REUTERS | Eliseo Fernandez

Are you Fit for Law?

We all know that to be a lawyer you need to be intelligent and competent. As a lawyer your most important asset is your brain and legal training has always focused on the ability to think, reason and analyse. However, these are not the only skills you need in the legal workplace.

To be a successful and happy lawyer, you also need to be emotionally intelligent and competent. You need to be able to recognise and identify in yourself (and others) the emotions that drive your decisions, your reactions, your interactions with others, and how you feel about yourself. There is a large body of scientific evidence that supports the role our emotions play in everything we do (see Practice note, Emotional intelligence: an introduction).

Unprepared for the realities of practice

In 2018 we held a series of focus groups with legal professionals across the UK and Ireland to hear more about their experiences in the legal workplace. Several participants suggested that their legal education and training had not fully prepared them for the realities of practice. Lawyers spend much of their time dealing with clients, managers and colleagues but they are rarely given any training on the complexities of dealing with different personalities or on managing people.

Some lawyers will deal with traumatic evidence from clients but are unprepared for the mental toll this can take on them. Others may face high-stress situations, such as their first day in court, which can be terrifying, with little preparation. There are many other aspects of working in the law that can cause stress. For example:

  • For solicitors in private practice, there are billing targets and long hours.
  • For those in smaller firms or more senior positions, there are competing demands to focus on business development and case work, while managing and supervising junior colleagues.
  • For barristers, there is continual competition for work.

The status quo is unsustainable

The perception of a lawyer is often that they are tough, professional, resilient, diligent, hard-working, perfectionists. Consequently, lawyers mirror these traits, cultivating a professional persona that projects strength and competence, and they often derive their self-worth from their job. While this approach may be achievable when life and work is going well, it can be difficult to admit that you are struggling when things aren’t going so well. You may fear admitting that you have made a mistake or are feeling overwhelmed or burnt out as this may indicate a chink in your professional armour.

We’ve built a culture in the law where we all keep our head down, don’t speak up and don’t support each other. This is unsustainable. We will all go through difficult times and we cannot suppress our emotions in the long term. Our emotions exist because they are trying to tell us something, and if we ignore them it can be debilitating and ultimately lead to stress, anxiety and depression.

Emotional competence and professional resilience training

It is clear to us that lawyers need more support and training in emotional competence to help them deal with some of the stressful situations that they are likely to face. Following the focus groups, and in collaboration with academics at the Open University and the University of Sheffield, we developed Fit for Law, a free online interactive learning resource on emotional competence and professional resilience.

The first module, Managing and Understanding Yourself, helps legal professionals equip themselves more effectively for practice by developing key emotional competencies (such as emotional self-awareness and self-reflection) and better strategies for emotional self-regulation. The evidence-based course takes between two to four hours to complete but is broken down into smaller sections to make it easier to digest. It includes videos from legal professionals discussing wellbeing issues and a range of interactive activities.

We are also developing another course, Working with Others, and a toolkit for employers to encourage positive organisational and cultural change in the legal workplace. The resources are available to everyone studying law or working in the legal profession and can be used for CPD in some jurisdictions.

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