As 2018 comes to an end, there have been a number of cases that suggest the legal service sector is responsible for creating a stressful working environment. Whilst 89% of UK law firms have enjoyed substantial growth in 2018, 84% of the top 100 law firms remain worried by a shortage of talent in the legal sector. If the legal sector is going to continue growing, law firms should review their health and well-being policies to retain skilled staff and create a productive and hospitable environment.
LawCare Representatives have said: “We know at Law Care from over twenty years of supporting lawyers that the long working hours and competitive culture in the legal profession can lead to poor mental health, affect decision-making and lead to mistakes being made.
“Lawyers are often perfectionists and find it very hard to admit mistakes for fear of being seen as weak. The working environment in many law firms and chambers does not support a culture where lawyers feel able to tell colleagues they have made a mistake.
“We must do something about this, as the consequences of not admitting mistakes or trying to resolve them can lead to the end of your career. No lawyer should be working in an environment where they are struggling with the pressures of work and are fearful or anxious about talking to colleagues about it.”
The case between the Solicitors Regulatory Authority and Sovani James highlights how the horrific scrutiny from senior managers can lead to dishonest actions. Between August 2013 and January 2015, James made a series of misleading statements on nine separate occasions to her client and the firm in reference to a clinical negligence case involving the NHS.
Although Ms James’ actions were dishonest, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) found that the firm was a challenging place to work. During her time with the firm she was exposed to a monthly publication of league tables amongst the fee earners, highlighting, more than anything else, who was failing to make enough money for the firm.
In July 2012, Ms James was also subject to a derogatory email from a senior manager complaining about a shortfall of Ms Jones’ billed hours when compared with her targets for the month.
Similarly, a letter sent to Ms James in April 2013 forcefully suggested that she should work her non-directed and non-contacted time like weekends, evenings and bank holidays to make up the chargeable hours that she failed to achieve in her monthly targets.
Although there is no excuse for the dishonest actions of Sovani James, this bad, ineffective and inappropriate management pressure is inevitably going to lead to poor mental health through either working unrealistic and unreasonable hours or failing to achieve the unrealistic targets that are set.
According to the 2018 Law Firms In Transition survey, only 48% of legal service firms failed to meet their target for total annual billable hours. In fact only 21% met their initial targets, with only 19% exceeding their targets my more that 1%. 32% failed to meet their targets by 1-3%, with 12% falling short of their targets by around 10%.
Whilst it can be productive to run a business with clear targets, it seems as though the legal sector is setting unrealistic targets that cannot be met, despite the intense scrutiny that staff work under. 58% of respondents were adamant that overcapacity is diluting the firm’s overall profitability.
When firms looked to improve their profitability, 46.4% increased billing rates and targets more aggressively, whilst 53% looked at reducing staff.
LawCare Representatives have said: “These cases demonstrate why everyone in the legal community needs to take the mental health and wellbeing of lawyers seriously. The consequences of not doing so can lead to careers being destroyed and the reputation of the profession damaged. These cases have been devastating for the solicitors involved, their firms and their clients, and may have been avoided had these lawyers been better supported in the workplace and felt able to talk about their problems.”
A recent Legal Cheek survey of over 2,000 trainee and junior lawyers looked at the average working time for a firm’s employees in 2018. The results highlight the expectation and actuality of employees working extremely long hours.
Law Firm Kirkland & Ellis found that their average leave time for employees was 10.02pm, with employees spending, on average, twelve hours and twenty-eight minutes working each day.
Even employees at law firm TLT, who had the lowest average working time per day, spent over nine hours working.
One Legal Cheek respondent commented: “I go home just to sleep, I am in the office for every other minute of the day. That being said, I have only had to work two weekends over the past four months, which has been nice.”
When employees are thankful that only a sixteenth of their free time is disrupted, the magnitude of the sector’s unreasonable working culture becomes clear.
When asked about how law firms should consider the mental health of their employees, LawCare said: “Staff should be encouraged by firms to work healthy hours, keep track of their workloads and take all their holiday entitlement.
“Long hours can lead to stress and reduce staff performance and morale. Often long hours are unavoidable, but staff should have time off to recover after a busy period and not regularly work at weekends. Having the time to pursue the things we enjoy and spend time with friends and family is vital to wellbeing.
“Firms should provide mental health training for all staff and in particular managers so they are aware about what to look out for in colleagues and how to support them and to build an open and supportive workplace where people can be at their best.
“We also need to see a change in culture within law firms so we can talk freely about the stresses and strains of working in the law and learn from each other about how to overcome difficult situations. Leaders need to prioritise well-being at a senior level and do more to train, support and mentor junior staff.
“Firms should look at what is causing stress and try and make practical changes to mitigate these. Some firms are leading the way in this such as Foot Anstey LLP in Bristol, who offer their staff half a day a month as a personal day, recognising how difficult it can be to fit in errands or have some time out when you are working flat out.
“At Setfords Solicitors in Guildford, lawyers determine their own, flexible hours, with remote working from anywhere in the world. Firms should consider training staff in mental health first-aid, so they can recognise issues emerging with colleagues and signpost them for further help and support.”
Whilst some firms are beginning to consider the working environment of its employees, the current culture, which can be toxic, remains embedded in the psyche of the legal sector. It would seem that meaningful change should be driven through the regulators.
LawCare concluded by saying: “Now is a great opportunity to start talking about the role of regulators in promoting and supporting a positive working culture in the law and looking at what we can learn from other professions such as medicine.
“We call on leaders from across the community – from regulation, education, professional bodies and practice – to work with each other and LawCare to develop best practice to improve the working culture in the law.
“We need to take a careful look at how we educate and train lawyers about mental health and wellbeing and prepare them for practice, every lawyer coming into the profession should understand that there may be a time in their career when they may struggle and know where to get help. We need to pay particular attention to the needs of junior lawyers for supervision and support with making the transition into practice. “
Does your firm encourage its employees to work fair and reasonable hours? What should be done to retain staff and create a positive working environment?