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Nicola Laver

Editor, Solicitors Journal

A profession under pressure

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A profession under pressure

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Nicola Laver weighs up the pros and cons of our connected world 

Back in 1999, David Bowie predicted with frighteningly accurate foresight the potential power of the internet.

Interviewed on BBC Newsnight by a sceptical Jeremy Paxman, Bowie said: “I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.” It’s just a tool though, isn’t it? Pfft no, Bowie laughed, it’s an alien lifeform.

Bowie predicted that “the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything we can even really envisage at the moment. Where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.”

Now, almost four years on from his death, few can deny Bowie’s predictions have come to pass. The ‘bad’ need not be stated here; the ‘good’ is that the internet has changed society and business in such a way that even our very means of communication have changed unrecognisably since 1999.

Today’s law firm clients can choose their preferred methods of communication, enjoy 24/7 access to lawyers, watch the progress of their case in real time via law firm apps, get quotes and pay bills online and leave online reviews enabling others to make an informed decision when choosing a law firm. They can sign documents and even digitally sign legal documentation.

While the internet has undoubtedly facilitated an enhanced lawyer/client relationship (and who can question the mutual benefits of that?), there is the flip side: lawyers’ wellbeing must be protected.

Whereas in 1999, most lawyers could leave the office and spend their evenings and weekends uninterrupted by emails, texts and Whatsapp messages; today’s lawyers could – if they so choose – be constantly ‘at work’. And the danger to us all of being constantly online or available 24/7 is being unable to switch off, both literally and metaphorically.

The risks to lawyers’ wellbeing cannot be repeated often enough. This was a key theme at the LawNet conference in November which attracted a record number of delegates. Twitter vice president Bruce Daisley warned, for example, that in this digital age, long hours kill creativity and cause a massive impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

The future of work, he said, is about humanity not modern tech. The afternoon panel discussion also focused on wellbeing with warnings that junior lawyers in particular are suffering mental health problems and stress.

The Junior Lawyers Division 2019 research on resilience and wellbeing revealed more than 93 per cent of respondents reportedly felt stressed and 48 per cent experienced mental ill-health in the month before they were surveyed.

Thanks to the smartphone, technology undoubtedly plays a key role in the stress placed on junior lawyers. This should prompt huge concern: if this is not addressed head on, the profession faces losing a generation of lawyers to burn out at best; mental illness at worst.

Managing partner Kim Carr, November’s interviewee, has a genuine passion for people and their wellbeing. Readers can see how she applies this within her firm in practical ways (yoga and fresh fruit, anyone?).

The lesson emerging could not be clearer: this is a matter of priorities. People must come first – then technology.

As a profession, we must look after our lawyers. By taking steps to protect their wellbeing they will be better equipped to look after their clients. And that is a win-win for all. Bowie was right about the power of the internet. Exhilarating in its potential but terrifying in parts

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