Present tense: stress in the workplace

Long hours, mountainous workloads, combative cultures – stress is part of lawyering. But are firms doing enough to help people manage it, or is their talk of help programmes just hot air?

The law can be a stressful profession. This is no great taboo. Graduates are solemnly informed of the tough working hours. Trainees and junior solicitors are exhorted to maintain a work-life balance. The best medical provision is laid on at the top City firms to keep employees sound in mind and body.

And yet, there remains an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the way stress is viewed and handled within law firms. The news in April that Clifford Chance was considering extending its trainee stress-combating programme was received with cynicism by readers of

One summed up the problem: “The competition and the environment in law firms […] is so intense that no trainee, junior lawyer, associate and even partner will want to show a sign of weakness. If you do, you can say goodbye to good cases, and if you are a trainee, perhaps you will not even be kept on post-qualification. Instead, your colleagues will supposedly try to show sympathy while they are figuring out ways to get the work which was intended for you. It is harsh but, unfortunately, it’s the reality.”

Our sister magazine for trainees, Lawyer 2B, ran a Stress in Law survey in April. It is by no means the final word on the topic but is intended to highlight some of the pressure points lawyers face. 

Working hours

Of all the 446 respondents to Lawyer 2B’s Stress in Law Survey, just over a third (36 per cent) said they typically work between 46 and 55 hours a week (see fig.1).

table 1

A further 29 per cent said they work between 35 and 45 hours, while 20 per cent average between 56 and 65 hours.

Just over one in 10 respondents (11 per cent) typically work more than 66 hours a week, although only 2 per cent work in excess of 75. 

Is part-time working working?

Generally speaking, the longer their working hours, the more stressed respondents were likely to rate themselves. Over 40 per cent of lawyers working more than 75 hours per week rated themselves as 10 out of 10 on the stress scale (see fig.2).

table 2

The finding that the more hours lawyers work, the more stressed they feel is obviously not one of the great discoveries of our age, but it is interesting to note that more than half the lawyers working fewer than 35 hours per week rated themselves at least 7 out of 10 on the stress scale, suggesting that simply cutting down on hours does not necessarily cut down on stress.

A number of respondents who work fewer than 35 hours per week mentioned the added pressures that come with working part-time.

“I work three days a week,” wrote one senior associate at a high-street firm, “but the number of hours I work is actually equivalent to a full-time working week. I have a four-year-old child and eight-month-old baby, and the additional hours have to be done after they’ve gone to bed. So I work late into the night, am woken at night by the baby and have to get up and go to work the next day.”

“I’m trying to juggle work and family since returning from maternity leave,” wrote another typical respondent. “I am now contracted to work 80 per cent [of normal hours] but am still working around 40 hours a week (52 hours last week!).”

Some 59 per cent of respondents working fewer than 35 hours a week put ‘pressure to meet billing targets’ as a chief cause of stress, compared with 31 per cent of respondents working more than 35 hours.

US firms vs the magic circle

Received wisdom has it that the US firms in London are more willing to beast their lawyers than their UK counterparts. American firms counter that this is a myth put about by the magic circle to excuse the fact that US firms pay much higher salaries.

The survey suggests that, in terms of raw hours worked, it is the US firms’ story that has most truth to it. At the most junior level, more than half (57 per cent) of magic circle trainees report typically working more than 56 hours a week, compared with just 25 per cent of those at US firms (see fig.3). 

table 3

This trend is repeated at all levels of seniority (fig.4): among qualified lawyers 75 per cent of respondents from magic circle firms said they typically work more than 55 hours a week compared with 68 per cent of those at US firms. And some 46 per cent of magic circle lawyers typically work in excess of 65 hours per week compared with 20 per cent of their US firm peers.

However, American firms’ sweatshop reputation may stem from the fact that they seem much less concerned with paying lip-service to the idea of work-life balance. Some 70 per cent of lawyers working in US firms feel there is no real effort from their management to encourage this. By contrast, nearly 70 per cent of magic circle lawyers say their senior management encourages work-life balance, but only a minority believe they are sincere (see fig.5).

table 5

Causes of stress

Having too much work and too little time to do it in is the most cited cause of stress among lawyers across all levels (see fig.6). However, while over 70 per cent of trainees and non-partners cite this factor as a chief cause of stress, there is a big drop-off at partner level. 

table 6

Only 55 per cent of partners who responded feel they have too much work and too little time. Presumably, this is due to their increased power to delegate tasks to juniors.

The next most common cause of stress at trainee level is difficult or unpleasant superiors, with some 44 per cent of all trainees surveyed citing it. This gradually drops as a cause of stress as lawyers move up in their firm: just over 30 per cent of non-partners complain of difficult superiors, while at partner level the figure drops to 10 per cent. 

A more common issue for qualified non-partners is their work affecting their personal life. Just over a third of trainees (34 per cent) cite this as a cause of stress. This jumps to 42 per cent at NQ level and 61 per cent among one to three year PQEs, before dropping to 44 per cent at partner level. 

The pressure to meet billing targets and firm bureaucracy are both issues that gradually rise as causes of stress as lawyers move up the firm. Some 44 per cent of partners cite meeting billing targets as a concern, compared with 17 per cent of trainees, 30 per cent of solicitors under four years’ PQE, and 34 per cent of non-partner solicitors of four years’ PQE and over. 

Stress brought about by red tape and bureaucracy also increases with seniority, although it does not appear to be a major issue, with only 29 per cent of partners citing it. 

Happily, dealing with difficult or unpleasant peers is not a major cause of stress for the majority. At all levels of seniority only about 13 per cent of respondents cite this as a factor. More of an issue is overly demanding clients. Even at trainee level, where direct client contract is not always regular, around a third of respondents cite this as a cause of stress.

Among the other trainee responses to this question was the common complaint of unpredictable working hours – “quiet until 7pm, then a pile of work lands on my desk that needs to be done there and then,” wrote one respondent. 

At junior solicitor level, another common theme arose. Several respondents cited a lack of pastoral support as a chief cause of stress.

“Feeling out of my depth and lacking supervision,” wrote one; “inadequate supervision from above and being expected to fill a role much higher than my qualification year,” said another. 

Further up the ladder, “juggling work and family” is a common refrain among mid-level and senior associates. 

Another theme among mid-level and senior associates is being given a high level of responsibility with none of the rewards. 

“Lack of ownership from certain colleagues, including very senior ones,” complained a mid-level tax associate at a US firm in London, while “responsibility without the corresponding authority needed to get things done”; “not enough credit or acknowledgment for client wins”; and “increased demands contemporaneous with increased expectations and reduced resources” all crop up as comments. 

One senior corporate associate at a London mid-sizer puts it in simple terms: “Pressure to perform well and know everything!” 

At partner level, there were several complaints about “poor management”, while another theme was lack of resources, be that a “lack of secretarial support and poor IT system” or “support departments with a divergent work ethic”, as one partner put it.

A handful of respondents at several levels cited “solicitors on the other side” as a cause of stress, while only two mentioned “lack of work” as a cause.

Finally, just one respondent, working in the litigation department of a large City firm, cited “sexual harassment from senior colleagues” as a cause of stress. 

What policies are in place?

Just 17 per cent of respondents were aware of initiatives within their firm to help employees manage stress (see fig.7). A further 28 per cent were not sure whether their firm had policies in place, while more than half – 55 per cent – said their firm had no stress-busting initiatives.

table 7

The magic circle scores best for stress policies: more than 40 per cent of respondents from this group were aware of initiatives provided by their firm. In-house departments fared next best, with just over a quarter of lawyers outside private practice aware of initiatives provided by their company.

Nine out of 10 lawyers practising on the high street said their firms had no stress-management initiatives in place, a figure matched at small and boutique London firms. US firms in London also fared poorly: only 6 per cent of respondents in this group were aware of stress-management initiatives.

Of those respondents who were aware of initiatives run by their firm, 36 per cent had taken advantage of them.

The most commonly mentioned sources of support were counselling services, either internal or external, access to confidential helplines and stress management training sessions. Complaints about stress-management initiatives generally related to them being difficult to access, or information about them being difficult to find. 

As one respondent wrote, “We have a counselling service available in Harley Street; however it is extremely difficult to get out and attend sessions as firstly, the counsellors are only available during ‘normal’ work hours, which are near-impossible to meet. More importantly, there is the usual unspoken approach that if you have a pain in your body it must be treated immediately with all medical care available to man but mental health is seen as being a completely separate issue and one that is a weakness that should be overcome privately. People tend to trot out that old chestnut, ‘You knew what the hours were like when you signed up for this’ – frankly, this is a poor excuse.”

Stress as a positive force

While the majority of respondents made comments on the things that stressed them out, one did make the point that “some of us enjoy stress to a certain degree – for example, the buzz of getting a deal done”.

Of course, to see stress as only a harmful force is to miss a key point. Stress helps us get up in the morning. It is what keeps our jobs interesting and challenging. 

“The notion that stress is bad probably needs to be tackled,” says Andrew Kinder of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. “I’d use the term ‘distressed’ to describe a problem. That’s when your coping resources are overwhelmed by pressure.” 

Recognising that stress will play some part in your career is helpful, and knowing you can harness it and use it as a motivation is equally important.

Further results and analysis of the Stress in Law survey are available on

‘Bullying is becoming institutionalised’

More than 40 per cent of respondent’s in the survey cited “difficult or unpleasant superiors” as a cause of stress, and although this drops off as lawyers progress through the ranks, one in ten people at partner level still have a problem with it.

There is a difference, of course, between people who are merely awkward, demanding or socially inept, and those who are flat-out tyrants. But, says Hilary Tilby, chief executive of LawCare, “we get a lot of calls about bullying. I have had a consultant at a firm being bullied by a managing partner; I have had a trainee who shared a room with her supervisor and when he was telling her off, he would bounce a small, rubber ball off the wall above her head. It sounds funny but it’s not – it’s incredibly intimidating and very inappropriate.

“We have also had people who have been on compassionate leave due to a death in the family being harassed at home, people on sick leave being harassed. Sometimes everything is about ‘nose to the grindstone, can’t have time off’.

“Considering these people are lawyers and know what constructive or unfair dismissal is, they should know better,” Tilby continues. 

“But sadly, we sometimes just have to say to people they are going to have to toughen up or go,” she says. “If the person who is the bully is a rainmaker, and is more valuable to the firm than the person being bullied, the firm may not have the willpower to do anything about it. Realistically, the only thing people can do sometimes is vote with their feet.

“I suspect – although it is no more than a suspicion – that bullying has become institutionalised at some firms. I think some are struggling so much to survive that the care for their staff goes out the window.”


Peer panel: How are we doing?

Q: When and why did the firm recognise that mental health was an issue that needed to be tackled?

Nigel Jones, partner, Linklaters: The wellbeing of our staff has always been a priority for the partners and other senior members of the firm. A happy and healthy workforce has long been recognised as key to achieving our people’s and our organisation’s full potential but we have adopted more formal processes over the last decade, including creating internal working groups and partner sponsors. They have included my own appointment, as a senior partner, as a champion of the firm’s work in this area in early 2010, developing and rolling out a formal stress management policy later that year, and running regular awareness-raising and training events. Most recently, we were among the driving forces to create the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA).

Nicholas Cheffings, chair, and Susan Bright, regional managing partner for UK and Africa, Hogan Lovells: We have had in place for a number of years a wide range of wellbeing benefits, such as our in-house gym, GP service, on-site
occupational health service, physiotherapist, counselling service and employee assistance programme. And we continually keep under review whether there is more support we can provide. 

In recognition that mental health is becoming an increasingly important issue in the workplace, earlier this year we moved our counselling service on-site. This is a confidential service and available on a self-referral basis. At the same time, we took the opportunity to relaunch our wellbeing strategy by holding a wellbeing awareness week with particular emphasis on raising the visibility of mental health issues and to encourage a culture in which people feel comfortable discussing this subject openly.

Activities during the week included lunch-time talks given by external experts on a variety of health topics and visits from some of our health providers, all of which were widely supported.

Nick Turner, diversity partner Herbert Smith Freehills: Back in 2009 we started our mental health programme in recognition of, first, growing awareness in society generally and, second, the fact that the statistics suggest one in four of us will experience mental illness at some stage in our lives, either personally or through a member of our family or friends. This can also be more pronounced in the professions, with high achievers in demanding, stressful workplace environments.

Sarah Twite, diversity manager, Clifford Chance: We have been aware of concerns about mental health in the workplace and the stigma surrounding the issue for some time. We recognise that tackling stigma is one of the key challenges, which is why we are a founding member of the CMHA and a lead partner in SANE’s Black Dog campaign.

Q: What training are you giving senior managers in how to recognise and deal with mental health problems being suffered by staff?

Jones: We have provided training in this area for many years, at all levels; recognising that almost everyone in the firm is a ‘manager’ to some extent. These include sessions as part of the induction process for new joiners, regular training for different levels of lawyers and business services staff, training sessions by Mental Health First Aid England for business services managers, and new partner induction sessions. Recent and more formal examples include presentations by health experts as part of our roll-out of the stress management policy (initially to partners, then to all staff), a break-out session at the global partners’ conference in 2012 (at which a film about two of our staff members’ experiences was aired), a three-week programme of events (around our hosting of the launch of the CMHA in the autumn of 2013) on nutrition, sleep, maximising performance and other topics relating to mental health, including some specifically targeted at senior managers, and two very well attended sessions by a clinical psychologist at the 2014 partners’ conference a few months ago. In addition, in the last year or so, ExCom and IB have had sessions on building resilience, focusing on the importance of good mental health for leaders and for their teams. Looking ahead, we have events in 2014 covering mental health, stress and resilience in a number of ways throughout the year, all aimed at increasing awareness, and will be participating in the training to be provided by Mental Health First Aid England for CMHA members.

Cheffings and Bright: Most recently our partners in London who manage the practice groups and senior business services managers attended a briefing session on recognising and managing workplace stress, which was facilitated by our occupational health physician, Dr Gill McLeod of Rood Lane Medical. John Binns, mental health adviser, also recently attended a partner dinner to share his own personal experience of mental illness and to facilitate a discussion on what more we might do as a firm in this area.

We have also recently introduced a resilience element to our trainee recruitment process and are embedding resilience training in some of our key people development programmes. 

Turner: In 2009 we started with an awareness-raising programme for partners and business services leaders. This was run by an external mental health specialist and looked at common mental health conditions, challenging stigma and managing mental illness. We also published guidance on this and related mental health topics. We continue to deliver awareness raising training and supervision for managers and HR as advisers on cases of mental illness in their team with a mental health specialist. We are also considering first aid mental health training.

Twite: While our training on building resilience and recognising stress is open to everyone in the firm, we also have a number of tailored programmes for those with responsibilities for others. These include: the creation of mental health advocates, who are senior members of staff briefed on how to help our people find the support they need; a pilot extension of our Performance Optimisation Programme to help senior associates become more aware of and manage workplace pressure for themselves and others; and training mental health first aid for HR managers. 

Q: Where are you seeing the greatest demand for mental health services?

Jones: Stress affects everyone. It does not discriminate between lawyers and business services staff,
between senior or junior people, or on any other basis.

Cheffings and Bright: Our mental health services are on a confidential basis so we are unable to provide any specific metrics. Anecdotally, we understand that the take-up is varied, both in terms of the seniority of those using the services and their reasons for doing so. We think that sometimes particular ‘stress points’ may be aligned with career progression steps, so we are looking at ways to better support individuals through these transition periods, such as resilience training. Events outside of work are also a common trigger.

Turner: We have seen an increase in people being more open about it.

Q: Has anyone in the firm publicly acknowledged and shared their experience of dealing with mental health issues?

Jones: Yes. Two individuals allowed their stories to be told by actors, on an anonymous basis, in a film made initially to prompt discussion at the global partners’ conference in 2012. It was subsequently used by others in the firm to help raise awareness and prompt discussion. It had a very positive effect on all those who participated. 

Cheffings and Bright: One of the primary objectives is to ensure that we provide a supportive environment to both partners and staff and that people feel comfortable discussing mental health issues. If people feel able to seek help at an early stage, mental illness may be avoided. We have seen an increase in people talking about their experiences, which we believe is a good indicator of how comfortable people feel about talking openly about this issue, including examples of people discussing it with their line managers and immediate teams.

Turner: At the launch of our Disability network in April, members of the audience spoke openly about their experience of depression when a question was directed at the panel. Olympic champion Dame Kelly Holmes was on the panel and discussed her experience of depression and how a role model’s openness about mental illness can help to reduce the stigma so people are more likely to discuss and be open about it. 

Q: Who are your senior board-level sponsors of this issue?

Jones: Robert Elliott, chairman and senior partner is the main board-level sponsor, and our work in this area has the full support of Simon Davies, firmwide managing partner, and Chris Lynch, director of HR. Nigel Jones, a senior partner in the firm, and Kate Richardson-Moore, head of talent management and engagement, have day-to-day responsibility.

Cheffings and Bright: The two of us.

Turner: Ian Gatt QC was our diversity partner until May 2014 and during his tenure was a strong advocate of our mental health and wellbeing programme. The mental health awareness-raising training was supported by our then CEO David Willis and other partners including current managing partner for the UK and US, Ian Cox. As the firm’s diversity partner, I have identified mental health as one of our continuing priority areas. This senior leadership is critical in reducing stigma because it is seen to give the support of the firm in tackling mental illness in the workplace.