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Hannah Gannagé-Stewart

Deputy Editor, Solicitors Journal

Why challenge is equal to work/life balance for lawyer wellbeing

Why challenge is equal to work/life balance for lawyer wellbeing


Kedge Martin explains why providing lawyers with challenging and rewarding work is just as important as letting them leave the office at 7pm

The last decade has brought significant and welcome changes in how law firms treat the work/life balance of their partners and employees. Happy lawyers are more productive and less likely to leave for a rival.

Firms such as Ashfords, widely considered best-in-class for work/life balance, understand that allowing teams to finish at 7pm makes the firm an attractive place to work and therefore attracts more lawyers.

Yet, the reality is that high-achieving legal professionals are as likely to be engaged by a challenging project as they are by the prospect of getting home early.

Those were the findings of our recent survey of 1000 professionals, executives and managers, which asked respondents what was needed to improve their work happiness levels.

While it may seem counterintuitive, the research found almost two-thirds (64%) of respondents were at their happiest when working on a challenging project. Whether the project is directly related to work or something outside, it can contribute to lifelong learning and upskilling, crucial for motivation and engagement. 

Earning respect from their firm and peers for their work was the top motivator among those surveyed, with 72% saying that more respect would make them happier. Validation, respect and appreciation are the foundations of emotional wellbeing and key to a positive workplace culture which in turn contributes to high work satisfaction and productivity. 

Sit up and take notice.

The risk is that, left unchecked and unappreciated, partners can quickly become demotivated – especially if they have recently returned from holiday. The back-to-work blues could either bring down the productivity of the entire team or result in the partner leaving for a rival firm.

Giving lawyers time to work on projects which enhance their professional development is the surest way to keep them in post. This means looking at areas where they can make the biggest contribution to the firm as well as gauging interest levels of the specific individual.

For instance, you may have a lawyer who is a natural mentor and interested in creating a peer mentoring programme for new recruits, or could speak about the law in schools, but because they are quiet, they often get overlooked for such opportunities.

There may be another who has a passion for networking (and is good at it) but never gets sent to any events. Or others who would like to help write the practises’ marketing material, but whose participation is never encouraged. 

Often the goals of your firm are closely aligned with the interests of the individual lawyer, finding that alignment and enhancing it is of mutual benefit.    

The added kudos comes when the firm clearly shows its appreciation for individual efforts, whether this is through a personal thank you from the senior partner or a mention in the firm’s social media. We all like to be acknowledged for our efforts, to feel useful and valued.

In recent years we have seen a series of top tier firms offer bonuses based on performance rather than the billable hours they have racked up. Just last month Simmons & Simmons hopped on the bandwagon by pledging to take a range of factors into consideration when handing out bonuses – this includes professional development.

This might seem like a quantum leap forward, but there also needs to be the right support structures in place so that the individual is comfortable with their work levels and motivated to achieve their goals. Being told that your bonus is based on your all-round performance is no good if you don’t have the time to work on projects beyond client matters.

Of the Simmons & Simmons bonus scheme, one associate reportedly said, "The bonus has now been made entirely discretionary with measures against things like recovery and pro-bono taken into account. Recovery is not my problem if a partner cannot scope a matter properly and most associates don't have time to take on pro-bono as they are constantly getting beasted in poorly structured teams." As a result, the associate said, the firm has “done a good job at disincentivising juniors". 

It underlines the point that while project work is great in principal, it will only work when firms have the structures in place to support that work. There will be lawyers who refuse a great opportunity to get involved in a new project for fear it will negatively impact their professional output but if projects are created through discussion rather than simply a task assigned, the positive benefits are considerable. 

According to our research 14% of senior lawyers feel unhappy at work; slipping into a work rut is not uncommon among mid-tier partners, who, having reached a career high, begin to plateau professionally. The risk being that they fall out of love with their work permanently – and become mood hoovers, creating a toxic atmosphere in their team and beyond. 

To prevent this happening, annual independent ‘work and life audits’ should be offered so that both professional and personal challenges can be identified, and solutions put in place. Revitalisation and re-engagement will happen very quickly if the right steps are taken. 

The focus on lawyer wellbeing is driving change through the legal profession’s working practices. Firms must remember that project work and genuine appreciation results is of equal value to a work/life balance, resulting in lower attrition levels and positively impacting the whole firm.

Kedge Martin is CEO of executive mentors Rutbusters