Being a lawyer can be stressful. From the constant pressure of maximising fee earning time to the heavy workloads and tight deadlines, there are many issues that can have an impact on a solicitor’s mental health and wellbeing.
Studies have shown that there are high levels of stress among lawyers. A study conducted by LawCare in 2020-21, found that 69% of legal professionals have experienced mental ill health. The study also found that burnout ranks high among the challenges faced by the profession, and this has perhaps never been more so than post-pandemic.
Stress as a factor in professional indemnity claims
From the perspective of risk management, it’s important to understand that high levels of stress can affect the health of staff, reduce their productivity and also lead to performance issues. At a basic level, a professional-client relationship rests firmly on that professional’s ability to deliver quality client services. This requires solicitors to approach engagements with appropriate levels of effort, competence and objectivity. Feelings of anxiety or stress potentially constrain a solicitor’s ability to approach client service with the requisite healthy attitude. In this regard, a stressful environment in a law firm can lead to a diminished client service.
By the very nature of their work, solicitors are under performance pressure all the time. Solicitors handle critical cases and transactions for their clients. In addition, they require to prioritise a number of tasks during the course of every working day. Again, a certain amount of pressure helps us to achieve targets, meet deadlines and to achieve our goals.
However, problems can arise when that pressure becomes too intense. It is well established that there is a link between high levels of stress and reduced productivity. When stress becomes uncontrollable or unmanageable (or is perceived as such), the person begins to experience a decrease in performance levels, causing a decline in productivity and enthusiasm to respond to the stress. If a solicitor is suffering from high levels of stress, their productivity will almost inevitably suffer, which in turn can result in claims, for example unexplained delays or missed critical dates.
The impact of stress
In a recent Law Society Journal article, the Master Policy panel solicitors explained that challenges that lead to raised stress and anxiety levels can lead to a tendency to be more prone to making errors, both technical and in judgement. This makes sense as research has shown that stress affects decision making.
It's well known that claims have always materialised because of technical errors, but an anxious or stressed workforce is likely to increase the risk of such errors exponentially. We are aware of claims arising from solicitors inheriting files from colleagues but failing to recognise and meet essential deadlines within the files. Similarly, there have been claims arising from simple errors such as failing to register a standard security or to intimate notice of an assignation of rights, serving defective notices to quit, or missing key clauses from commercial contracts. How many of these claims might have been avoided if the solicitor was not stretched under pressures of work and meeting client expectation?
Setting a good example to employees in how you manage workplace stress is paramount to ensuring a positive and healthy organisation. This, in turn, will help reduce the likelihood of future PI claims.
The Law Society of Scotland has set up Lawscot Wellbeing, a dedicated online resource that provides or signposts support and guidance for people working in the law. There is a huge amount of activity being carried out in this area and the Society is clearly determined to equip its members with information and signposting to help manage emotional wellbeing, as well as supporting them and their colleagues if in difficulty or crisis.
The Society is leading the way here. By being front and centre, it is raising the profile of the importance of wellbeing and de-stigmatising related issues.
The Society is in a great position in terms of influencing employers and starting the right conversations. However, the rest is up to all of us within the profession. It’s important to commit to creating the right culture and we need to take positive action to make it happen through strategy and training. It’s important that solicitors consider and discuss their wellbeing in the context of their own work. We cannot say one thing and practise another.
Risk management – making an assessment
With support systems and policies, law firms can seek to ensure that sources of stress are minimised. There are a number of practical steps for both firms and individuals to ensure that the working environment does not become too stressful.
As with other areas of risk management, identifying the risk is crucial. In terms of an assessment, some of the questions that might be asked are:
- What are the risks of stress?
- Would you be able to recognise signs of stress in yourself or in others? Do you know how to respond to stress?
- Do you assess the workloads of staff, as opposed to simply measuring hours worked?
- Does a pattern of absence within the firm reveal an underlying problem?
- Do you record and analyse actual and potential complaints and claims to identify where there might be issues? Does the issue of “stress” feature in this analysis?
- Is everyone within the firm able, willing and actively encouraged to admit mistakes or say that they need help? Is there a fear or blame culture within the office?
Taking action may include these issues:
- Addressing cultural issues within the firm – the tone should be set from the top.
- Embedding wellbeing into the organisation’s culture through reporting – see Elizabeth Rimmer’s (LawCare chief executive) article at Journal, May 2019, 24.
- Reviewing individual responsibilities and workloads.
- Ensuring performance reviews cover issues relating to stress and work-life balance.
- Taking advantage of assistance such as LawCare, a fantastic resource as a helpline.
Learning to cope with stress is not a substitute for identifying the underlying causes and dealing with them at source.
As with all areas of effective risk management, the benefits are likely to be realised in more than one aspect of the practice. As well as minimising the risks which could result in complaints or a negligence claim against the practice, improved job satisfaction and morale ought to result, and improved business efficiency.