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How lawyers can operate at their peak without burning out

Global law firm Dentons has just appointed its own ‘Europe Chief Mindfulness Officer’. She will be rolling out a new wellness programme, which uses the principles of neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology to help employees develop emotional intelligence and understand the effects of long-term stress. 

Denton’s announcement follows a successful pilot programme which saw a reduction in stress by almost a third across all participants, with 75% reporting improvements in their social wellbeing.

Is the reputation of a profession known for a ‘work hard play hard’ culture beginning to shift? 

Greater awareness among employees about stress, coupled with a new generation of graduates unwilling to put up with the status quo, are seen as contributors to this change. 

But there is a still a long way to go

The legal profession – like medicine – attracts people of a certain type, and for good reason.  Research reported in The Lawyer suggests that personality traits common to lawyers – perfectionism, desire to win, desire for social prestige – contribute to the creation of a self-reinforcing working culture.

The financial security and social status can both be important (and perfectly healthy) contributors to mental wellbeing. In addition, when asked why they want to be a lawyer, trainee interview candidates will often say it’s interesting, stimulating, that they want to help people. And in practice, many lawyers find that the fast pace, intensive work patterns result in close, mutually supportive relationships between employees. 

Yet this year the Law Society’s Resilience and Wellbeing Survey found that 48% of respondents from the junior lawyers division had experienced mental ill-health in the last month. 

The myth of perfection

And that’s not surprising, when you consider that legal professionals are driven by a collective goal: always getting it right. While the reality is that mistakes will get made – this goal is a core part of the law’s self-image and working culture. This impossible goal can result in what psychologists term ‘cognitive dissonance’ – holding two opposing beliefs at the same time – which is a prime factor in debilitating high level stress.

The rookies

For many paralegals or trainee solicitors, it will be their first time working in a professional environment. As well as adjusting to the pace of their new job, they are under extra pressure as they try to prove themselves to their employers, to be awarded either a much sought-after training position, or a newly-qualified position at the end of that. 

According to Law Society wellbeing research many junior lawyers feel unable to raise issues with their employers when they are struggling to cope with the pressures of their role. Cast your mind back to your first junior role where you accepted work from several different members of staff, often more senior than you, and try coupling that with the entrenched view that stress is a given that lawyers must just accept. 

And transitioning from trainee to newly qualified solicitor can be just as problematic. The drive to over-prepare is met with pressure to meet ever-increasing billable hours’ targets. 

In fields like law and medicine, where the standards have to be so high, and the consequences of mistakes are so serious, it’s simply not an option to relax the standards a little to make things easier for staff. It’s a question of the industry, and individual firms within it, finding new ways of dealing proactively with the inevitable pressure and accompanying stress, in the new reality of the modern working world. Individuals also have a responsibility to educate themselves and to say when they need help.

Balancing the job with the stress management

Quite simply, law firms need to foster a culture where their employees are listened to and valued. Companies that place strong importance on the wellbeing and happiness of their employees are seen as better places to work, and therefore attract the best talent. Churn rate is lower, and productivity higher. With the annual cost of mental illness to UK firms averaging £33-£42 billion, the carrot and stick are clearly visible.

Wellbeing and mental health training

It is important to educate your staff about mental health, even if you can’t afford to employ a dedicated officer like Dentons. Teaching staff and managers about symptoms can bring problems to the forefront quicker and can address issues with management style which is reported to be the second most frequently cited cause of stress-related absence (CIPD Health and Wellbeing at Work Report, April 2019).  

But with firms operating on tighter margins, time away from fee-earning work is an important consideration for HR and training managers – which is why they need training that can be delivered in short, extremely practical ways. 

Here are some examples of quick but effective training courses that are designed for lawyers at any stage of their careers:

Resilience

Resilience is one of the key skills that enable us to manage the everyday challenges of work and personal life. When people feel disempowered and out of balance they are unable to think clearly or communicate effectively. We need to recognise the warning signs of stress and do something about it before it is too late. Resilience is about being able to adapt to changes or situations caused by stress and bounce back from difficult experiences. 

Managing for mental health 

Lawyers are not renowned for their management skills. Like other professions, they get promoted due to their technical skill and work ethic. Unfortunately, those same qualities don’t always translate as effectively when they become managers. This results in lawyer managers that tend to be risk averse, micromanagers who are more concerned with focusing on the task rather than the person undertaking it. More successful teams will be created by helping managers develop their emotional intelligence and relationship building skills, as well as managing for mental health. 

Mental Health First Aid

A current campaign is underway to make this a legal requirement in the workplace, just like physical first aid. Mental First Aiders are trained to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental ill health and provide help on a first aid basis. Training leads to an internationally-recognised certificate through Mental Health First Aid England. 

Mental Health Awareness 

Designed to debunk the myths and explore the facts about mental health, this course helps lawyers develop the confidence to manage their own self-care, and recognise what might be happening to others they work with. It helps them understand the triggers of mental health issues, and be able to spot the warning signs as early as possible. 

If you would like help breaking the silence surrounding mental health at your workplace, get in touch with us today.

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