A notorious problem affecting the legal profession is that of work related stress, leading to negative mental health impacts for many practitioners. Addressing the work-life balance of lawyers has become a talking point over recent years, particularly in light of the pandemic. But what is the true scale of the challenge in small firms, and how can practice managers take action to reduce stress amongst fee earners?
According to the 2022 Bellwether report from LexisNexis, on a scale of one to 10 (one being least stressed and 10 being most stressed), the average job stress level for sole practitioners and lawyers at small UK law firms measures six. Worse still, 44% of the group surveyed said that they would assess their stress levels as between eight and 10 on the scale.
So clearly the working lives of lawyers are highly stressful. But the average level of job satisfaction, on the same scale, was rated as seven. So despite the stress, sole practitioners and lawyers in smaller firms are nevertheless enjoying their careers overall. One argument is that, although excessive stress is damaging, low levels of stress are inherent in any role which is challenging, and therefore ultimately goes hand in hand with higher levels of job satisfaction.
Just to compare the level of stress of lawyers to another professional services occupation, an entirely separate Australian study from 2017 found that the average stress level of an accountant was 7.2 out of a potential score of 21. Interestingly, the accountants in this study working in law firms were amongst those reporting the highest levels of stress.
There are various methods which small firms can use to help minimise stress levels for their lawyers, including:
Work-life balance - another finding of our Bellwether report is that the most important factor in a new role, according to lawyers in small firms, is the ability to strike a good balance between their job and their personal lives. Although the most obvious criterion in this regard is a firm’s flexible working policy, there are plenty of other features associated with a decent work-life balance, such as the general working culture and reasonableness of targets.
Managing client expectations - 41% of respondents agreed with the statement that: “Clients expect me to be available online out of work hours” - and over a quarter said that client demands often interferes with their personal lives. Firms need to support their staff to reduce the likelihood of professional duties impinging on personal time - and this may involve requesting that lawyers only respond to clients during work hours.
Reducing admin with legal tech - most lawyers in our survey would prefer to be spending more time on actual client work as opposed to the attendant administration. But a significant minority (12%) said they actually spend more time on dealing with admin than anything else. A panoply of legal technology tools are available for firms to streamline working processes and reduce time spent on admin, from automated billing software to document assembly.
Take a look at our Bellwether 2022 report to find out more the challenges facing small law firms and potential solutions.
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