The (Un)Happy Lawyer?: Law Firms, Law Schools and the Political Economy of the Wellbeing Turn in the Legal Profession

Wellbeing, encompassing a broad set of concerns around mental and physical health and ‘what matters to people’, is an idea that has moved centre stage internationally.

At the same time, the legal profession in England and Wales, as elsewhere, has in recent years begun to pay increasing attention to wellbeing. The debate in law takes place against the backdrop of a substantial body of international and, more recently, UK based research suggesting significant problems exist in this area for many lawyers. The literature base raises questions about environmental factors within legal practice, workplace structures, cultures and aspects of legal education and training that, it is argued, can have deleterious consequences for both lawyer and law student wellbeing. It is an issue seen as having significant implications for both individuals, organizations and the profession as a whole, a concern itself reflected in the 2016 establishment of a Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce.   

This paper, arising at the intersection of these fields, attempts to engage with and reframe the terms of this debate. It reviews recent developments in relation to legal practice and legal education, considers counter-arguments challenging the idea that there is a particular problem around lawyer wellbeing and reassesses how ideas about wellbeing are, in fact, deployed in different ways that connect to wider debates about equality, diversity and inclusion in law. It concludes by interrogating the broader political, economic contexts framing this debate, tracing how the wellbeing agenda is enmeshed with a broader reframing of ideas of legal professionalism in the context of political, economic, cultural and structural shifts that, for lawyers, law students and, indeed, legal academics, can be seen as productive of the law’s ‘wellbeing turn. In such a context, critically assessing wellbeing in law reveals important contradictions within both the cultures of law and processes of identity formation as a legal professional.

Richard Collier is Professor of Law and Social Theory at Newcastly University. His primary areas of research interest lie in the field of law and gender, with a particular focus in the past on issues around men and masculinities. The work encompasses primarily (although not exclusively) the fields of Law, Families and Social Change (e.g. work on fatherhood and law, fathers’ rights and responsibilities) , Gender and the Legal Profession (e.g. male lawyers and work-life balance) and Gender and Crime/Criminology.