Small firm solicitors “highly stressed but enjoying their jobs”

Whittle: No proper structures in small firms to deal with stress and wellbeing

A majority of solicitors at small and medium-sized firms have high stress levels and most believe it is a “major issue” for the profession, a survey has found.

But the researchers said their findings showed an overall lack of awareness regarding “the deeper implications of stress in the legal workplace”.

They said 61% of solicitors had high stress levels, with 11% describing it as “extremely high”.

However, a larger number (82%) reported high levels of job satisfaction, with 19% saying it was “extremely high”.

A majority (55%) also said their firms were doing enough to help solicitors manage stress, with less a quarter (23%) disagreeing.

The LexisNexis Bellwether report, Stress in the Legal Profession, was based on responses from 176 legal professionals – almost all of them solicitors – who mainly worked at firms with fewer than 20 fee-earners. Just under two-thirds had either founded their firm or were senior managers.

Most respondents (62%) believed that small firms were better at fostering an environment of support/culture of wellbeing than larger ones.

The top three benefits of being a smaller firm were “ability to remain in control”, “better client experience” and a “lower level of bureaucracy/swift decision-making”.

Further benefits were “clients being serviced by a more senior lawyer, therefore better lawyering”, a “realistic charging structure” and “not carrying ‘dead weight’”.

Flexible working came close to the bottom of the table of benefits, with work/life balance in last place.

The top four ‘business mindsets’ cited by lawyers were all positive – with 54% describing themselves as proactive, 48% optimistic, the same proportion successful, and 39% “in control”.

Stress featured in fifth place, with 37% saying they were ‘stressed’, 19% cynical, 14% reactive, 9% ‘set in my ways’ and the same percentage isolated.

A minority of 7% described themselves as “stuck in a rut” and a similar number “under threat”.

Respondents were reluctant to suggest ways in which stress levels in their firms could be reduced.

The most popular suggestion, put forward by 8%, was ‘checking for stress/mentoring/health scheme’, while 5% suggested ‘more consideration for workloads/better staffing’.

Only 3% thought flexible working might be a good idea.

The report concluded that there was a “lack of awareness regarding the deeper implications of stress in the legal workplace” and an “absence of insight on how to improve the situation”, suggesting that this exposed a “fundamental disconnect”.

“A significant number of solicitors are stressed, but more seem able to admit they’re stressed than acknowledge they have a problem with stress.

“A fraction of respondents, meanwhile, can even begin to contemplate ways that the situation could be improved.”

Jon Whittle, market development director at LexisNexis UK, added that there was a growing recognition by solicitors that “even though I’m alright, others may not be”. However, there was also a “survival of the fittest” mentality.

“Some may feel that they had to battle their way through to the happy uplands, and although young people may find it very difficult, that is the nature of the job.”

Mr Whittle said there were “no proper structures” in small firms to deal with stress and wellbeing, and that the fact that most firms were thriving was a disincentive to do much about the problem.

He said the low level of interest in flexible working may reflect a generation who had come of age in a previous era and still saw it as “anathema”.

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