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The legal profession is well known to be a high-pressured and intense environment. Lawyers at top firms can expect to average 14-hour workdays and thanks to a record-breaking period for deals, private equity firms experiencing their busiest six months ever in the first half of this year and crisis-hit clients due to the pandemic seeking advice, lawyers are currently busier than ever.

With all this, it’s unsurprising that a toll is taken on the wellbeing of the individuals involved. We’ve all heard that cases of burnout are growing and it seems that every day new ideas of how to tackle it are coming out. But are these really making a difference?

Firstly, it’s important to understand what burnout really is, as it’s not simply interchangeable with general stress. There are six core causes of burnout:

  • Lack of autonomy over how and when you perform your work tasks
  • High workload and work pressure, particularly in combination with too few resources
  • Lack of leader or colleague support and missing a sense of belonging or community at work
  • Unfairness – experiencing favouritism, arbitrary decision-making, lack of transparency
  • Values disconnect – what you find important about work does not match the environment in which you work
  • Lack of recognition – little to no feedback

How does burnout affect lawyers?

According to a recent report by LawCare – a legal mental health charity – the majority of the lawyers it surveyed in the UK said they had experienced mental ill-health, either clinically or self-diagnosed, in the 12 months to early 2021. Conditions reported included low mood, anxiety and depression.

New research has also found that two thirds of lawyers feel their job has had a detrimental impact on both their mental and physical health. Most respondents reported working between one and ten hours of overtime per week, with poor work-life balance being cited as the top reason for quitting the profession.

The most affected were younger lawyers, who often have less space to work in at home and feel less financial and job security compared with more senior colleagues. According to LawCare, those aged between 26 and 35 displayed the highest burnout scores and they also reported the lowest autonomy and highest work intensity scores.

The new research also found a staggering 92% of lawyers had experienced stress or burnout as a direct result of their job, while a little over a quarter admitted to suffering these daily.

What are firms doing?

Soaring demand for legal services has led to a mental health crisis among lawyers and a boom in wellness schemes offered by law firms, but a recent study has reported that fewer than a quarter of the lawyers that suffer with burnout feel supported by their law firms. Offering a gym membership, lunchtime yoga and healthy food in the canteen just isn’t enough. Campaigners say such policies are “sticking plasters” designed to cover a legal sector obsession with “presenteeism” and the culture in law firms that favours working long hours to prove your worth as opposed to being efficient and getting out the door. This “face-time” culture needs to be addressed from the top downwards.

What can be done?

If you are not supporting the wellbeing of your employees, your business will almost certainly see a negative impact on talent retention and the ability of your teams to work effectively. While it’s unlikely that the legal profession will change its demanding nature any time soon and company-wide policy is a slow beast to change, that doesn’t mean that you can’t take positive, personal steps now to improve the experience and feelings of appreciation of those around you. Consider the following:

  • Modelling corporate values and addressing violations of them consistently
  • Seeking out contributions and ideas from all team members
  • Prioritising small, attentive courtesies (I call them “you matter cues”) by acknowledging someone’s presence in your physical space or on a Zoom meeting, calling people by name, pronouncing names correctly, and asking about team needs and challenges
  • Being as transparent as possible – at a minimum, providing updates on any major changes to policies, goals, or processes
  • Listening to understand, which involves asking lots of questions and displaying “humble curiosity.” Some good conversation starters include, “I’m curious about…” “Help me understand…” and “Tell me more about….”
  • Celebrating progress by reminding the team of the exceedingly small wins and successes that are experienced on a regular basis
  • Sharing stories of a personal nature, such as a time when you overcame a tough work challenge, then encouraging others to do so as well

These are just some ideas to get you started – I’d love to hear about any more suggestions you might have.

Posted 17/06/2022 By Sarah Beckett


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