New IBA report sets out principles for dealing with mental wellbeing crisis in the legal profession

Tuesday 26 October 2021

Following the first ever global surveys examining the mental wellbeing of legal professionals at both an individual and institutional level, a new International Bar Association (IBA) report identifies worrying mental wellbeing trends across the profession and provides ten principles for legal workplaces and organisations to help address the crisis.

The Co-Chairs of the Taskforce that led the project, Steven Richman, Member, Clark Hill PLC, Princeton, and Deborah Enix-Ross, Senior Advisor, International Dispute Resolution Group at Debevoise & Plimpton, New York, stated: ‘It is our hope that the mental wellbeing principles set out in the report will aid the legal profession in urgently responding to the crisis. For solutions to be implemented there must first be acknowledgement that mental wellbeing matters and that it does not denote weakness. The report is a call to action. It is our hope and intention that it will be used around the world to further the work of implementing practical solutions to what is a global crisis. The indefatigable work of the IBA Legal Policy & Research Unit team led by Sara Carnegie and George Artley in conducting the international surveys has made this report possible and we extend our gratitude’.

The report, Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession: A Global Study, launches Tuesday 26 October 2021 as part of the IBA’s Global Showcase week of virtual sessions. The report draws on data collected from almost 3,500 surveyed legal professionals and more than 180 legal organisations, including bar associations, law societies, in-house legal departments and law firms. The findings confirm that mental wellbeing of legal professionals is a cause for global concern; has a disproportionate impact on women, young people, those who identify as an ethnic minority, and those with disabilities; and that stigma is a major problem, with 41 per cent of respondents saying that they would not discuss issues with their employer for fear of damaging their career.

Former IBA President Horacio Bernardes Neto, senior partner at Motta Fernandes Advogados, São Paulo, Brazil, who was responsible for establishing the mental wellbeing taskforce, commented: ‘The conclusions and principles contained in this report represent an important step in addressing the global crisis in lawyer mental wellbeing. Being able to bring people together from across the world to share their experiences, knowledge and expertise has been crucial in amassing the data for this report. I am impressed by the cooperation of international colleagues to be frank in their responses so that our profession may face and remedy this crisis. I congratulate the Taskforce for its efforts and look forward to further IBA initiatives in geared towards improving the mental wellbeing of us all’.

The principles set out in the report to address the mental wellbeing crisis include:

Adopt a policy – Law firms should adopt a mental wellbeing policy and undertake regular assessment of their employees’ mental wellbeing. The policy must: be a collaborative effort involving colleagues from across the organisation, of differing levels of seniority; include detail of systems for mental health disclosures; state what staff should expect from the organisation regarding mental wellbeing; and have appropriate funding, monitoring and evaluation processes in place.

Address systemic problems – For mental wellbeing in the legal profession to improve, the underlying and fundamental causes must be addressed. The report identified a number of working practices that are problematic for mental health, including: poor or non-existent managerial training; bullying, harassment, sexism and racism; and a culture of unsustainable working hours and high billing targets, particularly for junior members of the profession.

Prioritise mental wellbeing – Legal organisations should acknowledge the impact poor mental health has on the profession, as lawyers who are struggling may not be able to serve clients to the best of their ability; and recognise that employers, regulators and professional bodies have a duty to protect and promote the health of their employees and members. Fostering a working culture where mental health is prioritised, and good practise is modelled by leadership, is a key part of this. In addition, any negative perceptions of mental health difficulties should be challenged to ensure that individuals feel able to have an open and honest dialogue, without fear of repercussions for their career.

Recognise intersectionalities – The difficulties experienced by specific groups, including younger, female, ethnic minority, and legal professionals with disabilities, must be better understood and acknowledged by the legal community. Law firms must make a sustained and meaningful effort to foster equality, diversity and inclusion within the workplace.

Noting the wider importance of the findings of the report, IBA President Sternford Moyo, commented: ‘The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many to evaluate what is most important in life and how our careers contribute, or not, to our mental wellbeing and sense of purpose. This report could not be more timely or relevant. Raising awareness and open dialogue and communication are fundamental for change to occur. But this must not be where we stop. Regular assessments and well devised and implemented policies are key. In a developing and demanding global culture where the delineation between work and other areas of life is increasingly blurred, this report demonstrates that we can, with the right tools and emphasis recalibrate and find better balance. I commend this report and recommend it to anyone intent on being part of the solution to the mental wellbeing crisis in the legal profession’.


Notes to the Editor

  1. The full report, Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession: A Global Study, is available to download free of charge from the IBA website hub page on mental wellbeing here.
  2. Click here for a direct link for a copy of the PDF of the report.

  3. The project was developed by the IBA Presidential Taskforce on Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession, led by the IBA Bar Issues Commission Officers, with assistance from the IBA Legal Policy & Research Unit. The taskforce consisted of 25 individuals, of mixed IBA and non-IBA membership, representing all corners of the globe, and different areas of legal practice, academia, and mental wellbeing expertise. An academic team of experts led by Dr Emma Jones of Sheffield University, along with Dr Neil Graffin, Professor Richard Collier, and Dr Mathijs Lucassen, provided initial analysis of the survey data, and produced a first working draft of the report

  4. The International Bar Association (IBA), the global voice of the legal profession, is the foremost organisation for international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Established in 1947, shortly after the creation of the United Nations, it was born out of the conviction that an organisation made up of the world's bar associations could contribute to global stability and peace through the administration of justice.

    The IBA acts as a connector, enabler, and influencer, for the administration of justice, fair practice, and accountability worldwide. The IBA has collaborated on a broad range of ground-breaking, international projects with the United Nations, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, The Commonwealth, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, among others.

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