COVID-19 and the upheaval surrounding it has overshadowed many other aspects of 2020, but has highlighted the importance of stress management and understanding the causes of stress.
While some of these causes recede while we are predominantly working from home (such as direct exposure to bullying and sexual harassment – a recognised issue in some legal workplaces), some remain unaffected or are even exacerbated. Working from home long-term also poses new challenges (I cover some of these in free-to-view Practical Law videos on self-leadership and legal team leadership during a pandemic).
Earlier in 2020, I worked with Practical Law to conduct a survey investigating the causes of stress in UK in-house lawyers. I wanted to test two hypotheses that I had formulated over the course of 15 years spent working with lawyers, namely that:
- In-house law is a more stressful environment than law practised by lawyers in law firms (what I call “business law”), contrary to what is often believed.
- There is a gender angle to the question of stress which has been ignored to-date, in that female lawyers are typically under more stress than their male counterparts, wherever they practise.
Comparing the results of this survey with those from previous surveys that focused on Swedish lawyers has been illuminating and challenges those hypotheses’ validity in the UK to some extent.
Is in-house law more stressful than private practice? Survey says: no
One of the reasons often cited for lawyers’ high stress levels is the long hours culture. It is often argued that, while in-house lawyers may not be as subject to the scourge of presenteeism as private practice lawyers, they are still in thrall to their mobile devices around the clock.
However, the survey results indicate that UK in-house lawyers work shorter hours than “business” lawyers (at least those based in Sweden), even when hours “outside the office” are included in the definition of working hours.
After all, when we think about work, or check work-related email when we are watching TV with our family, we are at work. Work-related stress is a state of mind, not a time and a place. You can be at the office on Monday morning without experiencing stress, or you can be unable to sleep at night on holiday because of some unfinished business on your desk.
In my research, I ask respondents to agree or disagree with two statements to assess this aspect of working in the law:
- During non-office hours, I often check my work-related email.
- During non-office hours, I check my work-related email more often than I need to.
The first statement is arguably flawed because, for example, you may work in M&A with transactions in other time zones and have to be on alert for emails during odd hours. However, the second statement homes in on an individual’s own responsibility not to check emails unduly.
In a national study of 1800 Swedish lawyers in all types of practices that I conducted in 2017, 69% agreed with the first statement, and 59% agreed with the second statement. Subsequent assessments in Swedish law firms are typically in line with these figures, or higher.
By contrast, 54% of respondents to this in-house survey said that they often checked their work-related email during non-office hours and 38% said that they checked it more often than they needed to.
This suggests that UK in-house lawyers are under less pressure to be available during non-office hours than Swedish lawyers in general.
Are female in-house lawyers under more stress than their male colleagues? Survey says: it’s all about the hours (in the UK)
My 2019 study of 250 Swedish in-house lawyers found that:
- Female lawyers who worked longer hours were more stressed than those who worked fewer.
- There was no such corresponding correlation for their male colleagues.
- Female and male lawyers worked comparably long hours: 45.8 and 46.6 per week respectively.
This 2020 survey of UK participants revealed a different pattern.
In the UK, it was the number of hours worked that determined a lawyer’s stress levels, regardless of their gender: the more hours worked, the more stress a lawyer experiences.
An interesting finding was that UK male in-house lawyers worked longer hours than their female colleagues, reporting an average of 46.7 hours per week versus 39.9.
It may be that both female Swedish in-house lawyers’ additional stress and their UK counterparts’ relatively reduced working hours (with the potentially negative impact that this may have on their career trajectory when compared with that of their male peers) are due to a common cause: society’s typically lower expectations of their male colleagues when it comes to household chores and/or childcare. This results in lower levels of stress for male Swedish lawyers and greater flexibility when it comes to hours worked for their UK counterparts.
I should sound a note of caution here: gender differences in lawyers are typically inconsistent in research. In this survey, neither the sex of the respondent nor whether they had a partner or children substantially impacted on their work-life balance or stress levels.
What are the causes of stress?
According to these survey results, UK in-house lawyers work fewer hours than their counterparts in law firms, and it’s the number of hours they work that determine their stress levels, not their sex.
The survey results suggest two possible causes of in-house lawyers’ stress: one internal and one external.
Internal: maladaptive perfectionism
One way that in-house lawyers could reduce their stress levels is to monitor their own habits when it comes to working during non-office hours and to take full advantage of the relatively greater level of flexibility that their role permits. For example, they could reduce the frequency with which they check work emails outside office hours. I give a few tips about how to achieve a healthy level of separation between work and home life, even when working from home long-term, in my video on .
However, it is possible that they might find it difficult to “switch off” in this way – more so than their business law counterparts.
Although the responses to this survey were relatively few, they suggest that in-house lawyers may be more likely to display traits of “maladaptive perfectionism” than their colleagues in private practice.
What is “maladaptive perfectionism”?
We know from research, and our own experience, that lawyers tend to be more perfectionist than the general population. This is entirely in line with a personality matrix that combines ambition, competitiveness, and conscientiousness, and which drives success and efficacy.
A client will obviously want a lawyer to strive for perfection when checking a contract. But we also know that perfectionism can be problematic. It can lead to rigidity, overcommitment, and an inability to let go of ‘good enough’ work. In short, lawyers exhaust themselves with worry (did I send the document earlier today to the right person?), inability to prioritise (because everything must be perfect), and disappointment in themselves (because nothing will ever be perfect).
Modern research distinguishes between ten different types, or subtypes, of perfectionism. These can be grouped into two broad categories: adaptive perfectionism and maladaptive perfectionism. The former is beneficial for wellbeing and professional performance; the latter is detrimental. However, both forms are seen in successful lawyers.
In a series of surveys, I have been able to narrow down which traits are the most negative for lawyers. It turns out that it is not the high self-imposed expectation (the perfectionism itself) that is the problem, but rather the consistent attention to one’s own inadequacy (the “maladaptive” aspect of perfectionism).
The results in this survey suggest that in-house lawyers have a substantially higher level of maladaptive perfectionism than associates in law firms (when comparing with my 2019 study of 185 associates in three Swedish law firms).
External: greater outsourcing
Altering your own personality so as to reduce stress is not easily done. However, another cause of in-house lawyers’ stress may be more capable of remedy: securing improved service from external law firms could result in a reduction in in-house lawyers’ mental load.
In-house teams outsource their work for a variety of reasons (see Practice note, Sourcing legal services: the What? Why? Who? and When? of conducting a panel review) but outsourcing a piece of work does not necessarily outsource all, or even the majority, of the labour associated with it. While law firms may pride themselves on providing high service levels, the survey results revealed that:
- Only 60% of respondents would recommend their primary external law firm to their peers.
- 10% of respondents said that they categorically would not.
- The remaining 30% of respondents were uncertain – not a ringing endorsement of their current service.
A large majority of respondents (70.2%) said that they would consider changing their current external provider if another law firm made a concerted effort to adapt their services to better meet the needs of in-house lawyers. Only around an eighth of respondents (12.3%) said that they would not.
Respondents identified the following ways in which law firms looking to reduce the stress-levels of their in-house clients could help:
- Apply better cost control, and more innovative payment models.
- Provide straight answers, rather than pages of legal considerations.
- Be more commercially oriented and provide business-focused advice.
- Appreciate the importance of industry-specific knowledge – and be honest when you lack it.
- Ensure advice is ready to be shared with non-lawyers so it won’t need to be translated from “legalese”.
- Drive projects proactively, and don’t leave things until the last minute.
- Ensure draft agreements receive a “four-eyes review”, so that in-house lawyers don’t need to review them in detail.
Law firms who consistently apply these practices could expect to have satisfied – and less stressed – clients.
The results of the survey showed that diversity in their chosen law firms was also important to respondents, with almost half (49.2%) saying that they would personally give priority to law firms that are more ambitious in the inclusion of women lawyers, and only 15.8% saying they would not (although around a third (35.0%) were uncertain).
I should stress that the results of this survey were limited (58 responses) and that further research is required to substantiate these findings. However, they offer an interesting window on the ways in which the UK legal environment differs from the Swedish. They also give some pointers (some more simple to put into practice than others) as to how in-house lawyers can reduce their stress levels; a priority during these unusual times.
Thank you to everyone who took part in the survey. I am most grateful for your participation.