Were lawyers more stressed in the 90s? - Laurence Simons

Were lawyers more stressed in the 90s?.

Executive Director, Angela Floydd gives her first hand account.


Stress & The Legal Industry: Were lawyers less stressed in the 1990s?



To mark the end of Stress Awareness month, we are focusing on a topic that’s systemic in the legal profession: stress. As part of our 35th anniversary celebrations this year, we are looking back to the late 1980s and asking if things have stayed the same, become worse or changed for the better.



Where are we now?



A recent study of U.K. based solicitors by YouGov found that, harrowingly, 25% of lawyers experienced stress on a daily basis, and a further two-thirds of surveyed lawyers felt that their job had a negative impact on both their mental and physical health.[1] In a survey of UK professionals in 2019, carried out by Insurance firm Protectivity, lawyers were found to be the second most stressed professionals in the country. [2] A similar trend was also evident in the U.S., where a recent study by the Journal of Healthcare found 66% of respondents said their legal career has been detrimental to their mental health, and a further 46% said that they were considering leaving their profession because of stress or burnout.[3]



Looking Back



Being a lawyer involves balancing various deadlines, long work hours, grappling with complex issues, client pressure, high expectations and communicating with clients in emotional and difficult situations. Whilst it can be universally acknowledged that law is a demanding profession, regardless of where someone is based, certain practice areas, such as  family law or criminal law, tend to elicit additional emotional stressors.[4] Excessive stress, coupled with long hours, can manifest through physical symptoms, such as headaches ,migraines, digestive problems and insomnia for lawyers. Correspondingly, data from a 1995 study indicates that the root cause of this increased stress and disposition to anxiety and depression, was isolation from personal and social networks.[5]


A study in the 1990s by John Hopkins University found that lawyers at the time had 3 times the rate of clinical depression as compared to professionals in 25 other industries.[6] Another study in 1995 found that 1 in 4 lawyers suffered from elevated feelings of psychological distress, including feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, anxiety, social alienation, isolation, and depression.[7]


Many of our team members at Laurence Simons come from a legal background and our Executive Director of Strategy & Business Development Angela Floydd is no exception, having worked as a solicitor during the 1990s. Angela gives a first hand account of her observations on what it was like working during that time and the stresses she faced, compared to her observations from working closely with legal professionals now.


“As a newly qualified solicitor in the early 90s, my recollection is that lawyers faced different challenges than those of today. Technology had not yet significantly impacted the legal profession, which meant having fewer tools to manage workloads and communicate externally.


In some ways it was simpler; communication was by phone, letter or fax which meant less of an “immediate” response culture. Looking back, it also meant more of a separation between work and home life without interruptions once outside the office. That’s not to say work hours weren’t demanding at times but there were more opportunities to switch off fully.


Technology has made work more efficient now, and lawyers can use tools like document management systems, legal research databases, and cloud-based collaboration platforms to manage their workloads and minimise routine work. But this can also lead to a 24/7 work culture, where lawyers are expected to be always available and accessible, leading to burnout and high levels of stress.


It’s challenging to say whether lawyers in the 90s were more or less stressed than today’s lawyers. However, it’s clear that different factors have influenced the level of stress in the legal profession over the years.


You generally swap one set of challenges for a different kind as times change. That said, my overall perception is that lawyers seem to experience or at least express higher levels of stress these days compared to the 90’s. In part that might be down to a more open culture now for discussing mental health than in previous decades”.

Angela Floydd.


What does the future hold?



The jury is still out on whether remote or hybrid working is beneficial for mental health and well-being. Some studies show that the increased flexibility that comes with remote working greatly increases quality of life.[8] In our recent poll on Linkedin, when we asked ‘Has remote working had a positive impact or negative impact on your work/life balance?’ 88% of respondents said it has had a positive impact (full results here).


The reduction in commuting times has also been attributed to the reduction in stress.[9] On the other hand, studies have shown that seven in ten remote workers report feelings of loneliness.[10] A 2022 report found that remote working can contribute to feelings of social isolation, guilt and trying to overcompensate – despite the fact that remote workers are putting in longer hours[11] , so it seems to be incredibly varied how an individual reacts to the shift in working patterns post-pandemic.



Have things improved?


The answer to the question, “were lawyers less stressed in the 1990s?” is complicated.


We see that from data in the 1990s, roughly a quarter of lawyers were suffering feelings of psychological distress, and today still roughly a quarter of lawyers are reporting experiencing stress on a daily basis.[12] On this basis alone, we could posit that things have not improved.


The future, with the effects of the pandemic still lingering, and the impact of remote and hybrid working on mental health, is still unknown. It is difficult to look into the future and optimistically project that things are indeed going to get better for the legal industry.



General Counsel Over-extension



As certified Lumina practitioners, we know that beyond the CV, the intricacies of a person and their personality are best brought to light through psychometric testing. A recent study by LawCare highlighted that of the respondents who experienced stressed, 56% were hesitant to discuss it at their place of employment, fearing stigma, career implications, and financial and reputational consequences.[1] Where fear of disclosing is prevalent, there is a greater responsibility from the rest of the team to look out for signs of over-extension. In a recent research piece conducted by Laurence Simons in partnership with Lumina Learning, we found there were five signs that a General Counsel (GC) may be overwhelmed and experiencing stress or anxiety. These included a GC becoming argumentative, a propensity to ‘win’ at all costs, seeking conflict, and becoming more controlling and overbearing. These warning signs may help HR teams pre-empt any adverse effects of stress on their well‐being and the organisation.



How can lawyers manage their stress?



Establishing an effective work life balance has been a much discussed topic within the corporate world, especially over the last couple of years with the recent impact of hybrid and remote working on account of the pandemic.


Simple Law has identified a few helpful tips for managing stress when working within the legal sector[14]:


          • Identifying the scope and scale of stressors – this can help with developing personal stress management tactics
          • Mindful communication with colleagues about how stress is affecting you personally, using the PIES (physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually) method
          • Integrating de-stressors into the work day, e.g. going on a walk during lunch break, working in a different space and practicing meditation
          • Taking time off if needed


Many on our team at Laurence Simons come from legal backgrounds themselves and can relate first-hand to the stresses associated with a career in law. If you or a colleague are feeling the weight of stress, there are resources available to you through LawCare (an incredible charity focusing on the mental health of legal professionals) in the UK, or if you’re reading from the US there are Lawyer Assistance Programs available in almost every state.