The world of work is changing, and the legal sector needs to keep up

Elizabeth Rimmer, Chief Executive LawCare

  • What led to LawCare? Tell us about your mission

LawCare is a charity in the UK, set up in 1997. We grew up in an initiative of the Law Society in England and Wales. The Law Society were worried in the 90’s about how much solicitors were drinking and using alcohol as an unhealthy coping mechanism for life in the law. We were very much set up in the beginning as an alcohol support service and our first chief executive was a retired solicitor who have had an alcohol problem and had recovered from that.

Over time we have now expanded to cover all the jurisdictions in the UK, all the different types of lawyers, as well as non-legal roles, trainees, students. Our role has expanded beyond alcohol as it has become recognised that alcohol was being used as an unhealthy coping mechanism for the pressures of working in the law. We have three main areas of work. One of them is providing emotional support we run a telephone helpline, email and chat service, Monday to Friday for anybody in the law who has a problem they want to talk to somebody about.

For example, it could be about being made redundant, or struggling with stress; everyone who responds has worked in the law or is a lawyer – so we understand what this environment is like. Set up by lawyers for lawyers. We provide a safe place where you can talk about what is concerning you, and give you an opportunity to talk that through and think of the steps you might need to take to resolve your issue. The other part of our work is around education and prevention, so we have lots of resources on our website aimed at both individuals, as well as law firms and organizations about how they can create a mentally healthy workplace.

We’ve got factsheets, a podcast (the Legal Mind) and we provide trainingand give talks about mental health at legal organizations. The third piece of work is the hardest part: to drive change. We’ve just done a research project called “Life in the Law”, the report will be published on September 28. Over 1700 legal professionals took part, we asked people questions about their practice to try and understand better what it is about working in the law that might have a negative impact on mental health.

Understanding that better gives us an opportunity to do something about it. We are trying to do more to engage with legal education, regulation, professional bodies, trying to bring all the stakeholders together to discuss how can we do things differently and better, to support people and improve the culture in law. I think Covid is going to help us as it has put mental health so much higher in the agenda. Sometimes people think that the problems in law are somehow related to the rapid communications in the 21st Century and the hyperconnected world we live in but, actually, LawCare was set up back in the early 90’s, when nobody had laptops and mobile phones – there were still problems then. I think the digital world adds to it, but it is bigger than that.

It is about the way people approach things and think about them and the nature of the work. That’s the challenge and that’s where we need to do things differently. Lawyers tend to be perfectionists, people come to lawyers to solve their problems, so it’s very hard for lawyers to say “I have a problem”. It is difficult to admit that you are struggling, people are worried that they will be seen as weak, or not good enough, there is a tendency to overthink things and it’s also quite a negative environment, because it is all about winning and losing and, adversarial; lawyers are often looking at the worst-case scenario. When you combine the legal mindset with a very competitive environment, it’s not surprising we see some mental health challenges. We need to help people understand their psychology, and recognise that the way we work is not healthy.

  • How do you think law firms are responding to this approach?

I think in the UK we are beginning to see much greater engagement with mental health and wellbeing from law firms, they are taking it more seriously. But I think the approach currently is very much rooted in supporting individuals with their problems and it’s not looking at how the organization works and the working practices that need to change. If we want to be serious about mental health, it has got be both: supporting people but also creating healthy systems.

Because if you help someone and then you put them straight back into the same system, they might become ill again. I’ve been at LawCare seven years, I was looking back at our events during Mental Health Awareness Week, in 2015 we only did one event during that week. This year we had 16 events. There’s much more engagement, law firms are really beginning to look at this. But I still think there’s a lot of work to do.

Good mental health and wellbeing policies helps create more inclusive and diverse workplaces where people don’t feel excluded, and they can be themselves. I think there’s a lot of virtue signalling that goes on, as despite the growing engagement around mental health people are still working very long hours and weekends. The challenge is to persuade the business owners that supporting the mental health of their staff actually makes good business sense.

  • Do you think that talking about numbers and what mental health costs an organization could help convince law firms to get on board?

There’s a lot of discussion about how to make the business case for this. Every time you have to recruit another person, that’s a big cost to your business and also a lot of firms like their home-grown talent, they like people that are trained and qualified in the firm to become partners, because they are part of the firm and the culture. If you can’t retain people, then you will have a succession problem: who are going to be the next future leaders of your organization, if all the people coming in only stay for 3 or 4 years until they go somewhere else because they don’t like it?

And that problem is beginning to emerge here, certainly with big American law firms that recruit young people in, but they don’t keep them very long because they leave. And you need to ask yourself, why are they leaving? I think the real driver for change in law firms will be around helping partners see the financial imperative, as well as that the world of work is changing and the legal sector needs to keep up. If you want to attract people into law in the first place, you’ve got to be creating a profession that looks like a place people want to work in.

If you want to attract people into law in the first place, you’ve got to be creating a profession that looks like a place people want to work in

The law is still a traditional hierarchical profession, the changing world of work will accelerate the pace of change, Covid will have some positive longer-term benefits in working practices. The legal sector is going to have to catch up. It has already caught-up to some extent, because it had to. Organizations went through digital transformation overnight so that people could work from home.

Prior to that, generally the law has not seen as much flexible and agile working partly because there’s that strong sense of presenteeism, you need to be seen in the office and employers did not trust people working from home. But that’s beginning to change. I think, that  people coming into the profession now, think differently, they are looking for workplaces that will provide them with a work life balance.

  • You mentioned the benefits that Covid has had (and will have) in terms of flexibility and wellbeing at work. At the same time, however, we have noticed people working longer hours at home, losing the balance between personal and professional life and feeling isolated. What do you think?

We had our first call about Covid on March the 10th last year αnd what we see now is that in 1 in 3 people getting in touch with us for support, there is a Covid-related element. One of the main concerns has been around working from home, as it is very difficult to maintain the boundaries between home and work.  In the UK last December, the Office for National Statistics released data that showed that the legal sector has had its higher billing month since its records begun. And this is during a global pandemic!

People are working from home on average 2 more hours a day because they are filling up the time they used for commuting to work. The challenge we face as we come out of Covid is that you have a lot of people feeling burnt out, not just because of the long hours but because of living through a very stressful time. We have also had significant contacts about deterioration of mental health, for example our contacts about anxiety more than doubled last year.  This has been a particularly tough tie for juniors and the lack of supervision. Social isolation has been the third most common reason people have turned to us for support.

People just miss being around other people. For many lawyers the daily micro interactions in the workplace are a huge part of their social contact which they have lost, working from home. As we come out of this global pandemic, the question is how do we take the best out of this, how do we create an agile workspace, where people can still have that social interaction, good supervision and feel part of something. An important aspect of our professional identities and our sense of belonging is being in the workplace. It is also important to acknowledge that one size does not fit all when it comes to supporting mental health and that everybody’s needs are different. People have not been working from home, they have been living at work,

  • Would you say that there is a difference in how men and women handle pressure in the professional environment? Statistically speaking, do you hear more from men or women at LawCare?  

About 65% of our support contacts are from women. Generally, we have seen a higher percentage of women turn to us for support, and there could be a number of reasons for this.  To begin with, women generally tend to exhibit more help-seeking behaviour than men and women talk more about their concerns, but it may also be that women are more affected by some of the issues because they are juggling more.

In the UK legal profession it’s about 50-50 men and women – maybe slightly more women – at entry level, but as you go higher up you still see that predominantly it’s men and that many women leave the profession, because it’s not easy to work full time as a lawyer and have a family. And I think that’s where the learnings from Covid in terms of providing more agility and flexibility will help. For example, I’ve spoken with female partners and women working in law firms and what they’ve really liked is being able to pick up their children from school. That flexibility makes a big difference.

I think we owe it to ourselves to use our learnings from Covid to improve working practices in the law.

  • How important is response to mistakes? How should law firms handle mistakes to safeguard their employees’ mental health?

We need working environments in the law where people feel psychologically safe to say that something has gone wrong, as lawyers generally frightened of making mistakes. What tends to happen is that when lawyers make a mistake, they don’t know how to deal with it, they are too frightened to tell someone about it, so they sit on it and it just becomes worse. And I think we don’t do a very good job in law and in legal education about educating lawyers on how to respond to mistakes; there is this sense that there is no room for error in law, everything has to be perfect.

Making mistakes does not mean that you are a bad lawyer

But, of course, everybody makes mistakes and I think we must do a much better job, particularly for junior lawyers, of helping them see that making mistakes does not mean that you are a bad lawyer or that it is the end of your career but rather you use it as an opportunity to learn, so that you don’t make the same mistakes in the future. If it is a mistake with significant consequences, that’s why law firms have insurance.

In England we’ve had a number of cases with junior lawyers who have made mistakes, then covered them up and lied about what had happened, who have eventually been disbarred, they weren’t disbarred for the mistake, the were disbarred for covering them up and being dishonest about this. The issue raises many questions: Why did nobody see they were struggling, why were they not supervised sufficiently, and why is someone so terrified to admit to a mistake? People only lie in those circumstances because they are frightened. I think that’s a culture problem that we have in law and it is something that needs to be addressed, because it is not good for people’s mental health and wellbeing and certainly not good for the reputation of the legal profession or your firm.

  • Do you have a piece of advice for young professionals starting their career in law? 

If you are worried about something, talk to somebody – someone you trust, a colleague, a friend. Do not sit in silence with things that concern you – when you talk to somebody you find out that you feel so much better, and that people are very supportive. And never forget why it was you wanted to be a lawyer.