Once upon a time…there was a generation called the ‘millennials’. The millennials were described as being far braver than any other generation – brave enough to challenge the status quo. They were not ones to shirk responsibility, but instead to ask for trust and flexibility (particularly in when, how and where they were to work). The millennials wanted to do meaningful work and ensure they were having a positive impact on their organisation. So why could they not live happily ever after?
The Junior Lawyers Division’s 2019 resilience and wellbeing survey found that 93 per cent of respondents (LPC students/graduates, trainee solicitors and solicitors up to 5 years qualified) had felt stressed in their role the month before completing the survey, with almost a quarter of those 93 per cent reporting being severely/extremely stressed. The survey defined stress as being under too much emotional or mental pressure.
It’s no secret that the legal profession can often be a high pressure working environment. A recent survey carried out by insurance firm, Protectivity, found that lawyers are the second most stressed profession in the country, behind those working in Human Resources. So has it always been this way or has something changed and, if so, is this change due to the job role of a lawyer now, the firm environment or just the lawyers themselves?
The main causes of workplace stress established in the JLD’s 2019 survey are client demands, lack of control and support, and high workloads/targets. However, all of these issues seem to be in conflict with the idea of a work-life balance.
There is now an increased interest in work-life balance and this is not solely from millennials or junior lawyers. Hard to define, albeit easy to see when it’s not there, the work-life balance is predominantly a subjective assessment. The commonality among those that try to explain it appears to be the value of having time to do something other than work each day. Further, a 2018 survey (Scott, Annual Salary Survey 2018) found that flexible working patterns were considered to be the preferred workplace ‘perk’ or benefit among lawyers. But if work-life balance is a subjective requirement, how can a law firm understand these expectations in order to ensure a policy that delivers for all its employees? And how should such a policy deal with and stop the 24/7 culture which now demands instantaneous response?
The word resilience has previously been used as something to strive towards – a resilient individual can handle stressful situations well in order to ensure a decreased risk of long-term negative effects on their mental health, as they have the capacity to recover quickly from difficult circumstances. However, more and more, it seems that resilience is becoming a dirty word, used to assert responsibility on the individual rather than to actually consider the working practices that might be causing stress or even mental ill-health – should the system therefore become more resilient? Surely it’s time to look at the reasons behind this stress and encourage the profession to change and improve these stressful elements by looking for innovative solutions.
One positive example we can take from the profession really owning this issue and developing resilience is the development of the Mindful Business Charter, an initiative by Barclays Bank alongside law firms Addleshaw Goddard and Pinsent Masons, to try and mitigate unnecessary stress for lawyers. The Charter is a clear and concise list of best practices covering commitments to building trust and effective communication, adhering to smart meeting and email guidance, consideration being given to the need to ‘switch off’ and implementing a best practice approach to collaboration, instruction and delegation. This Charter currently has a total of 20 signatories from both law firms and banks who want to change avoidable working practices which can affect mental health and wellbeing. The focus of the Charter is on improved communication, respect of rest periods and mindful delegation of tasks.
Perhaps if the system is continually striving to improve, the people can too and together we might see some light at the end of the tunnel. It is a highly challenging profession and no one is saying that that should change. However we should look for support in developing our own personal coping mechanisms for experiencing the tough days, whether you call this resilience or something else, so that the challenge we, for the most part, enjoy, remains rewarding and keeps our profession an attractive career for legal talent and the aspiring lawyers of the future.
This article poses a lot of questions to which the answers are still being tested. And so, perhaps, no story has a truly happy ending; the storyline just continues to develop, but hopefully, change comes about for the better.
Charlotte Parkinson is vice chair of the Junior Lawyers Division of The Law Society and an associate at Addleshaw Goddard