As the usual punctuation of our everyday lives has changed, without the commas and full stops that a daily commute and holidays normally bring, law firms need to consider how best to protect lawyers’ wellbeing.
The legal sector can be a stressful fast-paced world, with challenging billable hours targets, with little time to decompress or relax. The pandemic has seen an increase in stresses for some, with homeworking allowing little escape from the working environment. While pre-covid lawyers could check emails and receive calls out of hours, the majority were not able to undertake substantive work from home as much of the infrastructure required was in the office. Now, the majority of lawyers can do everything they need from home.
Productivity may be uninterrupted, but the potential to feel “always on” increases stress. As we return to the office and the much touted “hybrid working model” is adopted by many law firms, this article considers the possible impact this new way of working will have on lawyers’ wellbeing and what can be done to mitigate potential stresses. Junior lawyers in particular report being on the brink of burn out; their home/life environment may be worlds apart and firms need to recognise the different demands and difficulties this may present when entering the hybrid working pattern.
Having little control as it was over their workloads was stressful enough, without the added complexity the pandemic brought to team working, communication and visibility with work givers. Their practices may be embryonic or growing, increasing the need for quality networking opportunities, both internally and externally.
Law firms, like all businesses, are obliged to look after their employee’s physical and mental health. Employers need to consider what policies and support are now required to support their staff. There are numerous factors to consider ranging from lawyers’ physical working environment to clear policies to protect holiday and rest time, and provision of wellbeing support services.
Since homeworking became the “new norm”, we have seen colleagues holding video calls in bedrooms or pets and children running amuck; one speaker at a recent legal conference was spotted speaking from his bathroom – presumably to ameliorate noise or Wi-Fi issues. Trying to get a good night’s sleep and disconnect when snowed at work and your work computer is literally winking at you from the corner of your bedroom adds a new layer of stress. As the hybrid work pattern will result in long term homeworking for at least part of the week, firms need to reconsider how effective and ergonomic their lawyers’ workspaces are.
Junior lawyers may not be on an equal footing to more senior lawyers in this respect, and may require more creative working solutions and equipment. Asking staff to undertake a workplace assessment and providing adequate equipment is essential. Firms should ensure that all staff (and not just partners) feel able to speak up and discuss reasonable requirements for an adequate homeworking experience.
Firms should carefully consider how to manage hybrid working and how to make it as seamless as possible. Meetings will be an additional challenge with attendees both at home and in the office. Firms will need to consider how to best utilise technology to ensure equal participation. Previously lawyers joining remotely may have felt less able to meaningfully contribute to a meeting. As we are all now used to working remotely, it is important not to lose these new skills and ensure new meeting etiquette enables remote workers to feel on an equal footing with those in the office. If hybrid working is genuinely to work, junior lawyers need clear direction that working remotely is indeed “normal” and acceptable.
One trend is for a firm to offer total flexibility to lawyers over their own working model either in the long or short term. A lack of boundaries can be stress-inducing; junior lawyers may be concerned about perceptions if they are not physically present in the office, but struggle to work out what day it is best for them to be “in the office”.
It is therefore important for a firm to clearly outline the factors that would determine when someone needs to be in the office to assist a junior lawyer in identifying when they should be in. The firm should also ensure that there is a mix of the team in at any one time to ensure adequate supervision, support and networking is available for the juniors. Either an app or other central resource to assist with this type of planning will help.
Lawyers with childcare responsibilities may have found the switch to homeworking beneficial (or not in some cases!), but either way, it is evident from reports during the pandemic that childcare responsibilities still largely fell on women. There is reported serious concern that those who work mainly from home may be overlooked for promotion, potentially increasing their stress levels, as they will be absent from the office environment where it is easier to chat organically with more senior colleagues and decision makers.
Firms therefore need to ensure that homeworking is not perceived in this way; they should publicly express the intention that both office and remote working will have equal access to opportunities including work allocation, training, client pitches, leadership roles and promotion. Again, a central resource to monitor this without subjectivity will assist.
In certain cases, a central resource may be a neutral work allocator who is able to monitor lawyers utilisation and allocate accordingly rather than partner preferences being the dominant way of allocating work. For other considerations, having a neutral person to assist or review more day to day decisions will be helpful in the same way that a firm might appoint a diversity champion to remuneration or promotion committees to ensure that certain group of lawyers are not being favoured or conversely left out.
Turning to stress management, firms will need to consider appropriate measures to assist with increased stress levels arising from hybrid working. Factors to consider include the loss of those organic, informal discussions which occur in the office environment, particularly with more senior colleagues and decision-makers; the inability to demark the work/home life boundary; and the loss of holidays. These are all related to a firm’s culture. The Mindful Business Charter is a good starting point; it aims to remove unnecessary sources of stress and promote mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, providing a simple roadmap for law firm leaders to create an open and respectful environment.
The charter is an active policy, which firms can use as a foundation for additional hybrid policies such as promoting quality holiday periods by ensuring lawyers handover matters more than 24 hours before their leave, ensuring they put their out of office notification on and are not routinely disturbed (even if they are just taking a few days out). These are simple steps, but important ones that require active support of law firm partners.
Dedicated intranet pages with links to relevant wellbeing support services and mindfulness applications should be created, and open dialogues created around wellbeing issues. As exercise has long been associated with both physical and mental wellbeing, small challenges whether within a team, the firm or for charity participation can be beneficial.
While many events in our life are outside of our control, the key is how we respond to such events. Hopefully, law firms will control the controllable and put new measures in place to protect the wellbeing of their staff.
This article first appeared in the 30 June issue of Law.com International