Will traditional firms start losing out on top talent due to mental health concerns?

A survey carried out for the recent FT Innovative Lawyers Report  found that 90% of lawyers would refuse to work for certain firms, regardless of the salary offered, due to concerns about the negative impact those working environments would have on their mental health and wellbeing. The survey reported that 38% of lawyers think that their working hours are unreasonable and 30% would accept reduced pay in exchange for reduced working hours. Another recent study of lawyers in the UK and Ireland by LawCare found that a worrying 69% of respondents had experienced mental ill-health such as anxiety, low mood and depression in the 12 months before participating in the survey.

Desire For Flexibility And A Healthier Work-Life Balance

The FT Innovative Lawyers Report would seem to suggest that lawyers want more control over their day-to-day lives and a healthier work-life balance – indeed, 32% would prefer to have their working hours more strictly limited or regulated by their organisation. They want to be their own bosses, work for firms that place a high value on wellbeing and happiness and the leverage, in terms of employment options, is shifting in their favour.

The stresses involved in working in the profession have long taken a heavy toll on lawyers and their families with many struggling to juggle long hours and a culture of ‘presenteeism’, a lengthy commute and the demands of family life. However, the flexible working enforced by the pandemic has now proven that other ways of working are entirely possible and, in many instances, preferable. Participants in the LawCare survey reported that working from home during the early pandemic allowed them “greater flexibility, increased time with family, reduction in commuting time, the opportunity to develop healthy lifestyle habits and self-reflection.”

The increasing trend towards fee share and consultant lawyer model firms sees lawyers have total autonomy to run their days as they choose; they do not have to account for every minute of their day as more traditional firms often require; and most importantly, their autonomy permits them to be present for life’s milestone moments. Commonly cited causes of poor mental health and wellbeing in a traditional firm culture, such as overwhelming workloads, rigid schedules and unattainable billing targets, simply do not exist in the consultant lawyer model. Such firms instead favour freedom for lawyers to develop their client relationships as they choose, control their work schedule and determine their own objectives without having to compromise on the financial reward for their work.

Indeed, lawyers placing focus on the quality of their lives outside of work will only continue to increase as time passes, given the attitudes of younger generations of lawyers. A recent survey of 3,000 lawyers under 40 by the IBA’s Young Lawyers’ Committee found that more than half were likely to consider leaving their current jobs within the next five years. When asked why, 60% of lawyers under 40, and almost three-quarters of those under 25, said a major concern about their current role was the lack of a sustainable work-life balance.

A key part of the attraction for lawyers joining consultant lawyer firms – which are often specifically designed to facilitate total flexible working – is the ability to achieve more freedom in terms of when and how they work. They can manage their careers to fit around their personal and family lives – they are in control of every element of their work, without compromising on the service to their clients. What’s more, for those who want to work from home, these firms provide lawyers with sophisticated yet easy to understand technology so that they can run their practices seamlessly. Some firms also provide physical offices across the country for those who prefer a hybrid way of working – if a client meeting is taking place in person, the lawyer can prepare in a modern, staffed and fully equipped office space.

How Flexible Working Benefits Firms

Flexible working also makes good business sense. Firms face real costs when they experience high levels of churn, or when they fail to attract talented staff in the first place. When staff experience stress and poor mental health, there are inevitable knock-on effects in terms of attendance and wider staff morale. A Legal Futures survey found that flexible working has now overtaken pay as the top priority for lawyers looking for a change of job. This means firms can reduce costly central office overheads while attracting the best lawyers in the business.

The pandemic has provided sceptics with ample proof that traditional methods of practising law are not the only ways of effectively producing excellent results. Ultimately, law firms need to attract the best staff and maintain a positive, thriving team in order to provide the best possible services to their clients. An attractive salary, and a smart corporate office, are increasingly unlikely to make the grade; firms that wish to compete for the best talent must focus on a culture, led from the top, that values wellbeing and flexibility as a fundamental part of their DNA, with working practices that support the values of a new generation.

Published in Lawyer Monthly – 11 April 2022