Lawyers and students share unhealthy weight concerns

An obsession with their body weight and shape could be contributing to elevated stress levels among the nation’s lawyers and law students. Researchers from Edith Cowan University and the University of Western Australia found both groups were far more concerned than the typical Australian about their weight and shape.

As a result, they could be at greater risk of experiencing high levels of psychological distress as well as anxiety, depression and unhealthy eating.

The study also confirmed a positive link between frequency of exercise and subjective physical well-being that, in turn, is associated with "enhanced emotional well-being".

“Based on the results of this study, we suggest simple yet effective strategies law firms and law schools might adopt to support the mental health of their staff and students,” the researchers say.

More than 66,000 lawyers are practising in Australia, while fewer than 50,000 students are undertaking law degrees. Many more students, however, include law subjects among those they are studying for their arts or science degrees.

A report of the research, “Looking beyond the mirror: Psychological distress; disordered eating, weight and shape concerns; and maladaptive eating habits in lawyers and law students”, by NK Skead, SL Rogers and J Doraisamy, was published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry on 12 September 2018.

Some 430 law students and nearly 150 lawyers across the nation were surveyed to investigate the correlation between self-reported levels of psychological and physical distress and their concerns about eating, weight and shape, and exercise.

Although the lawyers and the students had similar body mass indexes (BMIs) to the general Australian population, both groups were far more concerned about their weight and shape than the typical person.

Many were also inclined to adopt unhealthy eating behaviours such as snacking instead of eating properly, or skipping meals altogether.

One of the researchers, Dr Shane Rogers from Edith Cowan University, said the law profession was widely recognised as a high-pressure occupation and it was important for lawyers and law students to take better care of themselves, both mentally and physically.

“Our results suggest that it may be worthwhile for many people in the profession to reflect on the way that they think about their eating and their weight and shape,” Rogers said.

“While we recognise that impression management is important for lawyers, it’s about being wary of becoming obsessive,” he said.

Professor Natalie Skead from the University of Western Australia law school said law firms and law schools must implement strategies that support their staff and students in making healthy lifestyle choices.

“This might include providing healthy food options and enough time during the day for meals,” Skead said.

“It is also important for law students and lawyers to make time in their busy schedules to exercise regularly,” she said.

The researchers say the findings of their study are consistent with earlier studies that found “elevated levels of distress” among law students and practising lawyers compared to general population norms.

On average, both law students and lawyers were well beyond general population norms in their concerns about eating, weight and body shape.

Between 75% and 90% of the professional lawyers had at least once in the previous month had lunch at their desk, snacked instead of eating a proper meal, skipped a meal, and used caffeine to get through the day.

Half the lawyers surveyed were frequently indulging in each of these behaviours.

According to Cathy Sherry, a senior lecturer in law at the University of New South Wales, Australia has an unfortunate tradition of treating combined law and art degrees as “a default marker of academic achievement”.

But this is not the case in most countries, Sherry says. In Britain, high academic achievement is associated with entry to the University of Oxford, Cambridge or the London School of Economics and Political Science, for any degree of the student's choosing, spreading bright students across multiple disciplines.

Similarly, in the United States, high achievement is associated with particular universities, where students enrol in liberal arts degrees.

“While all law subjects have a sociological, political, historic and economic context, students are not going to get a broad or deep understanding of any those areas from a law degree because the bulk of time is necessarily spent learning law,” Sherry says.

She notes that outside Australia, few senior staff in international firms have law degrees. Most have general undergraduate degrees, ranging from history and sociology to mathematics, although a substantial number have qualifications in engineering.