Why boundaries are important for your professional wellbeing

The focus on wellbeing in family practice is much-needed and crucial, but it shouldn’t obscure the need to observe professional boundaries

The greatest risk to the recent progress made on “wellness” policy, is the very real potential for legal professionals to become jaded with the term. Conceptual over-exposure, workaday pressures, and ultimately boredom, frequently turn us into cynical observers, quick to dismiss latest policy taglines as another “fashionable bandwagon”. However, this uncritical assessment is likely to lead to serious opportunity loss for the industry.

All being well in the legal industry?

As long ago as 1990, Johns Hopkins University research found that lawyers were suffering major depressive episodes at a rate 3.6% higher than the general population. This was confirmed by Benjamin, Sales, and Beck’s 1995 study, in which they reported truly staggering rates of depression and anxiety amongst their respondents: 10 times higher than the norm. They also found a startling amount of problematic drinking with approximately 70% of lawyers likely to develop lifetime alcohol issues, five times more than the general population. This finding validated the American Bar Association’s estimate two years previously, that 50-75% of disciplinary cases were alcohol-related. It seems, at least in the 1990s, that lawyers could be described as depressed, anxious, and problematic drinkers.

However, before we dismiss these findings as an historical aberration, the recent LawCare’s (2020/21) Life in the Law Report found that 69% of their respondents had had issues with their mental health in the previous year and, alarmingly, only 23% of respondents replied that in the previous two weeks, they had not drunk at least one unit of alcohol every day. Resolution’s (2021) Wellbeing in Family Law confirmed this picture of professional misery, with 89% of their respondents having experienced negative wellbeing because of their work and 95% working more hours than contracted.

Even more worryingly, the LawCare report stated that 44% of their respondents did not inform their employers of their struggles, for fear that their careers would be damaged, and Resolution’s report stated 1 in 4 were contemplating leaving the industry – a terrifying 25%. Should this exodus transpire even at half of that rate, it would be an apocalyptic haemorrhaging of talent.

Wellness” cannot then be dismissed as a COVID-induced outlier, but is instead a COVID-induced review of what was already known. However, as mental wellbeing appears to have been an ongoing issue within the legal profession for decades, the next question reasonably becomes, why now should it be viewed as a significant threat to the industry?

The importance of boundaries

In clinical practice we are very concerned with boundaries. Therapists know that in our front-facing work, we are often faced with clients who, for one reason or another, will challenge who we are and what we do. Therefore, we are very much concerned with self – a somewhat glued together mish-mash of our values, our emotions, and our behaviours. Our practice model is heavily dependent on self-reflection. We set up systems of supervision because we recognise that our work is psychologically costly and physically draining. We recognise that we have limits to what we can do, and we greatly value the supervisory space to decompress.

In the last year, I have had the pleasure of presenting up and down the UK to law firms on the Psychology of Difficult Divorces, laying out the typical psychological presentations for these cases. After my presentation it was common for lawyers to approach me in confidence to discuss cases – some current, some historic. These lawyers showed case-related indications of extreme stress, ongoing rumination, and feelings of inadequacy – in simple terms, they were saying that they had been/were out of their depth, felt isolated, and had no support. It was concerning. As I pursued this theme, it became clear that lawyers were being asked to work well beyond their disciplinary capacity.

It is normal that in any client-facing work, professionals must provide a level of pastoral care. However, when we consider the case demographic that lawyers face, especially those working in family and divorce practice, we must acknowledge that the psychological demands of the job are well beyond the norm. Each day family lawyers are dealing with a conveyor belt of clients who are presenting at the worst moment of their life. They turn up at their most uninhibited, disarranged, and challenging – these are difficult clients to manage. In response to this, the baffling answer from the industry seems to have been an increased pressure for soft skills training: coaching-trauma-CBT-informed up-skilling appears to be all the rage.

However, there is an unacknowledged danger to this unexamined “training movement”. The net result is likely to be the creation of an organisational cultural norm which further increases the expectation that lawyers function as proxy-mental health workers. This whole emphasis on training seems to have completely overlooked the fundamental professional boundary issue – lawyers are not therapists, they are lawyers. Therefore, asking lawyers to do more of what they are already struggling with is, at best, myopic. Instead, we need to consider what lawyers need.

Principally, there is a need for guidance on practical caseload decision-making. It is imperative that lawyers have the skills to know when they have reached their skills-capacity boundary and now require onward referral streams. There is no doubt that lawyers will face cases well beyond the typical; cases that create extreme emotional and psychological distress. They will face life circumstances which make it difficult to separate home and work: they already face unsustainable working hours, eating into family life. They need to know that trusted supervisory structures can be accessed without fear of career belittlement. Additionally, lawyers need assurances that there is a wider commercial commitment to organising work with an acknowledgement that there is a central tension between professional boundaries and wellness. Jargonised, marketing-led, short-term fixes will no longer cut it, and lawyers cannot be held accountable for those law firms which aren’t financially and strategically astute enough to recognise the catastrophic risk wellness poses to their bottom-line.

Crossing boundaries

I suggest now is the time to reframe wellness”. No longer as a throwaway term, but instead as an industry opportunity. Outwith the legal industry, cross-boundary conversations are common practice. They allow the break-down of traditional, siloed working, the removal of knowledge-transference blockages, and the creation of value-led inter-professional conversations. Discussions around “wellness” are perfectly positioned to become the conceptual hub around which occupational and organisational health learning can flow. To state the obvious, boundary conduits allow that which we already know outside the industry to flow freely into the industry, thus improving wellness systemically.