Workplace Wellbeing

Beyond billable hours: A study of mental health in the legal sector

February 14, 2024

Naomi Lucking


Unmind Product Spotlight: Calendar Reminders


The law is a profession known for long hours, high pressure and high stakes. It may not come as a surprise that attorneys experience more stress and depression, and show greater incidence of substance use disorder than the general population.

Along with an increased risk of occupational pressures such as stress and burnout, law firms are facing rising labor costs and competition for top talent. 

To investigate the state of wellbeing in the legal sector, and the associated financial implications for law firms, Unmind launched a first-of-its-kind study.

A missing link

“Although well-intentioned, the majority of wellbeing surveys circulating throughout the legal industry tend not to be scientifically rigorous and validated by prior peer-reviewed workplace studies.” – Jarrett Green, Esq., M.A. (Psychology), Wellbeing, Stress Resiliency & Peak Performance Consultant

While many studies have looked at the state of mental health in the legal sector, few have examined the complex interplay of factors at the root of the issue.

To enact real change, we must measure how various influences—from psychological safety, to support from associates and partners, to investment in wellbeing from senior leadership — interact and affect employee mental health. 

Objectives of the study

  1. Understand workplace wellbeing. To examine factors related to employee mental health across firms and professional groups, and compare scores with general population averages.
  2. Measure financial impact. To determine employee mental health-related absenteeism, presenteeism and intention to leave their roles.
  3. Benchmark the legal sector. To establish a preliminary industry benchmark for legal firms to compare their scores against.

How we conducted the study

Between March–May 2023, 3,814 attorneys and professionals from six large US law firms took part in the study. 

We measured the eight key dimensions of workplace mental health, captured across 24 items, measured on a five-point scale. 

We also gathered data on performance to understand the associated financial costs for firms, looking at absenteeism, presenteeism and attrition. 

We then used this insight to create tailored recommendations for the legal sector. 

“The ‘big law’ sector sets many of the industry-wide wellbeing and culture norms and challenges that trickle down to smaller firms, corporate law departments, governmental agencies and many other legal employers. Obtaining clarity on what is occurring at the ‘head of the snake’ is crucial for understanding the entire industry.” – Jarrett Green, Esq., M.A. (Psychology), Wellbeing, Stress Resiliency & Peak Performance Consultant

A snapshot of the findings 

  • Law firms in our study are losing, on average, nearly a tenth (9.7%) of annual staffing costs to mental health-related presenteeism, absenteeism and attrition.
  • 1 in 2 employees have taken at least one day off due to mental health difficulties in the past three months.
  • Employees reporting high stress are nearly 5x more likely to report mental health-related presenteeism and almost twice as likely to take time off for mental health difficulties.
  • Work fulfilment is a strength for the sector that can act as a buffer against attrition costs, with 81% feeling they can play to their strengths at work.

Download the report for the full findings, including: 

  • How burnout risk in the legal sector compares to population averages 
  • The eight key drivers of wellbeing in the legal sector
  • Recommendations for the legal sector to improve mental health and focus investment for greater returns in performance.