The Junior Lawyers Division resilience and wellbeing survey report 2019 showed that almost 77% of respondents felt that their firm could do more to support stress at work. The International Bar Associations’ 2019 report: 'Us Too? Bullying and Harassment in the Legal Profession' revealed that, of those junior practitioners surveyed, one in two women and one in three men have experienced bullying in the workplace.
Does the legal profession have a problem, and if so, does the issue have the potential to stifle future attraction to it? Given the high regard with which wellbeing is held by millennials, how much responsibility for the resilience and mental health of their junior lawyers should law firms take?
Although it isn’t really possible to pinpoint one wellbeing problem within the legal profession (and different practise areas and firm sizes are affected individually), the JLDs’ 2019 survey pinpoints client demands, lack of control and support, and high workloads/targets as the key sources of workplace stress. It isn’t difficult to draw a straight line between the responses to the survey and the recent series of cases before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal demonstrating that young lawyers are prone to challenging regulatory rules rather than speaking up when they cannot cope with their workloads.
It is no secret that life as a trainee solicitor has the potential to be stressful. Learning how to cope with this whilst developing a successful career isn’t addressed in traditional legal education and training. Further, the SRAs Suitability Test does not measure emotional resilience and whether someone is fit for a career in law. Despite this, those entering the profession often fully expect to face a notoriously high pressure working environment, arguably empty-handed to deal with it.
The difficulty for firms in addressing this is that, whilst millennials have (quite rightly) developed an acute awareness of taking care of their own wellbeing, judging mental health and whether someone has achieved a satisfactory ‘work-life balance’ is a subjective test.
Further, there is arguably somewhat of a ‘perfect storm’ in the legal profession for encountering issues with wellbeing. The personality types of those entering the profession are commonly prone to wanting to achieve perfectionism, whilst being happy to undertake as many working hours as possible to do so. What this means is that firms have to juggle a commitment to employee wellbeing with the reality that, sometimes maintaining excellent client service will perhaps unavoidably entail late nights and a stressful working environment.
Although there is an element of the latter being beyond a firms’ control, recognising this and taking responsibility to address employee wellbeing as far as they are able to certainly isn’t.
The Ashfords approach
There are many positive examples of how seriously Ashfords takes employee wellbeing, which demonstrates the importance the firm places on tackling the issues I have briefly discussed above. The firm prides itself on having a friendly, down to earth working culture in which collaboration is key, and in which trainees are able to thrive.
Each office has its own ‘Wellbeing Champions’ who have the support of the firm HR team to create their own programme of initiatives in support of mental health. In Bristol people are encouraged to bring their dog to work on a Friday, and there are subsidised yoga classes and ‘office mixer’ socials where everyone heads out for a post-work drink and catch up with colleagues, on the firm.
Other Ashfords offices enjoy on-site gyms, the chance to join multiple sports teams, and even the opportunity to get involved with managing the Taunton offices’ very own honey-generating bee hive. Everyone working for the firm also has immediate access to a comprehensive employee assistance programme that provides confidential access to professional medical and mental health support.
It is also important for trainees to reflect on how they are able to take responsibility for their wellbeing at an individual level, allowing their employer to focus on these firm-wide working practises that assist the same. Whilst criticism of the legal profession may be necessary, it won’t improve existing cultures on its own, and the next generation of lawyers must be the force for change.