Sithembile Zaca5 July 2024 | 14:00

SITHEMBILE ZACA: Are legal practitioners being left behind in highlighting mental well-being?

In this year’s Corporate Wellness Week, Sithembile Zaca challenge the legal fraternity to stop and reflect on the paucity of wellness programmes designed to nurture and shape cogent work conditions for legal practitioners.

SITHEMBILE ZACA: Are legal practitioners being left behind in highlighting mental well-being?

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In this year’s Corporate Wellness Week, I challenge the legal fraternity to stop and reflect on the paucity of wellness programmes designed to nurture and shape cogent work conditions for legal practitioners. 

Their mental health challenges can no longer be taboo.  

Just over 70% of legal practitioners believe their work have a negative impact on their mental health, according to the Legal Sector Workers United (LSWU).

This statistic comes as no surprise if one considers the intensity and high demand of the legal fraternity, which puts legal professionals under severe strain in their efforts to deliver. 

Adding to this is the lack of a work/life balance, which could result in most legal professionals battling stress, as this impacts their mental well-being.

Unpacking the spiritual revitalisation of the legal profession, Dr. David Hall, President University of the Virgin Islands, stated: “The legal profession is sacred because what we are called to do as lawyers and judges involve some of the most morally compelling decisions that any human being could ever make. The judicial process is laden with moral ambiguity, which requires that we bring pure hearts and clean hands to every task.”

Very few, if any, can argue against his assertions. However, what is not often addressed in the legal fraternity is the well-being of legal practitioners. 

In this era, where advocacy on mental health matters has been heightened, often left behind are these practitioners. They themselves have not been as vocal about this issue, which does not help the situation. 

That is why sector regulators such as the Legal Practice Council can no longer afford to be left behind in such constructive dialogues.

At the Legal Practice Council meeting held on 8 July 2023, the Council adopted a resolution to commence with a project for 1,000 legal practitioners to obtain mental health and wellness. 
Being a legal practitioner, especially in our context, comes with its own human challenges, from societal standards to pressures from within, and fear of failure. 

This is also true for young professionals who are eager to make it in this very competitive space. The sacredness of the legal profession is something that can be celebrated. But once it hinders legal professionals from developing and crying for help when they are not managing, a shift is needed. 

Oftentimes, legal practitioners reluctantly accept the status quo and just put their heads down and get on with it. The staggering workload given to legal professionals, which is more than enough to overwhelm anyone, does not only include the number of cases a lawyer receives, but also collecting evidence, writing up reports, organising files, and more. 

Working overtime as a legal professional is often presumed to be a part of the job role for law firms. 

The pressure to complete all tasks within a short period of time is intense for all levels within the law. With strict deadlines comes working overtime to get things done on time to avoid any consequences from clients or colleagues. Add to this the time spent in court, and having the courage to deal with unfavourable court outcomes.
Thus the urgent call to address mental health issues within the legal sector can no longer be overlooked. 

Many lawyers have spoken about feeling either overburdened or “burnout” at some point in their careers. However, because of the sacredness of their profession, legal practitioners lack the correct platforms to support and walk the journey with them in the dark hour of misery.  

This then raises the question, what are we doing to address this situation? 

In fact, one can take it a step further and ask why we are not directing our energies towards ensuring the well-being of legal professionals as waiting until it is too late will only serve to worsen the matters.

A case in point is the issue around junior doctors which made headlines in recent years. The pressures that come with these industries are hardly something new. However, the focus should be on raising awareness and encouraging young professionals to seek help when they are confronted with mental health issues. 

It’s also worth encouraging legal bodies to set up platforms to share experiences about these challenges and how they address them. 

If not now, then when?

A healthy legal sector is pivotal for the functions of the country’s legal system. We should therefore regard this issue as a collective responsibility that will not only benefit young professionals but also those still with dreams of one day becoming part of this profession. 

We owe it to them that they do not battle with the same challenges that we are confronted with. 

Sithembile Zaca is the senior manager of human resources at the LPC.