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Law Management Section

Under pressure

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  • Photograph Paul Bennett, Aaron & Partners LLP

Mental health problems are a growing issue for every sector, including the law, with its inherent high levels of stress. Paul Bennett looks at how managers in law firms can support their staff to mitigate mental health problems and their effects. 

The chance of someone in your firm, under your supervision, being affected by a mental health condition is very high. How should we as managers give practical support to the mental health and wellbeing of our colleagues across the profession?

According to the mental health charity, Mind, one in four people in the UK will experience some form of mental health problem each year (tinyurl.com/mind-figures). Referencing further studies, they also show that those experiencing a mental health concern are coping less successfully: there has been a marked increase in self-harm and suicidal thoughts and attempts.

Solicitors are not exempt from these trends. According to 2014 Law Society research, 95 per cent of practising certificate holders said they were stressed, with 16 per cent at ‘severe’ or ‘extreme’ levels (tinyurl.com/ls-healthsurvey).

What is a mental health issue?

Mental health problems typically affect the way we think, feel and behave. The conditions range from common mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, to more rare ones like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. A mental health problem can, like any physical illness, affect day-to-day activities, only others cannot see the condition in the same way as they can many physical conditions.

Do you adapt your management style to cater for the challenges of colleagues who experience stress, anxiety, depression and so on?

Managing mental health in law firms

In February 2017, the Law Society Gazette reported a YouGov study, carried out by Totaljobs, which surveyed 606 decision-makers across the legal profession on mental health within the workplace (tinyurl.com/gazette-stress). The report indicated that law firms had inadequate resources to manage mental health: ‘… 40% of those asked said they were aware that some of their employees had mental health issues but just 6% said they were given enough support to help tackle the problem.’

Stress, anxiety and depression are common mental health conditions experienced across the profession. Common trigger factors are often embedded in the culture of a firm, and include:

  • long / excessive working hours
  • pressure to be present in the office – so-called ‘presenteeism’
  • pressure to bill more
  • pressure to be always available to clients (including by email and mobile outside office hours / while on holiday and so on)
  • bullying / oppressive management.

So, as managers, we need to work on ensuring our culture is supportive.

A firm that is well run will focus on how effective its staff can be while working – not on how they control staff.

Readers of this magazine are likely to be aware that unrealistic billing targets are self-destructive, as they increase stress, staff turnover and recruitment costs (in terms of agents’ fees and the time it takes new starters to build their progress levels so as to enable billing). The reports that focus on the legal sector show how important it is to raise awareness of this fact.

Professional discipline: the result of stress?

My area of practice is representation for other lawyers and firms before the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). The case reports of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal frequently cite mitigation of stress, depression and oppressive management, leading individuals to take unfortunate actions, which result in misconduct hearings.

In May 2016, the SRA published ‘Your health, your career’ (tinyurl.com/sra-health), a note on what to do if your work is being affected by mental health problems. Anyone affected should read it, because following it will help avoid disciplinary action.

Managing the issue

1. Offer flexible working hours

This reduces the impact of presenteeism, but champion successes of those who work differently, including any client wins, big jobs successfully completed, and contribution to the team / firm.

2. If your office is open plan, provide quiet areas for staff to work in

Those that need time and space can take it.

3. Survey your staff

Undertake staff surveys to find out anonymously if staff have concerns. Address concerns in an open and transparent way.

4. Set realistic billing targets

Ensure billing targets are realistic for the type of work, hours worked (particularly for part-time staff), and client.

5. Develop all managers

As managers, we need to understand that our role comes with an obligation to put others’ interests first. Firms should develop individual managers’ management skills, and support staff to ensure that supervision and development actively addresses mental health, and therefore presents minimum risk to the firm’s reputation and its people.

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