Are lawyers working well?

It is hard to imagine any lawyer working wholly in isolation. In fact, their working environment means that they must often navigate a particularly complex set of relationships. For in-house lawyers, dealing with different divisions or groups within your organisation, advising individuals, working with colleagues, leading teams and managing support staff are all part of daily life. While who you work with and how you do it will differ, the reality is that working with others is an important part of being a legal professional.

Mental health and wellbeing

Working with others can be both beneficial and challenging for an individual’s wellbeing. For example, for an in-house lawyer, there may be an expectation that you should fit in with a schedule devised without your input. This can lead lawyers to feel that they need to be available 24/7. At the same time, developing a good rapport with the people you are advising and successfully resolving their issues can be extremely rewarding.

Colleagues can provide a strong support network, a sounding board for ideas and concerns, and a sense of community. At the same time, there can be disagreements, tensions and a lack of basic courtesy. A particular issue highlighted in our research, which was published by Bristol University, is the important role of line managers and leaders. Unfortunately, law has been slow to acknowledge that being a good lawyer does not necessarily equate to being a good manager. People in these positions can lack the experience, training and support to deal with individuals in a way that supports and enhances their wellbeing.

The International Bar Association’s global study on mental wellbeing in the legal profession found that 28% of respondents wanted to see improvements in workplace culture based on mutual respect and that addressed poor behaviour. LawCare’s recent Life in the Law survey demonstrated respondents’ desire to be “heard” and listened to.

Fit for Law

We need to think about how legal professionals can work together, and with others, in ways that are supportive, collaborative and effective, and that address wider wellbeing issues within the profession. For those reasons, we have worked with LawCare to build a free online resource for lawyers that helps them to develop these skills (see Blog post, Are you Fit for Law? ). Working with others is the second part of the Fit for Law suite of materials. The topics covered in this part include:

  • Working effectively with clients.
  • Working effectively with colleagues.
  • Collaborating with third parties.

For in-house lawyers, this includes working with the different parts of your organisation.

Dealing with clients

There is an emphasis on understanding clients’ emotional responses to their situation and how this may influence their approaches, behaviours and expectations. We suggest that legal professionals need to be able to identify and (where appropriate) seek to manage these responses. This involves empathising with the client and understanding the challenging ways that they sometimes present, while at the same time maintaining your own healthy emotional boundaries.

There is a tendency to assume that these emotions only belong in domains such as family law and aren’t relevant in a corporate environment. However, every workplace involves emotions. For example, an in-house lawyer may be dealing with an individual who is struggling to meet a target and feels stressed and unhappy as a result. For further information, see Blog post, The importance of empathy for lawyers .

Of course, understanding emotions and applying empathy are not always easy things to do. They are not necessarily skills that are taught at law school and they may not be skills that you see modelled around you on a daily basis. However, they are skills that can be learnt and developed, and that is where Fit for Law aims to help.

Working with colleagues

We emphasise the need to understand colleagues’ emotional reactions and responses too. This means that all your interactions and work with colleagues will be influenced by both your and their emotions. Some of these emotions will be incidental, for example, feeling cross because your train was late or excited because you have a night out planned. Nevertheless, they may influence your attitude to those around you.
Other emotions will be related to your work and your colleagues, and being aware of these will help you to regulate them. For example, you may feel extremely frustrated with a colleague, but understanding why that is may lead you to identify that you both have different, but equally valid, working styles.

When discussing working with colleagues, we also focus specifically on working in teams, thinking about how to avoid conflict and how to manage it when it does arise. Again, these skills are rarely taught before we enter the workplace, but they are vital skills within it. Of course, legal professionals don’t just work in teams with colleagues. In addition, we consider ways of working with others, such as expert witnesses and barristers or solicitors representing other parties in a legal issue. We argue that emotional competence is relevant in all these situations.

Remote and hybrid working

The events of recent years have led to many legal departments and law firms embracing hybrid working. While this does not eliminate the challenges of working with others, it can mean that they manifest in different ways. A prime example is the use of email and the misinterpretations that can arise where face-to-face communication is not possible. Being aware of these differences gives you the opportunity to reflect on how to deal with potential issues before they arise.

Neil Graffin, Rajvinder Samra and Mathijs Lucassen co-authored this post.

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