Skip to content

Connecting Legal Education: Staff Wellbeing

So far, the #ConnectLegalEd hangouts have largely been focused upon how we can support our students through COVID-19 and its implications for their learning, pastoral support, and assessment. This week, we turned our attention to staff wellbeing: challenges to that wellbeing are everywhere at the moment, from communication issues and isolation, to feelings of uncertainty about how best to work with students within the current climate; and from traditional working habits no longer being possible (who knew the commute to work provided valuable thinking time?!) to the challenge of familiarising yourself with new technology and countless apps.

For this hangout, we spoke to Caroline Strevens (Portsmouth) about staff wellbeing, and how it might be undermined in the current situation in particular. More generally, Caroline reflected on how wellbeing and personal values are interconnected: she has very kindly given a summary of her presentation, below, after which there is a summary of the discussion the hangout participants had around this topic.

Caroline Strevens SFHEA, Reader in Legal Education, Head of Portsmouth Law School, Chair ALT.  Three children, one husband, no pets, undisclosed number of bicycles.

I joined the University of Portsmouth as a full time academic in 2001 straight from high street practice as a litigation solicitor. I had been teaching and practicing part time for the previous few years and reaching the conclusion that one full time job was preferable to two part time roles.  I had the very great pleasure of developing and running the first law degree together with more experienced academic colleagues and other former practitioners.  We flourished and became a department and I have had the great pleasure of managing that department since its inception in 2008.

It was the work of Professor Rachael Field, formerly of QLT and now Bond University Australia, which sparked my interest in wellbeing, motivation and self-determination theory.  At the time the literature concerned law students and the possible negative effect that studying law had upon them.

I was lucky to be introduced to an academic from the Department of Psychology, Dr Clare Wilson.  With her support, in 2015 we developed and ran a survey of the perceptions of wellbeing in Law Teachers (published in the Law Teacher in 2018). In my opinion we should be interested in our own wellbeing in addition to that of the students and not just because it will help us to help their learning.

What do we mean by wellbeing? 

The World Trade Organisation coined the term ‘wellbeing’ in 1948 (WHO 1948:100). The WHO constitution defines health to include wellbeing “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

Subjective wellbeing specifically focuses on quality of life from the point of view of emotional reactions and cognitive judgements (sometimes used interchangeably with the term psychological wellbeing)

What do we mean by identity?

This is a complex concept and I am no psychologist.  However the current crisis is making it clear to many of us that we have a number of identities within us and some of the adjustment we are now needing to make is arising from the clash of identities and roles that we hold such as parent and professional. There are a number of academics that argue in favour of inculcating in law students and legal practitioners a positive professional identity as a way of improving wellbeing and resilience to a demanding and stressful role.  Field and Spearing have written about this in chapter 4 of ‘Educating for Well-being in Law: Positive Professional Identity and Practice. (I am allowed to promote this book since all royalties are going to the UK charity MIND). Mary White has argued that there are three components to professional identity: personal (including our experiences, goals and values), role (encompassing professional function and conduct), and social (encompassing the values and goals of the profession).  This chapter reports on a small survey of the bar and reveals the potential negative impact of a much stronger concept of role identity in the participants with almost no reference to a social identity as a lawyer.

Other academics have surveyed practising solicitors and found a lack of awareness of ethical dimensions. [1] I do wonder if this is a way of coping when one’s personal values are not reflected in one’s working life?  If human ethical behaviour and the practice of lawyers is of interest I thoroughly recommend reading Tigran Eldred[2] and others who discuss behavioural ethics and the legal profession.

How are happiness and wellbeing related?

The Sunday Times 27/04/20 has a report about the work of Professor Santy from Yale University.  She has created for students a free online course: The Science of Wellbeing.  The reporter reviewed this and comments:

It begins with two lectures by a psychologist at the University of California, Sonja Lyubomirsky, whose research has found that 10 per cent of happiness is determined by circumstance, while 40 per cent is determined by our thoughts, actions and attitudes. (The remaining 50 per cent is determined by our genes, she says.) Her message is that we hugely underestimate the effect that simple habits can have on our feelings of wellbeing.

Three habits worth cultivating especially now:

  1. Good social connections, ‘other’ oriented;
  2. Mindset of gratitude, self-compassion and being present;
  3. Healthy lifestyle including exercise, meditation and sleep.

What are personal values and how are these linked to wellbeing?

Personal values give our lives meaning. “A value is an enduring belief that some goals are preferable to others” (Peterson, 2006, pg 170).[3] Values give your life direction. A strength can be defined as a capacity for feeling, thinking, and behaving in a way that allows optimal functioning in the pursuit of valued outcomes.  Keough & Markus 1998 study of Stanford students’ three week winter break journals provides evidence of the importance of explicitly thinking about your personal values and how you are able to enact them even in the face of difficulties because it helped them to see the meaning in their lives.[4] (There may be an interesting research project here especially in the current lockdown!)

The Values in Action questionnaire is free to use for yourself and your students and will give you a list of your top 5 values.  I have used this questionnaire with students and can share the tutorial if anyone is interested?  These do evolve during the course of your life (and as we have recently sharply experienced with the lockdown).  They do help explain our emotional reactions in my opinion.

Self-determination theory’s central tenet is that we all have three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness and that we will flourish if the social context in which we live and work enables these to be met.  Addressing one’s personal values is part of this theory. Deci defined autonomy as the subjective experience that one’s own behaviour is self-governed, volitional and congruent with one’s true beliefs, values and interests.

It allows for external influences that are self endorsed. Thus when we form trusting relationships and do take on the values of that group or society.

So what of ourselves as legal academics and employees of The University?

Sheldon & Krieger asserted the importance of experiencing autonomy support for lawyers/ employees.  To experience autonomy support where there is an unequal power relationship requires experience of: meaningful rationales, acknowledgement of perspectives and feelings, use of non-controlling language

The alignment of personal values with those of your employer/University has the potential to impact upon your wellbeing.

The research indicates that enacting your (intrinsic) values is very good for your wellbeing.  Walking the talk means enacting your values and the research indicates that this is likely to have the strongest correlation with high wellbeing.  Sheldon’s research project found that: (1) there was a significant behavior/importance gap, such that participants “walked” (acted on values) less than they “talked” (endorsed those values); (2) this was especially true for intrinsic values, an interaction suggesting that the intrinsic ideals of personal growth, community, and connection often receive only lip service; (3) that researchers interested in predicting well-being from values should perhaps focus on rated value enactment, not value importance; and (4) participants with higher meaning in life, lower search for meaning, more self-concordance at work, and greater chronological age evidenced more consistency between their talking and their walking. [5].

Please also read Vivien Holmes excellent chapter 3 from our book Educating for well-being in Law.  Here she introduces the importance of values and value based education and I am delighted that Dr Liz Curran (now trapped in the UK!) has agreed to talk on another of these sessions about giving voice to value education in law.  Graham Ferris has written a whole volume on this topic ‘Uses of Values in Legal Education’ published by Intersentia.

Our 2015 survey indicated law teachers who reported higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress also experienced an inability to live according to their values, little ability to control their environment around them and they tended to blame themselves.   And law teachers who had goals and felt competent to achieve those goals and were able to live their values were significantly more likely to feel good about themselves and where they were going.

What can Universities do to support wellbeing in Staff?

In 2017 we undertook a further survey of Law Teachers this time with Australian collaborators Rachael Field and Colin James.  We have analysed the replies to one of the open questions in that survey: “what is the one thing that your University could do to improve law staff quality of working life?”  The themes that resulted were remarkably similar across jurisdictions and included: administrative burden, teacher support, workload, management styles, consultation and transparency, strategic priorities, autonomy, communication and respect [6]

A thematic analysis of a more recent larger survey [7] of UK academics revealed seven major themes: the dominance and brutality of metrics; excessive workload; governance and accountability; perpetual change; vanity projects; the silenced academic; work and mental health.  These are remarkably similar.

I feel somewhat uncomfortable reading these suggestions about change since I am a manager accused!  My personal opinion is that understanding these concepts from positive psychology is extremely helpful and that anyone who is in a relationship of power over another should seek to provide autonomy support.  That means: to provide as much choice as possible and to give meaningful reasons if there is no choice; to ensure you use non-judgemental or controlling language and that you actively listen and reflect back that you have taken into account the other’s feelings and perspectives.  A tall order but worth working on!

Hangout discussion

The remainder of this hangout was dedicated to questions and comments from our 30 or so hangout participants. One of the main themes was that thorny topic of how we can put our own personal values into action if we are in positions where we do not hold all of the power: what do we do where we’re trying to influence ‘upwards’ in a hierarchical setting like a university, and how do we bring colleagues with us when we need them to do something which – putting it diplomatically! – they’re not particularly keen on? Caroline’s advice hinged on relationships: networking upwards to try to influence people (for example, getting yourself onto university committees – but bearing in mind that, if you’re going to be brave and persistent in expressing your views, you might need to put your own career on the backburner for a little while!); networking outside of your own setting to gather data in support of your arguments (how are things done differently elsewhere? Why would that work better that the current arrangements in your setting?); and appealing to people’s values when trying to persuade them of your position. If having these sorts of difficult conversations fills you with dread, you should definitely join us on 12th May at 1100 BST, when we’ll be hearing about the tool kit Giving Voice to Values (GVV) with Dr. Liz Curran (Australian National University). GVV exercises can help people to feel like they can have those discussions when their values are challenged, particularly suddenly, so do join us if you can!

Before then, we have our ECR session on 5th May at 1100 BST: we’ll be hearing from Linda Chadderton on legally-themed escape rooms, and from Rachael O’Connor on reverse mentoring schemes between international students and legal academics – please drop Michael Doherty (, Lydia Bleasdale (, or Emma Flint ( a line if you would like to be added to the list for the hangouts on MS Teams.

This blog post was written by Caroline Strevens, Michael Doherty, Emma Flint and Lydia Bleasdale.


[1] See Vaughan, S., & Oakley, E. (2016). ‘Gorilla exceptions’ and the ethically apathetic corporate lawyer. Legal Ethics19(1), 50-75.  Tang, Foley and Homes have undertaken work on ethical climate in Australia.

[2] Eldred, T. W. (2016). Insights from psychology: Teaching behavioral legal ethics as a core element of professional responsibility. Mich. St. L. Rev., 757.

[3] Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. NY: Oxford University Press.

[4] Keough, K. A., & Markus, H. R. (1998). The role of the self in building the bridge from philosophy to biology. Psychological Inquiry9(1), 49-53.51

[5] Sheldon, K. M., & Krieger, L. S. (2014). Walking the talk: Value importance, value enactment, and well-being. Motivation and Emotion38(5), 609-619.

[6] We have a number of publication resulting from our thematic analysis : James, C., Strevens, C., Field, R., & Wilson, C. (2019). Fit your own oxygen mask first: The contemporary neoliberal university and the well-being of legal academics. In J. M. Marychurch & A. Sifris (Eds.), Wellness for law: Making wellness core business. LexisNexis. James, C., Strevens, C., Field, R., & Wilson, C. (2020). LAW TEACHERS SPEAK OUT What do Law Schools Need to Change. In J. Chan, P. Vines, & M. Legg (Eds.), The impact of technology and innovation on the well-being of the legal profession. Intersentia.

[7] Erickson, M., Hanna, P., & Walker, C. (2020). The UK higher education senior management survey: a statactivist response to managerialist governance. Studies in Higher Education, 1-18.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *