Lawyer 2B Stress Survey: what are the chief causes of stress?

Having too much work and too little time to do it in was the most cited cause of stress among lawyers across all levels. However, while over 70 per cent of trainees and non-partners citied this factor as a chief cause of stress, there is a big drop-off at partner level. Only 55 per cent of partners that responded felt they had too much work and too little time. Presumably this is due to their increased power to delegate tasks to juniors.

The next most common cause of stress at trainee level is difficult or unpleasant superiors, with some 44 per cent of all trainees surveyed citing it.  This gradually drops as a cause of stress as lawyers move up in their firm: just over 30 of non-partners complain of difficult superiors, while at partner level the figure drops to 10 percent.

A more common issue for qualified non-partners is their work affecting their personal life. Just over one-third of trainees (34 per cent) cite this as a cause of stress. This jumps to 42 per cent at NQ level and 61 per cent among 1-3 PQEs, before dropping to 44 per cent at partner level.

The pressure to meet billing targets and firm bureaucracy are both issues that gradually rise as causes of stress as lawyers move up the firm. Some 44 per cent of partners cite meeting billing targets as a concern, compared to 17 per cent of trainees, 30 per cent of solicitors under 4PQE, and 34 per cent of non-partner solicitors of 4PQE and over. 

Stress brought about by red tape and bureaucracy also increases with seniority, although it does not appear to be a major issue, with only 29 per cent of partners citing it.

Happily, dealing with difficult or unpleasant peers is not a major cause of stress for the majority. Across all levels of seniority, only about 13 per cent of respondents cited this as a factor. More of an issue are overly demanding clients. Even at trainee level, where direct client contract is not always regular, around a third of respondents cited this as a cause of stress.

Perhaps surprisingly, competition to get ahead within the firm is not a great cause of stress. About a quarter of trainees worry about it, but after qualification it becomes less of an issue, even among solicitors approaching partnership.

Stress survey - main causes of stress

Other responses

Among the other trainee responses to this question was the common complaint of unpredictable working hours – “quiet until 7pm, then a pile of work lands on my desk that needs to be done there and then,” wrote one respondent.

At junior solicitor level, another common theme arose. Several respondents cited a lack of pastoral support as a chief cause of stress: “Feeling out of my depth and lacking supervision,” wrote one; “inadequate supervision from above and being expected to fill a role much higher than my qualification year,” said another.

Further up the ladder, juggling work and family” was a common refrain among mid-level and senior associates. “I work part time (3 days a week) but the number of hours I work is actually equivalent to a full time working week,” wrote one respondent. “I am now contracted to work 80% of full-time but am still working around 40 hours a week (and 52 hours last week!!),” another said.

Another common theme among mid-level and senior associates was being given a high level of responsibility with none of the rewards that come with it.

”Lack of ownership from certain colleagues, including very senior ones,” complained a mid-level tax associate at a US firm in London, while “responsibility imposed without corresponding authority needed to get things done;” “not enough credit or acknowledgment for client wins;” and “increased demands co-temporaneous with increased expectations and reduced resources,” all cropped up as comments. One senior corporate associate at a London mid-sizer put it in simple terms: “Pressure to perform well and know everything!” 

At partner level, there were several complaints aboutpoor management, while another running theme was a lack of resources – be that a “lack of secretarial support and poor IT system” or “support departments with a divergent work ethic,” as one partner put it.

A handful of respondents at several different levels cited “solicitors on the other side” as a cause of stress, while only two mentioned “lack of work” as a cause.

Finally, just one respondent, working in the litigation department of large City firm, cited “sexual harrassment from senior colleagues” as a cause of stress.

Stress in Law survey: full results