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The Bellwether Report 2019: Stress in the Legal Profession — Problematic or Inevitable?

0%

of solicitors feel that stress/mental wellbeing in the legal profession is a major issue.

According to market commentators, there are numerous challenges facing independent law firms today.

But how are solicitors themselves coping?

We spoke with a cross-section of the industry to explore exactly that and found that, while largely positive in mindset, solicitors consider stress to be an increasing area of concern.

While solicitors largely described themselves positively when asked about their mindsets, around a third revealed that “stressed” was also part of the equation. On closer inspection, it seems a significant portion of the profession experiences high levels of stress, with 1 in 4 describing them as “extreme” or “very high”.

Over

0%

of solicitors currently experience high levels of stress

4 in 0

solicitors are highly satisfied with their jobs

Solicitors working at independent law firms are not just highly satisfied with their jobs, but they’re pleased with their current performance and confident about their futures. There is a robust heartiness to their attitudes in the current market.

While the majority of solicitors feel that enough is being done (with a significant proportion of those commenting being decision makers) to help solicitors cope with stress, 1 in 4 believe there is more that can be done.

Almost

1 in 0

solicitors think that more can be done to support them in the workplace

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Stress in the
Legal Profession:
Problematic or Inevitable?

Despite numerous challenges facing the legal industry, the majority of solicitors working in independent law firms are satisfied with their jobs and confident about their futures. However, embedded within their jobs is the issue of stress.

While many simply consider stress to be part of their job description, over three-quarters of the solicitors we spoke with think that stress and mental wellbeing are significant issues for the industry at the moment.

Indeed, with almost two-thirds of this year’s respondents currently experiencing high levels of stress, we have to wonder how much is too much? With workplaces around the country turning their attention to the issue of employee wellbeing, putting programmes into place to help support employee welfare and combat stress, is it time for the legal profession to follow suit?

introduction

Introduction.

Aiming to explore and investigate the issues facing the legal market, the LexisNexis Bellwether reports conduct groundbreaking market research in order to advise, guide, and offer insights to independent law firms and contribute to the discourse on their future.

These reports reveal an industry with a confident outlook, but with a risky habit of clingling to a ‘business as usual’ attitude. With so much change coming from so many sides, many firms seem to be simply waiting to see what will happen, rather than adapting, evolving, and outpacing their competition.

There are many challenges facing the legal industry as a whole, but for this report we wanted to check in with solicitors themselves. We wanted to see how you’re coping with the changes in the legal market and what your current attitudes are towards your jobs. What we found was a robust, optimistic profession, one which continues to believe that their hard work will pay off in a bright, successful future. But amongst this, an issue came to light – work-related stress.

In this report, we explore how stress fits into the job of a solicitor and whether stress levels, which seem high overall, are a major problem for firms, or just part of the same ‘business as usual’ attitude. Is a change in mindset necessary for solicitors to flourish, or is stress just inevitable?

01

How do solicitors feel about their jobs in the current climate?

Despite challenges facing the profession, solicitors themselves seem positive about their current performance and optimistic about the future.

The independent legal market is currently in a state of flux with 78% of solicitors thinking that there are rough times ahead. Indeed, over 80% of solicitors express concern that the continuing demands of compliance regulation, keeping working practices up to date, staying abreast of the changes in the law, and attracting new business are all posing significant threats to their business.

“We are in a very open dynamic environment and we need people who are able to thrive in that.”
2019 2018 Keeping up to date with industry changes 41% 42% 84% 78% Retaining clients/less client loyalty 44% 35% 80% 76% Attracting new business 49% 34% 83% 80% Keeping up to date with the changes in the law 47% 38% 85% 75% Keeping working practices and systems up to date 41% 44% 85% 74% Continuing demands of compliance regulations 51% 36% 86% 81% 2019 BASE 176 SIGNIFICANCE OF CHALLENGES/THREATS
Keeping up to date with industry changes 41% 42% 84% 78% Retaining clients/less client loyalty 44% 35% 80% 76% Attracting new business 49% 34% 83% 80% Keeping up to date with the changes in the law 47% 38% 85% 75% Keeping working practices and systems up to date 41% 44% 85% 74% 2019 2018 Continuing demands of compliance regulations 51% 36% 86% 81% 2019 BASE 176 SIGNIFICANCE OF CHALLENGES/THREATS

4 in 0

solicitors report high levels of job satisfaction

Despite the ongoing and seemingly widespread pressure of these challenges – many of which have remained highly ranked for years now, suggesting that they remain unresolved – solicitors are generally feeling positive about their jobs. Indeed, 4 out of 5 assert high levels of job satisfaction. Of those, perhaps it is only to be expected that decision makers and those whose firms are reporting growth are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs.

19% 27% 36% 8% 7% 46% Average Quite low Extremely high Very high Quite high Top 2 higher Firms in growth Decision Makers 2019 60% 53% LEVEL OF JOB SATISFACTION 2019 BASE 176
19% 8% Average 7% Quite low Extremely high 27% Very high 36% Quite high 46% Top 2 higher Firms in growth Decision Makers 2019 60% 53% 2019 BASE 176 LEVEL OF JOB SATISFACTION

Firms in growth represent a fairly substantial group this year, with 57% articulating that their firms are already growing and a further 76% asserting that growth is part of their five-year practice plan.

34% Stable 6% Declining 14% Stability 57% Growing 76% Growth 5% Downsize CURRENT PERFORMANCE 5 YEAR PRACTICE PLAN
57% Growing 34% Stable 6% Declining CURRENT PERFORMANCE 5 YEAR PRACTICE PLAN 76% Growth 5% Downsize 14% Stability
0%

of respondents are
confident about their
futures moving forwards

Mindset.

The majority of solicitors have a robust outlook, considering themselves proactive and optimistic, but over a third are experiencing stress.

02

In line with the robust performance that many independent law firms are currently reporting, around 5 out of 10 solicitors consider themselves to have a positive state of mind with regards to their business lives, choosing descriptors like “proactive”, “optimistic”, and “successful”.

two-heading

Over A

1/ 0

of solicitors are
experiencing
stress at work

BUSINESS MINDSETS Cynical Proactive Optimistic Successful In control Stressed Fulfilled Reactive Set in my ways Isolated Pessimistic Stuck in a rut Under threat 54% 48% 48% 39% 37% 26% 19% 14% 9% 9% 8% 7% 7% 2019 BASE 176
Proactive 54% Optimistic 48% Successful 48% In control 39% Stressed 37% Fulfilled 26% Cynical 19% Reactive 14% Set in my ways 9% Isolated 9% Pessimistic 8% Stuck in a rut 7% Under threat 7% BUSINESS MINDSETS 2019 BASE 176

However, over a third of the solicitors we spoke with also identified stress as one of their mindsets, which seems at odds with the otherwise vigorous, business-as-usual attitude touted by solicitors.

But is that part of the problem?

Law is a demanding profession – one where there’s a culture of applauding the extremes of the job. Late nights, early mornings, and always being “on call”, thanks to technological advances and client demands.

Stress, as defined by the Health and Safety Executive is:

“We are in a very open dynamic environment and we need people who are able to thrive in that.”

So is stress just an inevitable part of being a solicitor? Has stress become so normalised in the legal profession that the lines are blurred between what is normal and what requires help to address?

Stress is a mental health issue, after all, which still carries a stigma. But one has to wonder – is it more keenly felt for those in the legal profession, where to be under pressure is a daily occurrence? Where more hours worked, mean more hours billed, more clients acquired, and more status gained?

Solicitors vs. stress.

Stress seems to be part of normal day-to-day business for many solicitors. But with over 60% who are experiencing stress and are citing high levels of it, how much is too much?

03
“There’s competition and constant pressure. It’s all about ticking the right boxes and saying the right things. I can’t see things changing.”
0%

of solicitors currently experience high levels of stress

With a third of solicitors picking stress as one of the mindsets that apply to them currently, we looked closer. It certainly seems that stress is a normal part of daily business for solicitors, at least for the 30% of respondents who state that their stress levels are “average”. After all, the average level of stress for a “successful”, “proactive” solicitor – with those being two of the most articulated mindsets for solicitors this year, indicating hard work and striving – are presumably significant. Especially taking into account that, in 2018, the UK government positioned the law as one of professional occupations with the highest levels of work-related stress, depression, and anxiety.*

*http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress.pdf
11% 14% 36% 30% 8% Extremely high Very high Quite high Average Low 25 % 61 % STRESS LEVELS 2019 BASE 176
11% 14% 36% 30% 8% Extremely high Very high Quite high Average Low 25% 61% STRESS LEVELS 2019 BASE 176

Our research corroborates this, with a staggering number of respondents not just experiencing stress, but feeling it keenly. Over 60% of the solicitors we spoke with articulate high levels of stress, with 1 in 4 experiencing extreme or very high levels. Only 8% suggest that their stress is “low” – and even then, it’s not that they don’t experience stress, it’s just that it’s at a simmer, rather than a raging boil.

With such prevalence, it’s reasonable to wonder – how much is too much? And at what threshold will the industry consider such significant stress to be a problem? Is this something you’ve encountered first-hand in your firm?

STRESS/MENTAL WELLBEING & THE LEGAL PROFESSION 2019 BASE 176 76% Major issue 12% Minor issue 7% Don’t know/ no opinion 5% Not really an issue
76% Major issue 12% Minor issue 7% Don’t know/ no opinion 5% Not really an issue STRESS/MENTAL WELLBEING & THE LEGAL PROFESSION

For many of the solicitors we spoke with, that certainly seems to be the case. But with so many respondents suffering from stress, it’s just not a personal problem, it’s a professional one, with almost 9 out of 10 believing that stress and mental wellbeing is an issue for the legal industry. In fact, three-quarters of respondents feel that it is a major issue.

But does it affect all firms equally, or are there more occurrences of it in certain sectors?

04

Is stress concentrated in certain sectors of the market?

Although there is a belief that small firms handle employee wellbeing better than large law firms, it does not seem to be the case that solicitors at larger firms are more susceptible to stress.

“There’s competition and constant pressure. It’s all about ticking the right boxes and saying the right things. I can’t see things changing.”
0%

of respondents think that small firms are better than larger firms at fostering an environment of support/culture of wellbeing.

The market is divided on whether the problem is concentrated in firms of a certain size or not, with 43% believing it comes down to the size of the firm (and the majority of them feeling that it’s more of an issue in larger firms), and 45% believing it doesn’t.

76% No 34% Yes, in larger firms 12% Don’t know 9% Yes, in smaller firms IS STRESS/WELLBEING AFFECTED BY FIRM SIZE? 2019 BASE 176
IS STRESS/WELLBEING AFFECTED BY FIRM SIZE? 45% No 34% Yes, in larger firms 12% Don’t know 9% Yes, in smaller firms 2019 BASE 176

Nevertheless, when pressed, almost two-thirds of respondents believe that small firms are better at fostering a culture that is supportive of employee wellbeing. This makes sense as some of the benefits of smaller firms, according to respondents, include the greater likelihood of flexible working, a better work/life balance, and more agile working practices. All of which take a more holistic approach to a solicitor’s day-to-day life.

But while respondents believe that smaller firms are better at supporting employee wellbeing, they do not think they are less likely to get stressed in such firms. The issue of stress in the legal workplace does not seem to be one that hinges on firm size; solicitors seem just as likely to become stressed in a small firm as a large one. The issue is universal, seemingly embedded in the nature of the profession itself.

So is there more you can do as a firm to combat it?

RELATIVE BENEFITS OF BEING SMALL 2019 BASE 176 Nice to have Major benefit 10% 82% Ability to remain in control 13% 79% Better client experience 21% 69% Realistic charging structure 31% 61% Common ethos 27% 59% Not carrying ‘dead weight’ 24% 58% Flexi-working 30% 57% Low overheads 25% 57% Competitive charging rates 32% 56% Work/life balance 13% 76% Lower level of bureaucracy/swift decision making 15% 75% Same person runs their matter from beginning to end 16% 70% Clients being serviced by more senior lawyer therefore better lawyering 23% 69% Agility — ability to respond to changing demands
16% 70% Clients being serviced by more senior lawyer therefore better lawyering 23% 69% Agility — ability to respond to changing demands 21% 69% Realistic charging structure 31% 61% Common ethos 27% 59% Not carrying ‘dead weight’ 24% 58% Flexi-working 30% 57% Low overheads 25% 57% Competitive charging rates 32% 56% Work/life balance 10% 82% Ability to remain in control 13% 79% Better client experience 15% 75% Same person runs their matter from beginning to end 13% 76% Lower level of bureaucracy/ swift decision making RELATIVE BENEFITS OF BEING SMALL 2019 BASE 176 Major benefit Nice to have
05

Can firms do more to help solicitors manage their stress?

Almost a quarter of solicitors believe more can be done to help them, but it’s hard to help what’s not considered a problem. Stress seems a normal, not an abnormal working practice in the legal profession.

In short: yes. Almost 1 in 4 solicitors feel that more could be done to support them in the workplace, both in terms of minimising stress and maximising mental wellbeing.

“I don’t think the law is any more stressful than any other profession.”

Almost

1 in 0

solicitors think that more can be done to support them in the workplace.

However, 55% believe that enough is already being done, which is surprising. With over 60% of solicitors currently experiencing high levels of stress, many solicitors in the market are not just experiencing stress, but struggling with it.

So, if that’s the case, why do the majority of lawyers feel that enough is being done to help them?

23% No 22% Don’t know 55% Don’t know FIRM DOING ENOUGH Decision Mak ers 64% Yes
FIRM DOING ENOUGH? 23% No 22% Don’t know YES 55% 64% Decision Makers 2019 BASE 176

Firstly, it appears that decision makers are almost twice as likely as solicitors to feel that their firm is doing enough to help, which is unsurprising. Pressure is often more acutely felt by those without as much control or power in the workplace.

Secondly, almost a quarter of solicitors don’t know if enough is being done to help them and even fewer have any ideas of what kind of improvements could be made, should help be offered. A mere 8% think firms could check their employees for stress and a further 5% and 3% respectively suggest that more consideration for workloads and flexible working could be considered.

Ultimately, three-quarters of respondents feel that stress is a major issue, but there is a sense of confusion and resignation in attitudes to it.

How can you solve a problem if it’s not treated as one? If it’s not considered to be something out of the ordinary – an aberration from usual working practices?

8 % 5 % 3 % 3 % SUGGESTIONS FOR MINIMISING STRESS Checking for stress/ mentoring/health scheme More consideration for workloads/better staffing More flexible working Less partner micro- management/more trust in employees
8% Checking for stress/mentoring/health scheme 5% More consideration for workloads/better staffing 3% More flexible working 3% Less partner micro-management/ more trust in employees SUGGESTIONS FOR MINIMISING STRESS

Conclusion

There is a lack of awareness regarding the deeper implications of stress in the legal workplace and an absence of insight into how improve the situation, which supports what the research suggests – there is a fundamental disconnect at work here. A significant number of solicitors are stressed, but more seem able to admit they’re stressed than acknowledge they have a problem with stress. A fraction of respondents, meanwhile, can even begin to contemplate ways that the situation could be improved.

It seems that for many solicitors stress is just an inevitable – perhaps even a necessary – facet of the job. While such a cultural logic persists in the industry, it’s reasonable to assume that law firms will lag behind other workplaces in prioritising employee well-being as an integral part of their business processes.

But stress and other associated work-related mental ill health issues are on the rise across workplaces as a whole in the UK. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)”, they are contributing even more significantly to absences from work in recent years. Indeed, the majority of organisations rank it in the top three causes of long term absence. With independent law firms seemingly lagging behind other business with regards to both the awareness of employee wellbeing and employee wellbeing itself, it’s hard to imagine how such issues will not ultimately impact firm productivity and performance.

How will these seemingly confident firms that are planning for growth in the next 5 years be able to sustain said growth if stress starts significantly impacting their solicitors – especially considering the majority are already reporting high levels of stress?

The majority of solicitors like what they do – they are working in their chosen profession, and many of them are optimistic about their futures and their chances of success. But it’s important to understand that while the future looks bright, there are shadows at work. Perhaps the time has come for a cultural shift – whereby solicitors take care of themselves as well as they take care of their clients.

The issue of stress in the legal profession seems to be the tip of a rather large iceberg seen through fog – you know it’s there, but conditions prevent you from seeing its true might and size until you’re the one on a collision course.

After all, stress affects people differently and, while it is nottechnically an illness, it can make you ill – a particular concern for the almost two-thirds of solicitors who are feeling high levels of it.

Feeling stressed? Or do you suspect some of your team members are struggling with it?

The NHS has a resource dedicated to how to deal personally with your own stress, while the Health and Safety Executive offers a suite of materials for work-related stress, including causes, signs to watch out for, and suggestions of how you can help your employees.

Appendix

This report was compiled using data from eight in-depth interviews with lawyers in small firms and small offices of larger firms, as well as online surveys completed by 176 solicitors in England and Wales.

Respondents were from a wide geographical area and represented a broad sample of lawyers in a variety of positions in the firm and areas of expertise. The research fieldwork was conducted by an independent market research agency, Linda Jones & Associates, throughout November and December 2018.

35% 28% 11% 10% 4% 8% 4% 63% Decisions makers Founder/co-founder Senior management Department head Solicitor Associate solicitor Paralegal/trainee Other (non-lawyer) POSITION
35% 63% Decisions makers Founder/co-founder 28% Senior management 11% Department head 10% Solicitor 4% Associate solicitor 8% Paralegal/trainee 4% Other (non-lawyer) POSITION
46% Very small 2-10 fee earners 23% 20% 11% Small 11-20 fee earners Medium 20+ fee earners Solo 1 fee earner PRACTICE SIZE
46% Very small – 2-10 fee earners 11% Solo – 1 fee earner 20% Medium – 20+ fee earners 23% Small – 11-20 fee earners PRACTICE SIZE
LAWYER DEMOGRAPHIC 55% 44% Male Female vs 46 years Median age
55% Male 44% Female vs 46 years Median age LAWYER DEMOGRAPHIC
32% 22% 21% 17% South London Midlands North
32% South 22% London 21% Midlands 17% North

About the author

Jon Whittle is Market Development Director at LexisNexis, responsible for the company’s offering for the independent legal sector –independent, small law firms and sole practitioners.

With 19 years of experience in research, insight and business strategy, throughout his career Jon’s been passionate about understanding and representing the voice of individuals to big businesses.

Jon is currently focused on advocacy and community development for independent legal practitioners. He produces cutting-edge research, such as the industry-leading LexisNexis Bellwether reports which explore the changing landscape for independent legal practitioners and supporting the business of law firms.