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16 July 2014
If keeping up appearances means working far beyond the call of duty, never taking a lunch break or taking work home, then so be it. Stiff upper lip and all that, what?
You would think, then, that West Coast Americans would take the opposite approach to the work-life balancing act than us uptight Brits, and up until now it would seem that they did.
As the rules stand, members of the State Bar of California must complete at least an hour of continuing education in "prevention, detection and treatment of substance abuse and emotional distress". The latter can translate to 'stress management', and US lawyers can take part in up to six hours of stretching or deep-breathing classes in order to retain their licence.
At continuing education 'marathons' held on the cusp of the training year, lawyers who have left it to the last minute can cram in enough classes to meet the bar's 25 credit requirement over a three-day period. Reports describe how whole rooms of lawyers in business suits touch toes in unison in order to fulfil the 'emotional distress' component. However, Californian bar officials have now suggested that the emotional distress bit should be ditched after members complained that it had little to do with the actual nuts and bolts of being a lawyer.
While the proposal could be welcomed as a de-stress measure in itself if it relieves lawyers of a drain on their time, the fact that the regulatory body wants to absolve itself of the responsibility to provide stress management training is worrying. 'Emotional distress' may have little to do with lawyering, but has everything to do with being an employee in a demanding profession.
If the onus is on the lawyers to monitor their own levels of stress and those of their colleagues, the odds are they won't be as inclined to learn what to look for as if it was compulsory.
Although there is no equivalent to the Californian 'emotional distress' component in the continuing professional development regime set out by the Law Society, some UK firms are now including topics such as stress management skills in their internal training. Lovells, for example, has piloted a number of initiatives to boost staff awareness of the issues. Groups of partners took part in 'managing the pace' sessions, which explained how to spot the telltale signs of stress among fellow members of staff.
"We had our hearts in our mouths when we first started because they're such busy people," recalls Alison Jones, personnel manager in charge of skills training. "But it's gone down well."
Lectures open to all members of staff have been equally well received and a further series of talks is planned for the future. Offering practical tips on managing sleep levels, taking breaks and how to unwind, the idea has been to allow people to "take away what is interesting to them", adds Jones.
As reported by The Lawyer's diarist Tulkinghorn, US firm Jones Day Reavis & Pogue has started to run lunchtime yoga classes for staff in its London office. The move could well be a smart one for the firm, as common sense shows that de-stressed employees tend to work a lot more efficiently than those coiled up spring-like with tension.
Stress-reduction measures are also good for business. Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive reveal that as many as one in five people are suffering from high levels of work-related stress. This results in the loss of approximately 6.7 million working days a year at a cost to society of almost £3.8bn.
Law is pipped to the title of 'Most Stressful Profession' by teaching and nursing, but there is little doubt that the profession's high-powered, long-hours, no-complaints culture means that many lawyers may be suffering in silence.
Certainly, over two-thirds of the calls received by LawCare, a charity backed by the Bar Council and the Law Societies of England and Scotland, are from lawyers suffering from what they describe as "intolerable stress". Workload, bullying and harassment, inadequate training and supervision - particularly among trainees - are said to be common causes of stress among lawyers.
LawCare chief executive Barry Pritchard says awareness is improving but admits that there is "a long way to go before all firms recognise their responsibility to the partners and the staff."
Stress management may be classed as a 'soft skill' in training terms, but recognising its importance does not necessarily mean that you are a softie.