Under pressure: when culture and values collide

LawCare recently published the findings of its Life in the Law research study. The study into wellbeing across the legal profession captured data between October 2020 and January 2021 from more than 1,700 legal professionals in the UK, Republic of Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

One of the key findings was that 69% of legal professionals surveyed had experienced mental ill-health in the 12-months prior to completing the survey. In addition, burnout was found to be endemic within the industry, with the average burnout score putting legal professionals at high risk.

An audit of values across the industry

If you were to look up the values of some of the UK’s leading law firms or barristers’ chambers, you would struggle to understand how the legal profession has some of the highest rates of mental ill-health and burnout of any industry sector. Many firms and chambers are keen to extol their virtues (read values) to demonstrate to clients, prospective employees (or tenants) and possibly even regulators, that they “respect” every single one of their colleagues. They pride themselves on “doing the right thing”; they value “excellence”; and they genuinely “prioritise the wellbeing of their people”.

What surprised me when I conducted a brief values audit across the industry was the consistency of the values and language used across different legal entities. Those values make good business sense and are virtuous human and organisational qualities to aspire to. Yet, if those in the legal industry were genuinely living them, I would expect the findings from the LawCare study to be markedly different.

The challenge is around how these values come into being, how they are communicated internally and how leaders live up to them; not only when things are going well but when they are under pressure. Often external agencies or PR consultancies are hired to help create a set of organisational values. This process will often include internal focus groups to help shape a core set of values. Other times, values are created not for the benefit of the people within the organisation itself, but for how they will be perceived by clients.

A failure of leadership

A culture isn’t defined by the values it subscribes to in its corporate brochure but in the behaviours that people within that organisation experience each day. It is relatively straightforward to have integrity, respect, a genuine concern for people’s wellbeing and a desire for excellence when the stakes are low. The true measure of an organisation’s culture is how it responds when the stakes are high.

While there are inspiring stories of organisational values shining through in challenging times, there are many more examples of values being jettisoned to prioritise other more pressing needs, such as client deadlines. Respondents to the LawCare study shared similar examples of leaders failing to:

  • Respect personal boundaries.
  • Balance workloads with the resources available within their teams.
  • Make time to check-in with their team members.
  • Prioritise the work-life balance of their team.

Those leaders who did take the time to check-in with their team were perceived to have made a positive difference.

Leaders require support to help embed values

To successfully embed values in the culture of an organisation, those values need to be known and, more importantly, regularly observed. For example, by:

  • Ensuring that everyone, including new recruits, are aware of their importance.
  • Regularly explaining them to people in meetings, town-halls and in 1-2-1s.
  • Setting out how people can demonstrate them in their everyday interactions with others.
  • Celebrating or rewarding people for living up to them.

The effectiveness of these measures, and others, need to be audited regularly to ensure that they mirror individuals’ lived experience.

If the legal industry wants to promote a culture of wellbeing, then reward structures and processes that actively discourage a healthy work-life balance need to be scrapped or significantly curtailed. Hoping that people will prioritise their own wellbeing, while simultaneously rewarding behaviours that are diametrically opposed to this goal will never work. For example, law firms basing bonus awards (and even promotions) on exceeding lofty billable hours’ targets.

Similarly, if organisations want to pro-actively cultivate a culture that promotes respect, integrity, excellence and wellbeing, perhaps those behaviours should be enshrined in regular performance reviews where people are actively held accountable for living up to them.

For those in leadership positions, it’s time to be honest with yourself, your peers and most importantly your colleagues. If you genuinely appreciate your organisation’s values, what will you do today to ensure that you live up to them tomorrow? The reality is that leaders need greater support in this area. Less than half of those in leadership positions who responded to the LawCare study said they had received leadership, management or supervisory training. Where training had been provided 89% said it was helpful or very helpful.

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