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An update on the ERF Mental Wellbeing Working Party

Thursday 8 September 2022

Reshaping the working environment within European law firms

If we held a poll asking about the quality of the working environment within the practice group in which you work, what would be your response and the response of the other individual members of your group? More specifically what would be the response if you were asked to rate this working environment in creating a high performing team that cultivates a strong sense of connection/engagement with co-workers and a shared vision whilst supporting the mental wellbeing of its members?

Over the last 12 months, the European Regional Forum (ERF) Mental Wellbeing Working Party has run a series of online workshops with academics and other practitioners to explore some of the evidence gathered globally on the nature of the legal workplace environment and the impact it can have on individuals, groups and teams. It is this working environment that determines how effective a group can be in attracting and retaining talent, and in building a high performing and resilient team. It is also an essential component in supporting the mental wellbeing of individual members of the team.

Some of the findings are set out below.

Findings

A common theme of research across a very broad range of legal workplace settings in various jurisdictions is that the workplace environment and culture have very significant impacts upon lawyer wellbeing and resilience. These can be beneficial impacts where individuals feel supported, listened to and valued and where team members are provided with the appropriate skills and levels of autonomy. And they can be an important way of building resilience and high performance both for the individual members of the team and for the team as a whole. However, there can also be negative impacts on wellbeing when individuals feel isolated, over-worked, under-valued and unsupported.

 The ideal starting point for talking about this research is the IBA’s 2021 global report on the mental wellbeing of lawyers. The overall findings demonstrated that one in three individual lawyers reported their work had a negative or extremely negative impact on their wellbeing. The average WHO-5 (the World Health Organization – Five Well-Being Index) measure of wellbeing score amongst lawyers generally fell within the category indicating ‘a cause for concern’.

In particular, indications of stigma remained around disclosing or discussing wellbeing issues and a sense of some law firms ‘talking the talk’ but not yet ‘walking the walk’ when it comes to wellbeing. Although the report was conducted at a time when the Covid-19 global pandemic was at its peak, a more recent international survey of lawyers by Law.com and ALM Intelligence found that 67 per cent of the respondents reported anxiety, 35 per cent reported depression and 44 per cent reported isolation. This is not a problem that is going away. Indeed, it is clear that post the Covid pandemic, there appears to be greater levels of stress, anxiety and depression within the legal profession.

In the IBA report, respondents frequently emphasised the fast-paced, intensive nature of legal work. While they acknowledged the stimulation, interest and challenge this could bring, they also emphasised that this could make the law an incredibly stressful working environment to be in. Aspects referred to included what the IBA termed an ‘up or out’ working culture, or what one participant termed ‘the hamster wheel life’. Issues mentioned included billing pressures, tight deadlines, large workloads, the sense of being on call to clients 24/7 as digital technology blurs work-life boundaries, problems switching off from work and an inability to take proper breaks or holidays. A lack of appropriate training for managers was also noted.

It is also clear from the IBA’s findings that the working environment within a law firm has a disproportionate impact on junior lawyers, women, those in minority ethnic groups and those with disabilities. The findings of the WHO-5 measure of wellbeing score demonstrated these groupings show the most consistent and marked differences in wellbeing. In other words, their wellbeing was consistently worse.

The survey data also indicated that many individual lawyers had good self-care practices in place. This issue cannot be simply resolved by lawyers developing specific practices to improve their own wellbeing. Many already actively focus on their sleeping patterns, diet and exercise. But these individual practices are not by themselves enough as they ignore the systemic pressures that can undermine even the most effective practices. This is not a case of individuals having in some way to improve these practices. Instead, it is about the structures and cultures we find in the legal workplace environment.

Certainly, the legal workplace can be high-intensity and pressurised. However, law firms can, and should, consider how to reshape the working environment in a way that cultivates. a strong sense of connection/engagement with co-workers and a shared vision, while supporting the mental wellbeing of its members.

There are a whole range of reasons why this is important. There are the moral and ethical imperatives – the desire to alleviate the suffering of individuals and the links to equity, diversity and inclusion discussed above. There is also a strong business case for doing so. The rates of absenteeism and talent attrition generated by poor wellbeing within the legal profession are significant. There is also increasing evidence that poor lawyer wellbeing can lead to poorer ethical decision making.

One of the big difficulties for law firms is in appreciating the scale of the interventions necessary to reshape the working environment to produce high intensity, resilient and engaged teams while, at the same time, supporting their mental wellbeing and ability to thrive.

It’s important to recognise that interventions may well be at different levels of the law firm. Some of these may need to be firm-wide, for example, giving line managers both the time and the resources to engage more effectively and consistently with team members in developing a ‘deep listening’ culture. However, others will be at the level of the practice group or team and some will be at an individual level, for example, in investing time in line managers developing a supportive and engaging ‘personal brand’. These can range from acknowledging someone’s birthday to ensuring meetings are scheduled in an inclusive manner.

One particular danger is that the firm individuates the question. The law firm seeks to take the individual lawyer out of their practice group context by providing self-help tools, which are of little value once the individual lawyer returns to their group, instead of rooting any interventions in their broader social context within the practice group and the overall culture of the firm.

Another problem is that wellbeing initiatives are presented in isolation with no real attempt to integrate them into the reality of the working environment. For example, the law firm may emphasise the opportunity for a sabbatical after so many years of work or shared parental leave entitlement, but in reality people don’t take advantage of them as there is an overwhelming expectation within their practice group that you won’t do so.

There is also a tendency to see only one ‘wing of the bird’ which is about mental wellbeing without focusing on the other equally important aspect of actively building competence and resilience and the ability to cope in a high-intensity environment. In many law firms, the partners feel the need to take up the slack if their assistants don’t rise to the challenge. In which case it is the partners (the ‘squashed middle’) who have to step in with a significant toll on their own mental wellbeing.

Therefore, law firms need to be clear about the potential scale of the interventions which may be necessary to reshape the working environment. What do you, as a law firm, want to achieve as part of this process? And how important is it to focus on the ultimate wellbeing of your team (partners in addition to other staff members), as well as their ability to produce high billing levels?

For many law firms (whatever they may think they are doing!), the wellbeing agenda is limited to providing some useful signposts in the event someone is struggling. Senior leaders may feel the need to prove a ‘business benefit’ (eg, increased profitability) to justify mental wellbeing initiatives and then back away from more meaningful change when challenged. As a result, the firm is unable to engage the necessary stakeholders. Instead, the mental wellbeing initiatives are handed over to a group of well-meaning volunteers and the human resources team to implement. The law firm comes to see this as an employee benefit like free gym membership with perhaps some lunch and seminars on different elements of wellbeing.

While the law firm may consider this to be a perfectly legitimate response, it will not reshape the working environment in any meaningful way. It also does not seek to engage meaningfully with the existing systemic issues that cause the risks of emotional burnout and mental ill-health. The old hierarchical structures remain in place even if there is some attempt to improve the awareness levels of the leadership teams within the law firm.

The alternative is that the senior leaders are able to clearly articulate why the mental wellbeing of its staff are a critical element of the overall purpose of the law firm while acknowledging that there may be different drivers for different parts of the firm. These drivers may include reputational risk, the recruitment and retention of talent and/or the importance of demonstrating the law firm’s credentials as an ethical organisation with high levels of integrity. They are also able to accept the potential cost implications of adopting this approach.

Adopting this more radical position, senior leaders can see the world, post-Covid-19, as an opportunity to reshape the working environment within practice groups and within the law firm as a whole. Under theses arrangements lawyers are given the skills and autonomy to progress while also being provided the necessary emotional and practical support (from their co-workers and line managers) within their groups.

Which path a law firm takes is dependent, therefore, on the ability of the senior leaders and other stakeholders to articulate why mental wellbeing is a critical element of the overall purpose of the firm. It is through this that they can justify the scale of the interventions the law firm is prepared to make to reshape the working environment to support the mental wellbeing of its staff and their ability to thrive in a high-intensity environment.

These are just some of the issues the ERF Mental Wellbeing Working Party has been exploring in these online workshops.