Surprisingly, GPs lagged behind at number 7.
Lawyers, says the lab, have one of the highest suicide rates of any profession. That lawyers are stressed is a reality that the profession has been grappling with for a long time now – and it’s a growing problem:
- The charity LawCare reported in January that the number of lawyers contacting it who are experiencing stress was up by a quarter, affecting a third of all who made contact.
- In LawCare’s Life in the law 2020/21 report, almost 7 in 10 respondents reported having mental health issues in the last year.
- The Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division has consistently highlighted the high levels of stress among younger solicitors.
It should therefore be a welcome development that the regulator is consulting on proposals to amend the codes of conduct to tackle the issue of stress-related matters in the workplace.
In a thematic review into workplace culture carried out by the SRA, there were ongoing concerns and issues relating to the pressures faced by solicitors, including long hours, bullying and a focus on financial targets rather than achievements.
The profession knows too well that one adverse effect of sustained stress and pressure on lawyers is the increased risk of an error, misconduct and misjudgement. The raft of cases referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in recent years frequently reveals the direct link between stress and mental health, unethical behaviour, misjudgement and breach of the rules.
Indeed, last summer the SDT president stated that mental health and stress-related issues “are a recurring feature” in SDT hearings and casework generally. This increase is partly what has prompted the SRA to change its rules to further protect clients and the public.
In its consultation (ending on 27 May 2022), the SRA is looking at introducing rules relating to where a solicitor’s health affects their ability to practice, thus raising the regulatory risks. Juliet Oliver, general counsel at the SRA, said: “We… want to set out what the position is when a solicitor's health issues may be affecting their ability to practise or to participate in our enforcement processes. It’s in everyone’s interests to get this right so we can manage any potential risks in a fair and proportionate way for all involved.”
The proposal is to impose an explicit obligation on firms and individual lawyers to “treat colleagues fairly and with respect and not to bully, harass or unfairly discriminate against them”. Firms and individual solicitors will also be expected to challenge behaviour that fails to meet that standard.
How that can be policed is not clear, not to mention the fact that an individual needs to be in the right mental space to be able to challenge such behaviour in the first place. That said, the SRA says that it “would recognise the difficulties that junior staff may face both in raising concerns and in challenging their seniors”.
If there are failures, the SRA said it will take the necessary action.
It should also be remembered that firms themselves can face criminal sanctions as well as civil claims if they breach their duty of care towards staff. The duty under health and safety includes taking steps to minimise risks to employees’ mental health; and anyone claiming for damages for personal injury to their mental health could rely on a regulatory breach to bolster a claim.
A good, safe workplace culture is vital to promote and protect the wellbeing of staff and for carrying out a competent level of legal services for clients. Once responses to the consultation have been analysed, we will wait to see what the SRA decides to introduce.
The consultation can be downloaded here.