covid-19 has forced law firms to roll out flexible working methods over a long periods. On the one hand, flexible working policies saved law firms from an unprecedented crisis. But, on the other hand, it created many problems, such as the blurred distinction between work and life boundaries. The challenge now is to combine the benefits of flexible working with the advantages of an office environment. Any working practice should be rooted in what positives they bring to staff and clients. When a law firm gets the working practice right, they will continue to attract and retain the best staff and, as a result, be more competitive in an evolving market.
After the Pandemic
Covid-19 has put the mental health of lawyers and law firms’ staff in a vulnerable position. But interestingly, all of sudden, mental health is no longer a stigma within the legal industry. Now, law firms and partners realize that people are the greatest asset in any legal practice. A healthier law firm, lawyers, and staff will provide better service to the clients. So, let’s continue along the road toward improved mental health beyond Covid-19.
 Dylan Jackson, “Legal Professional Were Already Struggling With Stress and Isolation, and the Pandemic Has Made Things Much Worse,” ALM, May 2021, https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2021/05/03/lawyers-were-already-struggling-with-stress-and-isolation-and-the-pandemic-has-made-things-much-worse/ (accessed 1 Sep 2021)
 Amy Simpson, “Mental health of lawyers and COVID-19”, The Law Society England & Wales, March 2021, https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/en/topics/small-firms/mental-health-of-lawyers-and-covid-19 (accessed 1 Sep 2021)
 “Profile of the Legal Profession 2021”, American Bar Associate, July 2021, https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/news/2021/0721/polp.pdf (accessed 1 Sep 2021)
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