Oh no, you think, not another article about the damage the older generation is doing to the workplace – are we really that bad? This isn’t an attack on those in the legal profession who aren’t a Millennial or part of Generation Z. But there’s been a lot of discussion recently about how the modern workplace is impacting younger lawyers, and whether it’s fit for purpose.
The way we work has never been more transparent, nor has there been as much support and awareness of how the workplace affects employees.
In January, findings emerged from LawCare (a charity that offers a helpline service to the legal profession) that showed a majority of calls related to stress, depression and anxiety. Almost half (48%) of those calls were from trainee solicitors.
The charity’s chief executive, Elizabeth Rimmer, said: “We remain increasingly concerned about the long hours and heavy workload culture in the law, which significantly affects wellbeing.”
Another distressing finding from LawCare was that there were 68 calls last year about bullying and harassment.
It seems clear that more work needs to be done to support lawyers grappling with these challenges and eradicate negative working practices, to improve mental health and wellbeing across the profession. Indeed, many firms are now taking steps to kick-start the cultural shift required to promote change.
The modern legal workplace is experiencing ‘teething problems’, to put it lightly. However, this isn’t to say that progress hasn’t been made. At Vario, we speak to lawyers whose lives are being improved every day by flexible working. This modern practice is something that has changed the landscape in recent years.
Even 20 years ago, the legal workplace was drastically different. The use of artificial intelligence was unheard of and the ability to communicate with clients on the go was limited to how much you could do with your Nokia phone.
Nowadays, most lawyers will own and use a smartphone to carry out their work, making it easier to pick up queries and action tasks quicker. Yet the smartphone being treasured as an extension of oneself is making it difficult to switch off from work.
This new form of presenteeism is arguably leaving employees fatigued rather than motivated to get the job done. University of Surrey professor Mark Cropley acknowledges that “this means they can’t switch off”, adding: “They’ll be in bed and their mind will still be on work. They’ll go round and round in circles thinking: ‘I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that.’ Then they go back to work the next day feeling more fatigued and more likely to make mistakes.”
He added: “By unwinding and getting away from the work situation, you become more engaged and energised.” Sure, overtime is sometimes necessary to beat the deadline, but working in overdrive on a long-term basis isn’t beneficial to the lawyers or their firm. It’s no wonder that the expectations around the modern workplace are leaving lawyers feeling stressed, as well as triggering other mental health issues.
You may have spotted there’s been an increasing spotlight on how we can create a ‘kinder’ workplace across all industries. And no, this doesn’t just mean opening a door for a colleague, or whispering a gentle ‘hello’ when you walk into the office. It’s about creating a culture where people thrive, feel motivated and supported by their senior management and colleagues – where empathy and compassion rule instead of toxic work practices.
The Mindful Business Charter has recently been set up by three of the biggest banks and nine law firms, including Pinsent Masons, to change avoidable working practices that can cause mental health and wellbeing issues for employees. Those in the alliance have signed up to a set of principles that includes respect for rest periods. But for those law firms not yet on board, there are a number of initiatives they can action now to create a kinder workplace culture:
1. Allow your lawyers to switch off: Your lawyers will come back with fresh ideas and better problem-solving skills if they are allowed breaks throughout the day, as well as time in the evening to relax.
2. Listen to concerns: Create an environment where all lawyers feel supported, rather than judged if they are struggling. Offer more senior members of the team training around how to support a lawyer, and consider joining with a third party to offer counselling to employees.
3. Consider new ways of working: Listen to your lawyers’ work needs – maybe they need more flexible working options for caring responsibilities, to work more creatively, pursue a hobby or an entrepreneurial passion project.
4. Hold mindfulness workshops, as well as training around neurolinguistic programming: These initiatives can teach skills and ways of working that can be applied during your day, whether keeping calm under pressure, or handling a problem in a considerate and polite way with other colleagues.
By its very nature, the legal workspace will always be a high-pressure environment. But the ability to switch off from a law firm culture may well create a more cheerful workplace and deliver increased productivity.
Matthew Kay is director at Vario for Pinsent Masons