The legal industry's blame culture: what needs to change?

The legal industry's blame culture: what needs to change?
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With 'blame culture', unreasonable workplace pressure and impossible deadlines being seen across the legal industry, change is needed now more than ever. But what changes specifically need to be made? For the latest instalment of our Junior Lawyer Lunches we tried to answer this very question. But this time, as well as inviting a panel of renowned senior lawyers along, we wanted to hear from our junior lawyers themselves and give our community the chance to be heard.

In association with The Law Society and Flex Legal, and chaired by Lubna Shuja, VP of the Law Society, we were delighted to host a fantastic panel of speakers, including: Joss Saunders, GC and Company Secretary at Oxfam; Natalie Salunke, GC and Head of Legal at RVU; and Laura Uberoi, Senior Finance Solicitor at Macfarlanes.

Why is making mistakes a good thing?

So, why is making mistakes a good thing? Here’s what Joss, Natalie and Laura had to say…

Mistakes are a key part of the learning trajectory and, as we all know, failing to admit to them can only ever make things worse. 

It’s important to know that there’s a marked difference between making a genuine error and carrying out an act of recklessness and gross negligence. The latter are the kind of instances which the SRA are keen to address, as opposed to honest mistakes made by inexperienced junior professionals. However, we’re seeing more and more cases across the industry where senior lawyers aren’t being held accountable for serious issues, whereas many juniors are being unfairly reprimanded for genuine mistakes.

There are a mountain of benefits when it comes to admitting to a mistake, and doing so can even build trust with clients, as it gives them more reason to believe that you are an honest solicitor and that nothing will be concealed from them.

But what support is in place for junior lawyers?

Firstly, if you don’t feel comfortable in talking to your supervisor, the SRA has an ethics helpline, giving juniors a safe, confidential space to discuss any mistakes made; and we’d also recommend consulting the SRA’s solicitor code of conduct if you’re ever feeling really unsure.

On the flip side, it’s also key for seniors to ensure that they take responsibility for the tasks that they delegate and that you all work together as a team effectively, promoting a positive ‘your mistake is my mistake’ mentality. A great way to do this is by introducing a whatsapp group where individuals can own up to mistakes, helping to normalise humanity and remind your team that everyone makes mistakes, at all professional levels.

We’re all only human after all, and we believe that when juniors do have the confidence to come forward to admit that they’ve made a mistake, they should be thanked and praised for doing so, instead of being negatively reprimanded.

“The world is divided between solicitors who make mistakes and solicitors who are reluctant to admit when they’ve made a mistake.”
- JLL Panel

How do junior lawyers feel about blame culture?

Following the panel session, our junior lawyers were given the chance to be heard in breakout rooms, each led by a prominent senior lawyer. Here were some of the key points that emerged from the sessions…

After speaking with various juniors who trained in-house, we found that many experienced a high level of expectation when it came to their legal knowledge, despite their position as a trainee. There is a repeated assumption across the industry that juniors should just know certain things, without any supervision or training. This is further compounded by an unhealthy ethos that if you’ve done something once, you should have mastered it.

Many spoke about not wanting to ask questions which they feel pressured to already know the answer to, as well as admitting that they wouldn’t know the first thing to do or who to go to if they did make a mistake. Those that did also reported feeling reluctant to pick up extra bits of work due to their mistakes being responded to so negatively; and the majority feel like they can’t highlight if someone else has made a mistake, due to the negative repercussions of doing so.

It’s clear that there are many negative consequences of creating a workplace culture where junior lawyers are apprehensive to highlight any mistakes made; and those consequences are arguably worse than the actual mistake itself. Cultivating an environment where colleagues feel comfortable and safe to talk through their mistakes is both healthy and productive for individuals and their organisations as a whole.

What is the effect of blame culture on junior lawyers?

As many of you will agree, the traditional culture of the legal industry has come a long way, but there are still huge steps that need to be taken to ensure that juniors can learn from their mistakes without fear, and become more capable, well-rounded lawyers.

Employee burnout is by far the biggest symptomatic result of blame culture, with 69% of the participants in LawCare’s ‘Life in the Law’ study reporting that they had experienced mental ill health in the 12 months preceding the survey. Furthermore, those aged 26-35 displayed the highest burnout scores. This age group also reported having the lowest workplace autonomy, the lowest psychological safety and the highest workplace intensity.

With the high pressure that’s placed on juniors to make a good impression and get everything right, it’s no surprise that many feel scared to admit to mistakes made at work.

“Learn fast and fail fast. Mistakes are a key part of the learning trajectory.”
- JLL Panel

How to address the legal industry’s blame culture

Throughout the breakout room discussions, both the junior and senior lawyers provided some great solutions to tackle this toxic ‘blame culture’ in the best way possible.

Everyone who has progressed in their career knows how important it is to have someone senior available to guide you, but as well as professional guidance, it’s essential that seniors cultivate relationships and create an environment where your direct reports feel comfortable enough to come to you with any questions or issues. To support those who don’t find it easy talking to their supervisor, having a procedure in place for making mistakes at an organisation-wide level is a great way to improve ‘blame culture’.

However, taking a step back, there are a few simple ways to try and prevent any mistakes being made in the first place. Firstly, when giving tasks to any junior legal professionals, it’s important to ensure that you give clear instructions which will remove any chance of misunderstanding.

Secondly, once you delegate a task to a junior colleague, make a point to offer supervision and support throughout, allowing them to ask any necessary questions and complete the work in the most effective, efficient way possible. Many of our juniors felt it was difficult to know how much detail to ask for from their supervisors, with some being accused of being too detail-oriented or that they were unable to work independently. Asking questions and learning at this early stage in their career is crucial, so if you as a supervisor don’t have the time to coach them through the task, make sure that someone else is on hand to do so in your place.

Transparency from seniors is also key in building trust – if juniors in an organisation can see their seniors admitting to making mistakes, they will feel more empowered to do the same. It’s also important that seniors are mindful in how they deliver any feedback, ensuring it’s as constructive as possible. Afterall, dealing with colleagues with varying levels of experience is key to working together in any organisation.

Then in the case that a mistake is made, which as we all know is inevitable (we’re all only human!), many juniors commented that it would be valuable to receive training on what happens when a mistake arises, how they should tackle it and the steps they should take to rectify it. Similar to the whatsapp group idea, organisations could introduce an ‘open door policy’ meaning that all team members work together to figure out how to fix the problem. Alternatively, supervisors could set aside a slot in their calendar for juniors to come to them with any questions/to review their work. One of the juniors stated that their organisation uses a traffic light system, which allows individuals to flag how busy they are each day/week, meaning that team members who have a small workload can help those who are more busy.

Often, our seniors found that the mistakes the juniors raised were in fact what they would categorise as ‘learning’, such as the need for drafting to be corrected. This helps juniors to understand the difference between learning and mistakes, as well as combating the negative pressure placed on juniors to get everything right the first time. It’s important for juniors to feel confident enough to raise any issues, as well as feeling comfortable in the ambiguity of their new role (a difficult task, we know) and a big part of this involves helping them to build up their resilience when it comes to having difficult conversations.

Lastly, many mentioned the importance of legal networks and communities, within their own organisations and externally, such as our Junior Lawyer Lunch events themselves; as well as mentorship and buddy schemes. It’s essential that junior lawyers feel supported by a strong network of peers and allies around them, to help them flourish in their career and to give them the opportunity to share valuable tips and experiences with one another.

The future of the legal industry

It can’t be denied that the legal industry has undergone some major positive changes over the last few years, from improved flexibility, to a huge increase in the use of legal tech. However, these discussions with our community of junior lawyers seem to have only touched the tip of the iceberg, and it’s clear that we’ve got a long way to go.

At Flex Legal, we are keen to promote a culture of 'good learning' - where juniors are able to learn from mistakes and thrive; as well as ensuring that organisations are informing you effectively on ethical issues and giving you the valuable support you need to progress.

Junior lawyers are ultimately the future of the legal industry - and you deserve to be heard.

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About the author:

Sophie is Head of Learning & Development at F-LEX Legal - an award winning legal tech startup helping law firms and organisations manage a flexible work force and supporting lawyers to make smarter life/work choices. 

As part of her portfolio career Sophie runs various learning and development and networking forums for in-house lawyers and mentors junior lawyers.  These include Flying Solo for small and solo legal teams and Aspire for junior in-house lawyers which she runs for LexisNexis UK.  She also works with schools and organisations to promote social mobility within the legal profession, working with The Social Mobility Business Partnership and Aspiring Solicitors. 

She trained as a lawyer in the City and worked as an in-house lawyer for 10 years including as Head of Legal for Virgin Radio and Ginger Media Group.  

Outside of work she is happily married with three sons and enjoys morning walks along the beach with her two dogs.