Psychological health, safety and wellbeing: reshaping the working environment of the European law firm – IBA Annual Conference Paris, 30 October 2023

Friday 12 January 2024

Anna Dabrowska 

WOLF THEISS, Poland; Senior Vice Chair, European Regional Forum


Session Chairs

Anna Dabrowska  WOLF THEISS, Warsaw; Senior Vice Chair, European Regional Forum

Antoinette Moriarty  Law Society of Ireland, Dublin


Madalina Hristescu  SCPA Hristescu si Asociatii, Bucharest; Vice Chair, South East Regional Group, European Regional Forum

Jeroen Wouter Soeteman  Jebbink Soetman avocaten, Amsterdam

Viktória Szilágyi  Corporate, Real Estate and Energy Counsel, Lakatos Köves and Partners, Budapest; Vice Chair, European Regional Forum

Slawomir Uss  Soltysinski Kawecki & Szlezak, Warsaw; Chair, Central Regional Group, European Regional Forum

Manuel Santos Vítor  Abreu Advogados, Lisbon

The European Regional Forum (ERF), in particular its Professional Wellbeing Working Party (PWWP), organised a session on lawyers' wellbeing and ways in which we can make our law firms become better working environments. This session was additionally organised with the support of the IBA’s Presidential Task Force on Mental Health and wellbeing and the Professional Ethics Committee.

Discussing wellbeing in the legal community is not easy. The constant need to strive for perfection, the race to meet clients' needs, the necessity to be successful, effective and strong for others does not leave much room for vulnerability. Lawyers identify strongly with being in control and often find uncertainty hard to share. This has become a serious problem.

An interim survey, released by the IBA, of the 2021 Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession IBA Presidential Task Force report noted that the state of lawyers' wellbeing was alarmingly bad; it was diagnosed as ‘of global concern’. The fact that being a lawyer is stressful is no news. The consequences of this type of lifestyle and our inability to change it are leading to a constant rise of mental issues that have a serious impact on the lives of those who experience them, and on everyone surrounding them.

Since its creation in 2020 it has been the ERF PWWP's goal to raise awareness on the topic. We are not professional psychiatrists or psychologists, so we are not equipped with the tools to deal with the problems once they arise, but we do have the power to start the discussion and, jointly, to work out ways to help each other face the difficulties our career brings. Another difficulty concerning this lies with the fact that not everywhere is the legal community ready to deal with these issues. In some parts of Europe, the topic is not treated seriously or is even considered taboo, on the other hand, in countries such as Denmark, Finland and the UK wellbeing support programmes in law firms are a fact of life.

The session in Paris was divided into two parts. The first part included a presentation by Jeroen Soeteman who presented the outcome of a study on Dutch lawyers' wellbeing. It was not a happy conclusion of Mr Soeteman's speech titled ‘Lawyer as a target’, that even in a country as wealthy as the Netherlands, where the bar has the resources to conduct such a study, lawyers are not doing better than the global average indicated in the IBA's report. Dutch lawyers are scared for their lives, 50 per cent of all Dutch lawyers have faced aggression, threatening behaviour or harassment at least once in the past year and 37 per cent rated the incident they experienced as serious or very serious. Most of these lawyers feel that they are not well prepared to deal with acts of aggression. This feeling coincided with the view of employees (a group which included all lawyers below partner level) who took the IBA survey, and who indicated that lawyers' wellbeing was not addressed in a satisfactory manner in their organizations.

After Mr Soeteman's presentation the remaining panellists, Viktória Szilágyi and Manuel Santos Vítor, had a chance to speak about their experience but also about the ways that they have been dealing with the difficulties of a lawyer's life. The panellists spoke about the all too familiar feeling of being overwhelmed by the ‘to do list’ or by stress connected with moving to a new law firm. At the same time there was a repeated reference of the importance of teamwork, of communication and of building a community.

The panel was moderated by Antoinette Moriarty, a psychotherapist and organisational consultant who is Head of Law Society of Ireland’s Psychological Services. Ms Moriarty conceded that support and communication (what was also indicated as a good way for the Dutch bar to start helping its lawyers) and building strong legal groups (whether it will be a small practice team or the law firm or the bar) will help to build the resilience in the individuals that form those groups and will allow them to thrive. It was interesting to hear from Ms Moriarty that it is ok to feel bad sometimes, to be overwhelmed by our schedule and not to always feel at the top of our game. The important thing is to build resilience – of the team, of the individuals – that will allow lawyers to deal with such adversities. And how do we build that resilience?

First, it is important to acknowledge that practicing law can be stressful and demanding. Admitting that the quality of lawyers' wellbeing needs to be improved it not tantamount to making the stress and the demands go away. As was mentioned above, communication is key. Creating a safe environment where lawyers of all levels (and non-lawyers – for wellbeing is not only a lawyers' issue) will be able to talk about their issues and will be heard.

The next step is to set up well-being policies and supports, that will allow to anticipate and respond to any issues promptly. Leadership must model and drive the wellbeing agenda within the firm.

It was very encouraging how engaged the audience was in the topic and how happy to take part in the conversation. It looks like the plan to start the wellbeing discussion is working and we look forward to seeing all of you joining us at the ERF Professional Wellbeing Working Party's sessions that will continue next year.

A group of people sitting at a podium

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