IBA releases interim survey results on wellbeing in the legal profession

Thursday 1 April 2021

The International Bar Association (IBA) has published the initial results of a global evaluation into the wellbeing of the legal profession. A bifurcated approach using two surveys – one for individual lawyers, the other for legal institutions – garnered responses from more than three thousand individuals and over 180 legal organisations, including bar associations, law societies, in-house legal departments and law firms. The surveys are the first of their kind undertaken at an international level with a specific focus on the legal profession, and were open from July 2020–December 2020.

Initial findings include:

  • Confirmation that lawyer wellbeing is a cause for global concern. The wellbeing index scores gathered from the survey data (based on the World Health Organisation’s WHO-5 indexing methodology) demonstrate that lawyers’ levels of wellbeing are below the global average in every regional forum. Although they may differ in manifestation, no one jurisdiction has a monopoly on these issues
  • Stigma is a major problem: 41 per cent of respondents said that they could not discuss wellbeing issues with their employer without worrying that it would damage their career or livelihoods
  • Awareness about local and international wellbeing support and services available is low, and, in many jurisdictions, wellbeing support or services do not currently exist: 22 per cent of respondents said that no wellbeing help, guidance or support was in place in their jurisdiction
  • Employers may think that wellbeing is a priority but this is not reflected in the experiences of their staff. Most employees think that their employers need to do more in this area, including 75 per cent of respondents aged between 25 and 35
  • 28 per cent of respondents specifically cited the need for increased levels of awareness to be fostered in the workplace, with 23 per cent also explicitly calling for more resources for professional support and direct intervention
  • Wellbeing issues have a disproportionate impact on the young, women, those who identify as an ethnic minority and those with disabilities, with those groups reporting wellbeing index scores consistently below the global average for other respondents
  • A large disparity between the number of institutions that say they have wellbeing initiatives in place (73 per cent), and the extent to which those in managerial positions are offered any sort of wellbeing training (16 per cent)

In recent years, there has been growing recognition of the need for greater action to address these issues. In 2019, IBA Immediate Past President Horacio Bernardes Neto, established a taskforce with a view to implementing internationally coordinated responses, if required.

Mr Bernardes commented: ‘When I became president of the IBA in 2019, I made addressing mental wellbeing within the legal profession one of my main priorities. I had become increasingly concerned with all too frequent reports of substance abuse, severe depression and suicide within the profession. Little did I, or any of us, know of the events that were to come. The devastating effects of depression, stress, addiction and other such attacks on our wellbeing may have preceded the Coronavirus pandemic, but there is no question that it has exacerbated their impact.’

While existing initiatives by membership and regulatory bodies, legal practice and educational establishments exist at a jurisdictional level, the IBA recognises the prospect of greater impact by working together at the international level. Chiefly because there is:

  • a general lack of knowledge in the international legal community about good practice in the area of mental wellbeing and what that looks like;
  • none (or little) evaluative research on the effectiveness of existing wellbeing programmes in the legal sector; and
  • currently no forum for sharing information and good practice at an international level.

The surveys, developed in collaboration with consultancy firm Acritas (part of Thomson Reuters), constitute the first stage of the taskforce’s work and were designed to provide a solid platform of international data on which to build effective recommendations for positive change. The surveys were open to all, though did not aim to be representative of the total make-up of all legal professions or legal institutions within individual jurisdictions. Instead, they were designed to be completed by the widest possible number of potential participants, something which is reflected in the range of workplaces and roles identified in the demographics of respondents. Therefore, they provide a useful and unique snapshot of the global views of a range of legal professionals and institutions.

In addition to providing recommendations for improving wellbeing in the legal profession generally, the IBA aims, in future phases of the project, to provide a holistic picture to include the negative implications to the ‘bottom line’ of businesses where attention is not paid to employees’ wellbeing, as detailed by:

  • The World Health Organization (WHO), which has identified direct links between poor standards of wellbeing and increased absenteeism, lower standards of work, demotivated and burnt-out staff, and damaged relationships between colleagues
  • A 2020 Deloitte study that estimated that poor mental health cost United Kingdom employers between £42 and £45 billion per year, including the costs of absenteeism, presenteeism (coming to work despite poor health, and underperforming) and staff turnover

Furthermore, in several countries there is evidence that mental health impairment and substance abuse can contribute to alleged misconduct involved in disciplinary proceedings. Such behaviour not only damages relationships with clients, but also undermines public confidence in the legal profession as a whole.

Steven Richman (Member, Clark Hill PLC, Princeton, New Jersey) and Deborah Enix-Ross (Senior Advisor, International Dispute Resolution Group at Debevoise & Plimpton, New York), co-chairs of the taskforce, have outlined the next steps of the project after an in-depth analysis of the survey results: ‘Focus on two key areas of activity. These are (a) raising awareness and destigmatising discussions around mental health and wellbeing, particularly within jurisdictions where recognition of these issues within the legal profession is not well-developed, and (b) investigating how institutions can translate awareness into effective interventions to improve workplace culture and tackle relevant structural issues in the profession to prevent the many suffering alone or in silence.’

A webinar with global experts on legal wellbeing issues is planned for October 2021 to coincide with World Mental Health Day. The panel will discuss the work of the taskforce to date, as well as its plans for the future.

The survey results confirmed many suspicions about the nature of the international wellbeing crisis in the legal community, but also highlighted some unexpected findings. These include the fact that the majority of respondents have healthy coping strategies in place, including meditation, yoga and a healthy diet, as opposed to the use of alcohol or recreational drugs as found in previous studies.

Details of the IBA Wellbeing Taskforce can be found here.


Notes to the Editor

  1. 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 Fundand the World Bank, among others.

    In the ensuing 70 years since its creation, the organisation has evolved from an association comprised exclusively of bar associations and law societies to one that incorporates individual international lawyers and entire law firms.

    The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), established in 1995 under Founding Honorary President Nelson Mandela, is an autonomous and financially independent entity, working to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.

  2. Find the IBA and IBAHRI on social media here:



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