The cost of neglecting mental health
By Jo Losty
Jo Losty warns ‘traditional’ firms could lose out on top quality candidates due to concerns over wellbeing
Professional services in the UK and around the world have undergone a seismic change to their working practices because of the pandemic. The legal profession, one of the last sectors in the UK to embrace flexibility pre covid-19, has undergone a transformation forced upon it by lockdown. Post-pandemic, however, there is a clear trend emerging that lawyers want to retain the freedoms and flexibility they have enjoyed over the past two years and that an emphasis on their mental health, family happiness and life outside of work is just as important as financial reward.
The sector has always been notorious for poor work life balance, high levels of stress and traditional systems and hierarchies, but it was always regarded as the quid pro quo for individual financial reward and status. However, we are starting to see a noticeable drain of top talent from major firms towards fee share and dispersed model firms that have different attitudes to working culture and eschew the traditional partner-associate hierarchy. These firms provide an independence-focused model where consultant lawyers handle clients, business development and their working hours without ‘big brother’ supervision.
While all firms in the UK were forced into a virtual or hybrid model by the pandemic, it is becoming evident that many are keen to return to old practices. Most of the major firms have offered some measures in terms of flexibility in a bid to placate disgruntled staff, but across the board it seems that the major players will eventually cajole their staff back to corporate offices for a majority of the time. If there is a policy around flexible working which starts to dictate days, hours, control measures and supervision, is this the level of change that both current and new generations are demanding?
A survey carried out for the FT Innovative Lawyers Report found 90 per cent of lawyers would refuse to work for certain firms, regardless of the salary offered, due to concerns about the negative impact those working environments would have on their mental health and wellbeing. The survey reported 38 per cent of lawyers think their working hours are unreasonable and 30 per cent would accept reduced pay in exchange for reduced working hours.
Another study of lawyers in the UK and Ireland by LawCare found a worrying 69 per cent of respondents had experienced mental ill-health such as anxiety, low mood and depression in the 12 months before participating in the survey. The report noted long hours, heavy workloads, billing targets and poor work-life balance are undermining wellbeing and causing stress in the workplace.
We may have reached a point where lawyers’ needs have transcended what traditional law firm models can offer them, while hastily implemented ‘flexible’ working policies may only be a sticking plaster post-pandemic. Lawyers, and the next generation of talent, are seeking fundamental change to their working practices to reduce long hours, alleviate stress and allow more of a life outside work. Consultant lawyer and fee-share firms, no longer the new kids on the block after proof of sustainability of 15 years or more, increasingly represent an attractive destination for the talent from traditional firms, offering lawyers freedom from layers of management, targets and policies without compromise on financial reward.
The emphasis on billing targets is one that causes so much pressure within the profession at a cost to the mental health of many lawyers. In comparison, new-model firms consistently score highly on happiness because lawyers are free to determine their own personal objectives, financial and otherwise, and enjoy a plethora of work life balance benefits and the healthier, micromanagement free culture they provide.
At consultant lawyer firms, lawyers benefit from a larger share of the fees billed, set their own fee structures and have control over the hours they work and the clients they take on. This allows them to engage in work they find meaningful, which leads to more motivation, and, arguably, a more mutually supportive client relationship.
Lawyers can plan their days as they wish and work from where they choose – often having the option of working at home, remotely or at modern office networks –- and spend time with their families more freely and without guilt. Most importantly, these law firms remove management, reporting and administrative barriers, allowing lawyers to focus 100 per cent on their clients, and foster a collegiate and team-focused approach, incentivising internal referrals and providing just the same opportunities for networking and events.
The legal sector is experiencing a radical shift. Lawyers have had a taste of freedom thanks to the pandemic, but that door is slowly being closed by management directives that enthusiastically remind them how great ‘normality’ was. Unhappiness with the traditional model is nothing new and lawyers’ discontent over their working practices simmered under the surface long before the pandemic. For many, covid-19 was the first glimpse of a legal industry that allowed lawyers to live a life outside of their jobs and continue to return profits. It is no wonder those who realised they can have the best of both worlds are keen to find firms that align with their values.
Traditional firms can no longer rely on their names and deep pockets to retain top notch legal talent – they must drastically rethink the way they work. Increasingly, law graduates clearly see work-life balance as a non-negotiable factor in their career choices, and an expectation that the recruitment and retention strategies and firm culture will focus on reducing stress and supporting mental wellbeing. A survey of 3000 lawyers by The International Bar Association found 71 per cent of those under 25 were likely to consider leaving their jobs due to work-life balance concerns, so the ramifications are significant for firms who do not share the values of the next generation of talent looking to enter the profession.
Covid-19 has taken a sledgehammer to the old ways of working, but the gains of the pandemic are under threat of erosion. From investment banking to private equity to consulting, white collar workers are putting their mental health and wellbeing at the top of the pyramid of professional needs. The pressure is now across the legal profession for more creative solutions to a problem that cannot be solved with deep pockets, but requires a fundamental culture change, led from the top, with values and a business strategy focused more on people that it is on profits, because the happiness of the former is closely aligned to delivery of the latter.
Jo Losty is the recruitment director at Excello Law excellolaw.co.uk/