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IP sector has ‘unsustainable’ levels of stress, anxiety

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Reform advocates say IP law needs a cultural reset after a report finds concerning trends in staff’s mental wellbeing

Intellectual property law is an extremely stressful field to work in, and the problem seems to be getting worse.

The levels of stress associated with legal practice won’t come as news to many readers, but there is at least more data pinpointing exactly where the issues are.

The 2022 Mental Wellbeing Survey, published last Friday, October 14, found higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression among respondents than the last survey in 2019.

Many respondents said they struggled with high workloads, fears they weren’t up to the job, and a perceived inability to take time off.

The vast majority of participants were members of the UK Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA), although the issues they highlighted will resonate with other lawyers too.

“IP is a really rewarding job, but the pressures can be quite exacting on people,” says Lee Davies, CIPA chief executive.

When in-person events such as the Chartered Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys’ Spring Conference returned earlier this year, it was clear mental wellbeing issues were higher up the agenda than they had been pre-pandemic.

It would have been the same at the CIPA Congress last month, Davies says, if the event hadn’t been cancelled due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Charities such as LawCare and Jonathan’s Voice, a suicide prevention group, are now regular fixtures at IP conferences.

Andrea Brewster, lead executive officer of UK-based IP Inclusive, hopes the greater levels of awareness will spark a cultural reset in the sector.

“We do need some fundamental changes, because the situation isn’t sustainable.

“This is not about providing yoga sessions, we need to look at the underlying problems,” she says.

One of the key problems detailed in the report is that legal professionals often find themselves with more work than they can cope with.

Almost two-thirds in the main survey – separate surveys dealt with trainees, paralegals, and business support staff – cited having too much work to do as the biggest barrier to them taking time off.

A similar proportion (60%) said deadlines were the biggest contributor to stress and anxiety, with billing targets (44%) and client demands (45%) among the other main issues.

Cannon fodder

Students, paralegals, and business support staff face their own issues.

The percentage of paralegals and support staff reporting mental health issues is lower than in other categories, but the figures are still concerning – 50% experienced high stress levels over the past year, for example.

Penelope Aspinall of Jonathan’s Voice says the figures reflect what she has heard from support staff and paralegals.

“Support staff often pick up the slack when fee-earners have tight deadlines. The stress is passed on,” Aspinall says.

Trainees, meanwhile, are one of the most heavily impacted groups, with 72% reporting that high stress levels had affected their work over the past year.

One of the biggest stressors for trainees is a lack of time to prepare for exams, which also have high fail rates.

In response, Brewster argues: “The obvious quick win is to allow students more study leave.”

At the moment, she says, they are learning on the job while also having to cope with significant workloads.

It’s a trend that’s seen across the legal sector, says Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of LawCare.

“Trainee solicitors are so often seen as cannon fodder that can churn out work,” she says.

And even with more study leave, those unsustainable workloads remain the cause of the problem, says Brewster.

“Someone has to step in and say when a trainee has too much to do,” she says.

Broken system

That active workload management is the sort of cultural shift Brewster says is needed across the whole sector, not just with trainees.

Put simply, firms often take on more work than is sustainable.

The work may get done, but people’s days get longer and stress levels get higher.

Brewster says managers need to ensure staff don’t become overburdened, even if that means limiting the amount of work the firm takes on.

“We need to accept realistic targets. Lawyers tend to be driven and ambitious people and we don’t like to admit we can’t cope.

“But we need to say we can’t go above a certain level of work, or the system will break,” she says.

No firm wants the reputation that it isn’t open for business, especially not smaller entities or sole practitioners.

They are especially prone to becoming overburdened, with fewer staff to share the load, points out Davies of CIPA.

Lawyers in smaller firms may find themselves in the position of being unable to take any time off for fear the problem will simply get worse.

That tension just underlines the importance of managing workloads or having a team that can help, says Aspinall of Jonathan’s Voice.

“If there is no slack in the system and the workload is relentless, then it is very hard for people to take time off,” she says.

Brewster says it’s up to managers to implement a team structure that allows individuals to take time off.

“You need to be able to take your foot off the gas and have someone who knows what’s going on with a particular case or a client able to step in,” she argues.

Time to act

The current levels of stress and anxiety may not be sustainable for much longer.

Half of student respondents and over 41% of others said they had considered leaving their current job, while significant numbers of students (43%) and others (34%) have considered leaving the profession altogether.

The working culture in IP could be one of the biggest staff retention challenges the sector faces in the coming years.

Rimmer says a healthier culture is starting to emerge but has yet to go mainstream.

“There hasn’t been a radical shift yet, but there are some disruptions on the fringes with alternative billing models,” she says.

“It’s tiny, but hopefully there will be a ripple effect,” Rimmer adds.

Davies of CIPA admits the mental health problems in law demand more sustained attention from professional bodies throughout the year.

“We often start conversations around events like Mental Health Awareness Week and don’t continue them.

“I need to take more of a lead personally, I need to find the time to be a better advocate for mental wellbeing,” Davies says.

There is only so much that groups such as CIPA can do, given the legal sector’s in-built tendency to take on as much work as possible.

But sources agree the higher levels of awareness and discussion in professional bodies have been valuable.

“We need a general culture in the profession where it’s ok to talk about these issues and, on that count, we’re in a better place now than we were before,” Brewster says.

While greater awareness is certainly welcome, sources hope it will quickly translate into action before the underlying problems get any worse.

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