A top down approach
Pippa Allsop argues the case for self-regulation of lawyer working practices supported by a clear framework from employers
The Central Family Court (CFC) recently garnered a significant level of commendation when Judge Robin Tolson QC released a working draft of a wellbeing memorandum.
The document begins with a global statement establishing that the CFC values the wellbeing of everyone who works and practices there.
It then sets out specific guidelines – or rather, statements of ethos. For example, sitting hours should be restricted to between 10am and 4.30pm, with an hour’s lunchbreak between 1pm and 2pm.
Another (more universally applicable) issue it addresses is that while legal practitioners are at liberty to send emails whenever they wish, there is “no need to reply after 6pm or before 8am”.
The draft wellbeing memorandum is clearly a welcome missive for those who practice in the legal sphere. However, its remit is currently restricted to the CFC and specifically those who practice within it.
So it is unsurprising that when the chair of the Criminal Bar Association, Chris Henley QC, voiced his praise for the memorandum he also made clear his displeasure that “similar assurances” were not extended across the court system.
Echoing his sentiment, and given the guidance is specifically aimed at CFC court staff and counsel, there is no doubt that solicitors across all areas of practice (perhaps particularly in litigation) would welcome a clear ‘top down’ endorsement on the importance of balancing their personal welfare against their professional commitments.
To those outside the legal profession, many of the principles the memorandum enshrines would appear to be no more than statements of common sense.
Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. There are, of course, many other professionals aside from legal practitioners who fully understand the real challenges presented by unpredictable hours, heavy workloads, demanding clients – and perhaps the inescapable focus on constantly being accountable for your own profitability.
It is vitally important for the wellbeing message to be promoted across the legal profession. However, there is the need to be realistic about the realities of our profession.
Too often, unavoidable pressures require a work/life balance that tips in work’s favour. But does that always have to mean it is not possible to prioritise your wellbeing at the same time?
I have previously made clear my concerns about the entrenched view in our profession that stress is a given that we should all accept.
The question is, does hard work always have to automatically equate to stress, or can some strict self-regulation help to assuage the pressures which are often unavoidably created by our work?
Forced regulation of working practices by the employer alone may in fact lead to greater pressures. We are all familiar with the strains created by preparing a caseload in advance of an impending holiday.
Conversely, establishing our own boundaries allows us flexibility in organising the demands we face while also managing to prioritise our own wellbeing.
We need to accept there is nothing inherently wrong with being available outside of what have historically been established as the core hours.
In fact, many professionals need to keep hours outside of the traditional 9am to 5pm due to childcare or other commitments, meaning that the hours which work best for you from a practical point of view may often be those which are also most convenient for your clients.
This said, clear guidance around healthy working practices must be in place (and communicated) for people to feel empowered to be flexible in their working patterns and practices and to feel able to shut off when they need to.
Such self-regulation can only work well when it is underpinned by a clear message and framework from employers.
Fortunately, with the growing recognition that flexible working arrangements have proven positive effects for both employees and employers, so the proponents of such practices continue to increase.
It seems sensible to instil a two-tiered approach in tackling the issue of wellbeing in the legal sphere.
While a clear top-down message is essential to establish and promote a baseline of working practice, the rest must come from practitioners formulating – and enforcing – their own individual set of rules for their own set of circumstances.
Pippa Allsop is an associate at Michelmores michelmores.com