Dana Denis-Smith argues organisational culture needs to change to tackle the ongoing problems of mental ill-health, bullying and harassment

Are we surprised there’s a wellbeing crisis in our profession? Not really. And covid-19 has made it worse. LawCare argues the organisational culture of the legal profession needs to change to tackle the ongoing problems of mental ill-health, bullying and harassment.

A substantial survey it carried out last year found that 69 per cent of lawyers had experienced mental ill-health in the previous year, while 22 per cent said they had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination in the workplace. Nearly three-quarters of respondents were women.

Who is affected?

Law is a stressful career – we all know that. But it still has a culture with strong echoes of an earlier era defined by men bearing stiff upper lips. Only, ever increasingly, that’s not what the profession looks like. Women and ethnic minority lawyers are pouring into the junior ranks, while the older (largely white male) generation is retiring. Look at the Bar – the number of female barristers increased by 1,026 between 2015 and 2021, compared to 194 men, according to the Bar Standards Board’s 2021 diversity report.

It’s going to take bold leadership to make law firms fit for the future but, with millennials closing in on the levers of power, a new breed of disruptors is coming. Is the profession ready?

Our latest report Legal Reset dentifies four key ‘pillars’ needed to drive a new culture, namely: the need to practise with purpose; embracing genuine flexible working; moving away from a partnership model fuelled by billable hours; and driving innovation through technology.

A radical reality?

A new future is possible.

We need to work out why we exist. It’s not enough any longer to say simply that firms exist to provide legal services. More is expected of organisations, especially those that make the kinds of profits many big firms do. We have to reset the profession’s values.

This is not just about being seen to do the right thing. If working in large firms is to remain an attractive proposition to Generation Z and those who follow behind, it has to offer more than just money.

How we work also needs to be reimagined. Remote working has become an accepted facet of working life post-covid 19, but it is not the same as flexible working: the number of employment tribunal decisions relating to flexible working increased 52 per cent last year, according to the law firm GQ Littler, with cases often brought alongside discrimination claims.

Pillar of progress

Obelisk Support was offering flexible working in legal jobs when nobody else knew what it was. Before setting it up, I worked in journalism, an industry where the focus is all on the outcome, not when you clock in and clock out.

It is an approach that firms, with their focus on billable hours, have struggled with even as they have sought to build lower-cost offshoots for certain types of work – or just hand over staff on secondment for free. The goal is retaining clients and access to their more profitable work, rather than helping lawyers work in different ways and deliver what clients want.

We have to be more innovative. Where is the training of management to be able to manage a flexible workplace in a positive way? Where are the job shares and part-time workers? The compressed hours, flexitime or staggered hours?

Beyond billable hours…

The death of the billable hour has been announced many times – and yet it remains dominant. But it is at the root of many of the problems we have identified. When we hear Georgia Dawson, as the leader of a firm the size of Freshfields, talk about focusing on “outputs, not just inputs”, as she did in her Fiona Woolf Lecture, maybe progress is on the horizon.

The heritage wrapped around the law is one of its glories. It is also arguably its greatest weakness. Structures that have stood for so long are crumbling in the 21st century and we have to move on.

We envisage that the firm of the future will be values-driven in a way that supports diversity in its many forms and creates the platform for motivated staff to deliver for their clients. Obelisk Support was founded on the principle of #HumanFirst – and everything we have learned and achieved in the 11 years since has reinforced the business benefits of putting people at the centre of what we do.

Dana Denis-Smith is founder and CEO of Obelisk Support

Dana Denis-Smith
Trustee / CEO
Spark21