How law firms can help their employees reduce chronic stress and prevent burnout

By Daryl Green, Senior Business Development Manager and Employee Director, Voice Technologies

Posted on April 14, 2022

When it comes to employee wellbeing, not all workplaces in the United Kingdom prioritise healthy minds over healthy profit margins and getting the most out of their employees.

This is especially prominent in some law firms, where a legacy of overworking employees is now, more than ever, contributing to chronic stress levels and proving counterproductive in a profession where productivity is demanded and working long billable hours is the norm.

According to Legal Cheek, more than seven out of ten people working in the legal profession claim their job has had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing. It’s not surprising, then, that the legal sector is facing an endemic of burnt-out and seriously frazzled solicitors and junior lawyers. In a sector where the flavour of the day seems to be lawyers working ‘harder not smarter,’ there remains an ingrained culture of working long hours instead of being efficient. Read on to find out more about the causes of legal burnout and some solutions that can be offered in the form of increased mental health support and streamlining work processes with tech and an increased digital offering.

Whilst, admittedly, many firms across the UK are making efforts to alleviate stress levels in their employees, the legal profession is reportedly the 2nd most stressed out in the United Kingdom, with 63% of respondents to a survey by Protectivity stating that they are stressed out on a daily basis in their legal job. Contributing factors to these chronic stress levels in the legal sector include mounting workload, the burden of billable hours, competitive professional culture, and industry-wide pressure to work long hours and be available at all times. Combined with a general lack of support, mental health resources (1 in 4 law firms don’t have any mental health support on offer for employees), and appropriate technology for workplace efficiency, burnout is quickly becoming an inevitable part of a junior lawyer’s career.

Salary over mental health?

And it is absolutely the case that junior lawyers and newly qualified graduates in legal jobs are bearing the brunt of the mass burnout within the legal profession. According to the Law Society, over 93% of young lawyers working in the legal profession are experiencing burnout and are stressed at work, with almost 25% saying they feel high levels of stress or /extreme stress. Three in four report disrupted sleep, and just under 60% say they suffer from anxiety, fatigue, and depression. With some Magic Circle law firm salaries for junior lawyers hitting £150,000 this year, it is clear these firms are expecting a lot from their junior staff and plan on getting as many billable hours out of them as possible. But when LawCare has reported a jump in the number of younger lawyers in England and Wales seeking support since the start of this year, compared to the same period last year, as well as an 86% rise in the number of callers seeking support for stress, we must query how far these firms can push their junior lawyers before they completely burnout and cease being productive altogether.

There is no doubt that lawyers work incredibly hard and long hours. But firms are increasingly realising that in order to attract, recruit and keep good staff, you need to be offering a decent work-life balance and prioritising employee mental health. And all of this needs to happen before employees get so burnt out that they leave the firm or legal profession entirely.

Wellbeing initiatives and productivity solutions for legal professionals

We can’t, however, paint all law firms with the same brush. The Law Gazette has commented on how young professionals are placing more explicit emphasis on work/life balance, mental wellbeing, leisure and other activities outside work than was evident in previous generations. While young professionals are aware of the propensity for corporate burnout and are seeking employers who value their mental health, many firms are employing wellbeing initiatives and using tech solutions to avoid their team members burning out. Law firm Freeths, for example, has recently employed a digital dictation solution after recognising its time-saving abilities and ability to alleviate intense pressure on legal staff to turn documents around quickly. As a result, the team feels much more supported by Freeths when it comes to workload and time-sensitive expectations.

Like Freeths, law firms need to be proactively supporting their people in order to prevent team members experiencing burnout in today’s working environment. The offer of bonuses, healthy food offers in the office canteen and Peloton bikes isn’t enough. Firms can be proactive by encouraging a work-life balance and time to spend on hobbies. In order to prevent burnout, there needs to be an industry-wide shift in the attitude towards boundaries and the time legal staff need to recharge their batteries with sleep and activity. With clearer boundaries, staff feel allowed to ‘switch off’ and not be available 24/7, something which many employees state significantly adds to their daily stress and contributes to burnout.

Work productivity solutions tested in some of the most stressful environments

Firms can prevent burnout by automating and digitising as many aspects of the workplace and systems as possible. Any technology that streamlines workflows, saves time and makes work easier can support a better work-life balance. This is as true for the legal sector as it is in all professions. We introduced one of our digital dictation solutions to The Murray Surgery, a five-partner General Practitioner (GP) practice providing NHS primary care services to over 10,000 people in East Kilbride, Scotland, and the staff there reported an increase in their happiness levels and noted how much more streamlined their workflows were, creating time and space in their day and easing the high stress working environment that they were in before. Like in this case study, a streamlined workflow could relieve the pressure on legal staff to work hard, not smart, whilst boosting productivity and the efficiency of staff, secretaries and junior lawyers. There would then be more room and head space to welcome new tech solutions.

Attract, retain, and support young talent in the legal sector

With some firms now using wellness initiatives as a competitive advantage or a selling point to recruits, amid a talent war that has been retention and sign-on bonuses hit $250,000 at US firm Kirkland & Ellis, it is clear that money is not the only factor prospective employees are looking for. Legal professionals are ever wary of firms looking after themselves and not their staff. In a post-pandemic world, firms need to be more committed than ever to mental well-being by providing benefit packages with mental health support and developing a positive company culture and working environment, not only to attract and retain new talent but also to avoid complete burnout of employees in a profession where there is a prevalent and constant mental health crisis.

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