Do many law graduates understand the true nature of working in a law firm? I know that when I was in the midst of my law exams, the pressure seemed unbearable at times. But nothing compared to meeting billing targets and client expectations.
Like the medical profession, there is often an attitude within the ranks of senior partners that long hours and harsh workloads are part and parcel of the high remuneration and prestige associated with being a solicitor. After all, they had to do it, why should the younger generation be given an easier ride?
But have solicitors always been able to cope with too much pressure and too little sleep and family time? Or did they simply hide the damage the relentless culture of expectation caused to their mental health?
Recent statistics show 3,010 of every 100,000 workers in the legal profession have reported feeling stress, depression, or anxiety in the past three years.
The main cause stated was workload, in particular, the need to meet tight deadlines, and too much work, pressure or responsibility.
A survey by the Law Society’s Junior Lawyer Division recently found over 90% of junior lawyers say they feel stressed and under pressure at work, with more than a quarter describing stress levels as ‘severe’ or ‘extreme’.
High pressure, risky choices
Too much stress can lead to solicitors making decisions which could be deemed dishonest by the SRA. And unfortunately, the regulatory body is not always sympathetic. For example, in March 2018, Michael O’Maoileoin, then an insolvency specialist in the London office of Hugh James, was struck off after filing a misleading witness statement to cover up a dates mix-up seven months previously.
According to the report in the Law Society Gazette, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard that Mr O’Maoileoin, confessed he was under pressure at the time of the misdemeanour; he stated he felt that “everything was collapsing around me”.
But the SRA who were prosecuting told the tribunal that stress and pressure of the job was “an occupational hazard, not an exceptional circumstance” .
How can firms can protect the mental health of their solicitors, thereby reducing the chances of mistakes and dishonest behaviour?
Protecting the mental health of employees leads to a happier workplace, greater productivity, and staff that feel supported and safe enough to express their concerns, rather than trying to cover up the fact they are not coping with a particular client or their workload.
It is important to consider the culture of the firm, and this is driven from the top down. Like a culture of compliance, a culture of supportiveness and approachability needs to come from senior management. Corporate talk of ‘work/life’ balance means nothing if partners are regularly working 80+ hours a week and demanding their associate do the same.
There is a mountain of evidence available showing that exercise, a healthy diet, sleep and meditation can help stave off depression and anxiety, which can lead to costly mistakes and solicitors trying to cover-up these with dishonest actions.
Lunchtime running sessions, gym memberships, providing vouchers for healthy meals if staff are working late, regular meditation courses – these are all simple, inexpensive ways a law firm can provide access to healthy, stress-busting activities.
Long hours are part and parcel of law. But staff need to be encouraged to switch off. Again, it comes down to company culture. Encouraging staff to leave their desks at lunchtime to go for a walk, not check their emails when they are on holiday and take time in lieu if they have completed a major case or deal which has required a period of long hours, will lead to a culture of balance.
Finally, remember the elements of what makes work meaningful. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell illustrates that autonomy, complexity, and a clear link between effort and reward are the qualities required to make a job satisfying. Ensuring all staff members have elements of this in their workday means although there is pressure, employees feel they are doing a meaningful job, and this helps prevent pressure manifesting into stress.
Those who chose law as a profession tend to be intelligent, driven and have perfectionist tendencies. They can also be a ‘help-rejecting population’. Pressure and long hours may be ‘par for the course’, but this must be within reason. Law may be one of the professions tipped to embrace Artificial Intelligence swiftly, but at the moment, management must deal with human beings, and all their frailties, emotional needs, and imperfections.
Building a supportive, positive work culture takes time and effort. But it reaps dividends, not only in terms of productivity, but in minimising the risk of SRA compliance breaches.
We have been helping legal professionals with professional disciplinary and regulatory hearings for over 20 years. If you have any questions relating to an SRA investigation, please call us on 0151 909 2380 or complete our Free Online Enquiry and I will soon be in touch.
If you are feeling stressed, or suffering from depression or anxiety, you can seek help by calling LawCare on 0800 2796888, or the Samaritans – https://www.samaritans.org/.