Posted by Brian Rogers, regulatory director at Legal Futures Associate Access Legal
For all the talk around wellbeing in the workplace, burn-out continues to plague the legal profession at an alarming level.
Every year, more reports emerge of lawyers struggling with heavy workloads and toxic cultures where long hours are seen as the only way to get ahead. One of the latest surveys found that two-thirds of lawyers have experienced burnout, and 31% say they do not feel their firm supports their wellbeing.
Many firms have made great progress in making mental health a focus to help retain and attract top talent as well as to support their obligations as a responsible employer.
How successful these initiatives are varies: even if mental health support is offered, the culture might be such that people struggle to ask for help or take time off to recover. What’s more, they may be reluctant to call out bad behaviour and poor working conditions because of concerns that it will impact their career, or they will be pressured or harassed.
The latter point is what the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) hopes to address in its new guidance issued to law firms in May.
On paper, it feels like a move in the right direction – with the regulator pointing out that firms have a “duty to act” if poor workplace cultures impact staff wellbeing and their ability to deliver a high standard of service to the public.
But, as always, the devil is in the detail, and it will be interesting to see how the SRA enforces complaints.
There’s a big difference between large global law firms paying salaries of up to £150,000 for new hires, and a small high street solicitor’s office. Long hours, including working weekends, evenings and over lunch, are common practice in many big firms, especially those that are based in the US.
There is pressure to see the return on investment of the larger salaries, so expectations can be impossibly high, which can create even more concerns around health, wellbeing and conduct.
Lawyers in smaller practices might not be able to command the same level of pay but that does not mean they are free from burnout too. Conveyancers who saw business boom during the stamp duty holiday were certainly putting in the hours – the question is whether they would have been confident reporting their employer knowing they might be easily-identified?
The factors that impact employee wellbeing – and therefore create a risk for firms – are wide-ranging, and the SRA points to bullying, harassment, discrimination and pressure to cover up problems.
It also says that enforcement will focus on the most serious or persistent cases, not necessarily each breach in isolation. Even so, it’s not quite clear when the usual pressures of law firm life tip into something more sinister.
At the moment, there’s a lack of direction on what would constitute an unreasonable workload, and what the penalty would be.
Another issue is whether there will be similar levels of protection for whistleblowers that we see in other professions, like healthcare. Reporting bullying or discrimination is clearly in the public interest, yet people may be reluctant to come forward if they fear their job or reputation is on the line.
If the onus is on individuals to make a formal complaint about their colleagues’ bad behaviour or firm’s poor work culture, it might be easier to turn a blind eye to it.
Cynics would say that wellbeing has become something of a tick-box exercise, not just in legal but in all sectors. While the Law Society exists to protect its members, I would like to see it proactively call out misconduct from firms and individuals, and get views from across the industry on the ethics and messaging around wellbeing.
Regardless of the new guidance though, every law firm should be constantly striving to stamp out poor behaviours and promote employee wellbeing.
The SRA urges firms to have “effective systems and controls to supervise work, and monitor concerns which may affect individuals’ wellbeing and competence”.
Good policies and practices, supported by legal technology, are the foundation of a healthy workplace culture, where professionals can raise concerns about misconduct before it escalates and puts firms at risk of serious allegations.