My name is Jacqui Maguire. I am a clinical psychologist and science communicator. My professional career has been anchored in corporate wellbeing, where I have provided support to optimise wellbeing and mental health across New Zealand’s business community. I have always felt a particular kinship when working alongside the legal profession, which spurred my personal interest to better understand the research on why wellbeing in this field is so unfortunately poor.
In 2016, my neighbour and family friend Andrew McIntyre took his own life. Andrew practised law for many years, and made significant contributions to the New Zealand law profession. Throughout his career he worked with numerous people from a myriad of backgrounds, and that was the part of his work that inspired him the most. His work impacted many, and Andrew made himself unforgettable to all, an attribute that served him well in his community, professionally and personally. Andrew had managed this whilst battling with depression and mental illness, a battle that ultimately ended his life.
Following his death, Andrew’s wife and close friends (also lawyers) decided to form Life Squared Trust in his honour. This charitable trust was established with the core purpose of understanding, promoting and raising awareness for mental health amongst Kiwi legal professionals. I was asked to support the trust by providing clinical guidance to achieve these goals. I knew that in order for the Trust to have a sustainable and effective impact, we must first truly understand the lay of the land. Whilst research into legal wellbeing dates back to the 1950’s, there is very little empirical evidence based on our New Zealand cohort. We needed to understand the severity of the problem and identify the unique factors that both protect and prevent good mental health and wellbeing.
In late 2020 Life Squared Trust partnered with academics at the University of Melbourne, to develop a research project to tackle this critical first step. This project will take the form of a three-year longitudinal study. The aim is to understand in more depth (prevalence, enablers, barriers) and over time, the levels of, and changes in, mental health and wellbeing amongst the New Zealand legal profession. The quality and level of research undertaken will provide scientifically credible information to advocate for positive and preventative change in the legal profession. Such information may guide policy development and resource utilisation (eg, investments in mental health and wellbeing programmes that are fit for the legal profession).
Thank you to Sarah Taylor for inviting us to contribute to this series and to the New Zealand Law Society for enabling us to share the outline for this project with you.
The background: What we already know
Research has consistently shown that members of the legal profession experience higher adverse mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety compared to both the general population and to workers in other professions. Evidence also suggests that there is a reluctance among lawyers to seek professional mental health support due to stigma among the profession. Accordingly they experience high levels of alcohol use and substance abuse in order to help cope. Over the last 10 years there has been an increasing effort to understand why members of the legal profession experience these disturbing trends given that they result in negative consequences for individual workers (and their families), their clients, the organisations they work for and the legal system as a whole.
Three main sources of legal stress have been proposed. First, research consistently demonstrates that legal students also experience higher psychological distress compared with other higher education students. This has led to scholars concluding that legal education can be a breeding ground for future psychological distress with “the conception of a lawyer as adversarial, emotionally detached, and competitive to be possible sources of the negative impact on student wellbeing” as students are prepared for the careers in the challenging profession. Second, the nature of legal work is difficult with many role characteristics being challenging. Examples include juggling multiple complex cases, the burden of client expectations, inherent competitiveness of the adversarial legal system, time pressure, pressure to maintain billable hours, and exposure to regular incivility by clients and opposing counsel. Third, some legal organisations can be toxic including bullying, sexual harassment, very high emphasis on profits and being competitive, hierarchical structures and significant power imbalances. Furthermore, the effect of working in law will vary depending upon the legal setting and the type of law being practiced.
Given this grim situation there has been a call for the legal profession to recognise the challenge of stress and wellbeing in legal workers and law students and to take proactive steps to understand, and rectify the situation. In addition, almost all research to date (the vast majority of which is from America) has been on lawyer illbeing, and not lawyer wellbeing; meaning we know a lot about what is going wrong with lawyers, but extraordinarily little about what is going right, or how what is going right can be leveraged to help remediate what is going wrong. A crucial first step is to identify prevalence, enablers and barriers for lawyer and law student stress and wellbeing, and to identify these trends in changes of wellbeing and mental health over time.
New research on lawyer wellbeing and mental health
Leading this research are the academics at the Centre for Wellbeing Science at the University of Melbourne, led by Associate Professor Aaron Jarden and Professor Dianne Vella-Broderick, are world renowned specialist in assessing psychological wellbeing and mental health.
In 2020 they conducted a thorough literature review capturing the research to date on lawyer wellbeing, and also collected information on the key findings of lawyer illbeing. Based on this review, and in consultation with the Life Squared Trust, they created a research study aiming to help understand the prevalence, enablers and barriers of wellbeing and mental health among the legal profession and law students of New Zealand. This project will provide research-based evidence to advocate for positive change in the legal profession and educational facilities that provide legal training. The key questions under investigation in this ground-breaking study include:
- What is the prevalence of wellbeing and poor mental health of individuals working in the legal profession and of individuals studying law?
- What are the enablers and barriers of good mental health and wellbeing in individuals working in the legal profession and of law students in New Zealand.
- How does wellbeing and mental health of lawyers and law students change over a 3-year period.
The longitudinal nature of the study also means this is the first study to monitor the change in mental health and wellbeing over time allowing insight into the impact and drivers of changes over a long time period.
What will the research involve?
The research is open to all New Zealand lawyers with a practising certificate (irrespective of the area they work in), and to all law students as of March 2021 (although only first year law students will be invited for ongoing surveys for years 2 and 3 assessment points). All participants will need to be over the age of 18 at the start of the first survey. The study will run in April and repeat at the same times in 2022 and 2023.
When the research begins, the Work on Wellbeing (WoW) survey platform will be used to collect the data, and will include questions on work, study, wellbeing (e.g., happiness, passion, relationships, meaning) and mental health (e.g., depression, stress, distress, anxiety). It is estimated to take approximately 15 to 20 minutes to complete the survey at each time point. Some of the benefits of participating include:
- an option to choose a summary research report at completion of the project,
- an individualised wellbeing report at the completion of each survey wave that is automatically generated and tracks individual level wellbeing overtime, and
- access to a range (30+) of wellbeing activities to proactively manage personal wellbeing.
Putting results into action
With the aims of this project to have a positive impact on the wellbeing and mental health of the New Zealand legal profession, the results of this project will be made public through peer-reviewed journal articles, a report for the Life Squared Trust, social media and website postings, media appearances, book chapters and conference proceedings, and professional presentations to relevant stakeholders. It is hoped that the results and data will lead to better evidence-based decision making for the future wellbeing of the profession. It is also possible that the data collected in this study may be used in the future for related research, for example, if funding is obtained to extend the study beyond the three-year time frame.
On behalf of Life Squared Trust, thank you for taking the time to read through the details of our research project. It is a personal honour to be supporting the memory of Andrew and his family, and I believe this investment in knowledge, time, energy and resource has the propensity to benefit all current and future lawyers. However, the success of this project is solely dependent on participation rates. The more data we collect, the more informative the results and applications will be. I hope as a collective, the profession sees this as an opportunity to personally gain and give back.
If you are interested in participating in this study and would like to register or read the study Plain Language Statement or Informed Consent statement, please email email@example.com.