Building a Better Life in the Law: key takeaways

LawCare held its inaugural conference, Building a Better Life in the Law, at the end of September. Speakers and panellists from across the profession gave their thoughts on how to make the law a happier place to work. Here are my key takeaways.

Addressing mental health and wellbeing

The legal profession is often associated with long hours, overwork, stress and burnout, which all have a negative impact on lawyers’ health and private lives. A panellist described the culture as being polluted and contaminated with unrealistic demands. Fear is a huge factor too. Lawyers are fearful of losing clients and fearful of making mistakes that could lead to them being sued.

Nevertheless, there has been an increasing openness about talking about mental health in the legal profession over the last decade. Discussions about wellbeing now need to become part of business-as-usual activity and lawyers need to be able to talk about these issues without them creating barriers to career progression.

Leadership is vital. If leaders are talking about stress and wellbeing, it creates the space for others within an organisation to use the services available to them through employee assistance programmes. Digital channels (via chat or apps) have become more popular since the pandemic, while peer support via mental health champions and mental health first aiders can be valuable too.

For further information, see  Practice note, Mental health, stress and wellbeing in the legal profession: an introduction.

COVID-19: the same storm but in different boats

According to one panellist, many organisations have “no social glue” due to a deterioration in inter-personal relationships created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawyers feel isolated working behind screens at home, are finding it difficult to build relationships and are missing informal chats with colleagues. Middle managers are suffering particularly badly as they are being asked to manage wellbeing, mentoring and onboarding new starters in a new hybrid working world.

At the same time, COVID-19 provided many with the opportunity to re-evaluate their professional lives. Having always strived for “more”, some lawyers have decided that they have “enough” and have altered their working lives accordingly. These reassessments are making it even tougher to recruit and retain candidates in a profession that needs to attract the brightest and the best.

Taking accountability for your boundaries

Several panellists referred to the pressure to “always be on”. Technology has blurred the boundaries between work and home and increased expectations that lawyers should always be contactable (a trend exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic). Coping is a badge of pride and there is pressure to carry on when perhaps you should not.

It’s vital to establish clear boundaries with clients and learn to say “no” if your caseload is full, which one panellist referred to as “the dignity of truth”. Lawyers need to recognise the value of setting healthy boundaries; something that is not taught at law school or within law firms.

For further information, see Blog post, Five ways to set and maintain boundaries at work.

Cracking down on bad behaviour

The psychologist John Amaechi suggests that a company’s culture is defined by “the worst behaviour tolerated”. If racist or homophobic behaviour is left unchallenged, it will ultimately have a corrosive effect on an organisation. Smaller things can have a negative impact too. For example:

  • Repeatedly ignoring emails from junior colleagues.
  • Failing to address unacceptable behaviour by clients.
  • Talking over colleagues in meetings.

Although culture cannot be regulated, a poor culture can create problems that end up with the regulator. For example:

  • Unethical behaviour.
  • Poor standards of service.
  • Information security errors.

Organisations need to encourage a “speak up” culture so that problems are addressed quickly and avoid reaching the regulator. Swift action is therefore required on any examples of:

  • Bullying.
  • Harassment.
  • Discrimination.

Culture is not a mission statement

Rather than being top-down, an organisation’s culture is defined by the everyday interactions between individuals. Even small initiatives can help improve the culture for the better. For example:

  • Taking time to connect with colleagues in person.
  • Being curious about colleagues by asking about their families or lives outside work.
  • Having regular informal catch ups with colleagues over coffee.

The legal profession is often perceived as risk averse, which can act as a brake on innovation. A culture of psychological safety can help legal teams overcome the fear of trying new things and give space to individuals to learn from mistakes. For further information, see Blog post, CLOC: building resilient teams.

Although the legal profession has good people, it suffers from poor practices. Good management can help improve the culture. Organisations need to prioritise protecting and supporting their staff, with one panellist highlighting “pulse” surveys that can be used to find out how staff are feeling. Investing in management training can help improve risk management and productivity too.

Improving diversity, equity and inclusion

Welcoming diverse talent into an organisation is a good first step to improving diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) but retaining that talent remains difficult. A culture will only be inclusive if it keeps the diverse talent that it hires. Organisations need to identify barriers and blockers to retention.

DEI initiatives require buy-in from senior management to avoid them descending into a “tick-box” exercise. Organisations should instead focus on tangible changes and avoid making pledges, unless they can be delivered. Off the shelf training does not work (for example, a one-hour lunchtime session on breaking unconscious bias will not change the culture of an organisation).

According to one panellist, a traditional mindset in certain areas of the legal profession makes improving DEI difficult. At the bar, work is typically allocated either via clerks or silks and they often recruit people in their own image. Connections continue to be made in the pub or at sporting fixtures. Law firms and in-house legal teams can help lead change by demanding diverse panels.

For further information, see Practice note, Strategies for improving diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal industry.

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