Most UK lawyers were under pressure even before the pandemic says one charity
A strain on the brain: lawyers were under pressure even before the pandemic © Getty Images

Soaring demand for legal services has led to a mental health crisis among lawyers and a boom in wellness schemes offered by law firms.

But campaigners say such policies are “sticking plasters” designed to cover a legal sector obsession with “presenteeism” and working long hours.

Lawyers are busier than ever, thanks to a record-breaking period for deals on the one hand and crisis-hit clients seeking advice on the other.

Private equity firms experienced their busiest six months ever in the first half of the year, putting further demands on corporate lawyers already under strain due to the pandemic.

“The law industry has a horrible culture,” one lawyer told consultancy RSGi in a recent survey. “Firms talk about wellbeing but as soon as a client demands something all pretences of caring about employees go out of the window. No firm feels able to say no because another firm will say yes.”

According to a recent report by LawCare — a legal mental health charity — a majority of the lawyers it surveyed in the UK said they had experienced mental ill-health, either clinically or self diagnosed, in the 12 months to early 2021. Conditions reported included low mood, anxiety and depression.

The most affected were younger lawyers, who often have less space to work in at home and feel less financial and job security compared with more senior colleagues. According to LawCare, those aged between 26 and 35 displayed the highest burnout scores, and they also reported the lowest autonomy and highest work intensity scores.

Firms have tried to fix this by hiring “burnout advisers”, such as Charlène Gisèle, a former Jones Day associate turned executive coach. Gisèle, who suffered stress symptoms herself, says there is a “burnout crisis” among lawyers: “[They] are social animals and one thing that alleviates the anxiety that comes with working long hours is the camaraderie.” The loss of face-to-face teamwork during the pandemic and the onset of “Zoom fatigue”, is a particular concern.

Gisèle creates programmes for lawyers that aim to improve their physical and mental health, including their relationship with work. Such schemes are increasingly common among law firms, many of which are hiring external companies and consultants to run sessions and training.

Herbert Smith Freehills has set up mental health “huddles” led by an external consultant in some of its practice groups. The firm has also trained 500 volunteers from across the organisation to support colleagues, and confidential conversations are on offer.

Similarly, Hogan Lovells has hired external provider Leading Minds to run sessions on topics including building relationships, better sleep and eating healthily. And Ashurst’s initiatives include establishing a confidential mental health telephone service.

According to LawCare, the programmes that make the most difference to lawyers are those that focus on face-to-face meetings and support from managers. The charity found that regular catch-ups or appraisals were the most helpful kind of support, emphasising the importance of a face-to-face connection in improving mental health.

Two aspects of the job responsible for putting lawyers under particular pressure, says the charity, are having every moment monitored via billable hours and a firm culture in which lawyers are expected to be present or available around the clock.  

Elizabeth Rimmer, the chief executive at LawCare, notes that legal practices are increasingly introducing wellbeing support, including mental health apps and champions. However, she adds: “Although these may have some benefit, they are in effect putting a sticking plaster over a bigger problem, the accepted working practices in law that undermine mental wellbeing.

“We know from our Life in the Law research that the most valued wellbeing support in the workplace is regular catch-ups . . . time with managers or supervisors to talk through how matters are progressing and flag concerns.”

Gisèle warns that offering a gym membership, lunchtime yoga and healthy food in the canteen “just isn’t enough”. For her, “the biggest issue is the ‘work hard’ versus ‘work smart’ issue. It’s the culture of working long hours as a gold medal of stellar performance as opposed to being efficient, and getting out the door.” The “face-time” culture needs to be addressed from the top and the bottom.

“I see a number of partners who came to me after cardiovascular issues, strokes, metabolic diseases and early Alzheimer’s. This is serious, and it’s not just one firm to blame,” she says. Fixing the culture will take years “and a legal revolution”.

Some firms are now using wellness initiatives as a competitive advantage or a selling point to recruits, amid a talent war has seen retention and sign-on bonuses hit $250,000 at US firm Kirkland & Ellis — with a knock-on effect elsewhere. Soaring demand for legal advice in areas such as restructuring and mergers and acquisitions has created a need for more people — but just as burnout is causing attrition, especially among junior employees.

Gisèle says: “The first problem is burnout and talent retention. I get re-referrals from recruiters who are either sending me burnt-out lawyers, [or] wanting to know which firms offer the best wellness packages,” she says.

According to Rimmer, law firms must address the problems of long hours and insufficient support in order to stop making their lawyers ill.

The people in a legal practice are one of its greatest assets, she says. If they really want to address the issue of mental wellbeing, they “should focus on investing time and resources in training and supporting leaders to manage, and give them the time and space to do this well”.

Case studies in best practice

Researched, compiled and ranked by RSGi. ‘Winner’ indicates the organisation won an FT Innovative Lawyers 2021 award

People and skills

WINNER: Simmons & Simmons
The firm procured an app called HighNetWork that uses the positive reinforcement and indirect suggestion of nudge theory to help lawyers improve their business development skills. Employees use the software in personalised sessions comprising six-minute daily increments. The app uses gamification, for instance to encourage lawyers to talk to new contacts, and features a league where lawyers can compete for higher scores.

Baker McKenzie
As the pandemic eases, the firm expects that most of its people will work two to three days a week in the office and the rest of the time at home. Baker McKenzie is moving its London office to a more central location in the City in 2023 and the firm’s leaders have taken the chance to opt for a smaller workspace that will encourage collaboration. Instead of separate offices and allocated spaces, people will be able to move between desks and work with different groups but will still know where to find particular experts.

Trainees at the firm can take six modules to introduce them to innovation practices such as legal design and robotic process automation. They can also work on projects with real applications, such as a tool that extracts information from the UK’s official corporate register, Companies House, to use in company search forms. So far 80 trainees have taken part in the programme.

© Barry Lewis/InPictures/Getty Images

DLA Piper
The firm’s health and wellbeing steering group focused on the “psychological safety” of employees. The firm used surveys to identify priorities, including: personalised learning, simplified feedback, leadership training and retirement planning. The firm has seen a rise in the proportion of staff who say they have good access to learning and feedback.

Young lawyers are helping older colleagues to become more digitally savvy. The Spanish firm entered 60 pairs of younger and senior colleagues into a reverse-mentoring scheme to increase the older lawyers’ knowledge of social media, agile working and blockchain. By the end of 10 meetings, each pair had to propose a way to improve the way they work, such as by automating processes or increasing collaboration.

Taylor Wessing
Its early adoption of flexible working gave the firm an advantage when the pandemic hit. During the pandemic, the firm has welcomed the views of staff on its role as an employer, including fortnightly surveys. To improve diversity it used blind interviewing in its 2021 summer vacation scheme, which led to a 20 per cent increase in invitations to participants from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

© Getty Images

White & Case
The US firm has integrated Hogan Assessments leadership personality tests into a programme that mentors senior associates and managers in preparation for being made partner. Training has become more data-driven and personalised, and as well as professional feedback it includes guidance on skills such as stress management.

A pilot programme is allowing 50 of its lawyers to decide when to work at home or in the office. Focusing on tasks rather than how much time is spent working is proving effective. It found lawyers seem to perform better when allowed to manage their work independently. Office time is best used for collaboration and networking, and for mentoring sessions.

© FreshSplash/Getty Images

La Scala
Scala Società tra Avvocati renewed its welfare strategy for employees and now has a bonus scheme that marks personal milestones, such as marriage or children starting school. Efforts to improve diversity have led to women accounting for 38 per cent of partners, and 78 per cent of senior associates. The firm has also partnered with the Charities Aid Foundation to offer work experience to disadvantaged young people.

Vieira de Almeida
A “learning journey” programme has helped increase the number of staff taking part in personal development at VdA. Individuals decide the skills they want to hone, choosing from five general skills and another 17 that specifically relate to their practice area and to their personal development.

Herbert Smith Freehills
The NeuroLeadership Institute helped the firm design a training scheme for senior associates who are looking to become partners; 60 have taken part so far. Partners from across legal practices and business operations contributed to the curriculum and the learning environment was optimised using techniques such as repetition and imagery.

The firm launched a coaching programme to tackle stress and improve wellbeing, particularly among colleagues whose work means they do not regularly interact with others. Working with a coaching consultancy, the Changery, the scheme includes sessions with a coach, time off to think about priorities and assignments.

Using a survey of 100 lawyers, the firm has been looking at unconscious biases, working in partnership with Nudge Portugal, a behavioural science agency. It identified biases such as a tendency to give more weight to evidence that supports rather than contradicts ideas. The firm has shown the findings to staff. It is also testing a “pre-mortem” approach, where someone joins a strategy sessions to challenge ideas.

Morais Leitão, Galvão Teles, Soares da Silva & Associados
The firm used gamification principles to design a platform to assess job applicants in an early stage of the hiring process. As well as being more efficient, the platform helps cut unconscious bias by allowing applicants a chance to show their skills early on; it also tells applicants more about the firm.

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