What can law firms do to reduce the risk of stress within their teams?
I think the approach of lots of law firms and businesses more generally to stress and well-being is more cure rather than prevention. Businesses and law firms are getting increasingly good by offering things like paid-for counselling, well-being initiatives, paid-for gym memberships etc., but actually, I think the most powerful thing any law firm can do is ensure that workloads are manageable because our data shows that unmanageable workloads are the primary cause of stress in the first place. If you look at prevention and going to the root cause, I think that is a hell of a lot more effective than anything else that a law firm can do.
In the first place, firms have got to make sure they’re recruiting the right lawyers. Any business is going to have an uphill battle to retain people if they’re bringing the wrong people through the door in the first place, so that’s about values, alignment and making sure they’re on the right page.
The second thing is continually developing and updating their employer value proposition and what they offer to lawyers, because the things that people that lawyers, in particular, deem important change over time, so that’s got to be agile – law firms have got to move with the times and market conditions.
And the third thing I would say they need to do to make sure they’re retaining the best lawyers and the right lawyers is to not be afraid to get rid of the wrong lawyers. Because actually I think there’s nothing more demotivating and likely to cause people to leave then seeing underperformance, bad behaviour and the wrong people be allowed to continue.
Our 2023 wellbeing research revealed that the most common primary stressor for lawyers is an unmanageable caseload – what do you recommend law firms do to address this issue?
I think it boils down to strategy for me. The first thing a law firm could do on this front is look at their pricing structure, because if you get your pricing structure correct, you should be able to hit your turnover and profitability targets without anybody needing to be overworked.
And the second thing directly stems from that is that then, is if you’re pricing structure’s right, you have sufficient money to invest in the appropriate level of resource. I’m talking both people, having the right team structure and supports in place, but also infrastructure, so the right tools to enable people to be productive and properly manage their workloads.
The third thing law firms can strategically do is set their culture correctly, by rewarding and encouraging people for being open about struggles with workload and deliberately not encouraging and reinforcing behaviours that are damaging, like people frequently working over and above the hours they’re supposed to, that ultimately lead to burnout.
What do you do personally to look after your own wellbeing?
Thinking about this in terms of how I manage my workload so that it doesn’t have an adverse impact on my well-being like everybody, I’m learning. But the first thing I do is try to make sure that my workload and the deadlines I’m setting are realistic in the first place and I often have to get a second pair of eyes on those things.
The next thing that I’m increasingly doing is setting very clear boundaries, around when I’m working and when I’m not working and being very disciplined with myself and sticking to that. But I’m also setting boundaries around when I am working in terms of when I’m available to be interrupted and have a chat and support people versus when I’m not available and I’m getting my head down and working through my workload to make sure I’m productive.
And I think over and above that, I do the things that I suppose a lot of people do, I try to exercise, I try to walk, I spend time with my dog, I spend time with my family. And I try to be kind to myself in the sense that I like to eat dirty food at weekends, so I’m kind to myself by allowing myself to do that, but I try to counterbalance that by being a bit more disciplined and healthier during the week.
Realm won the Wellbeing in the Workplace Award at the Greater Manchester Business Awards in 2021 – what do these award nominations mean for you and the team?
Actually, it’s pretty simple, because our purpose is to be the best place to work, and I don’t think any business could claim to be the best place to work if the well-being and happiness of the people that work there isn’t top-level, so it means a lot because it shows that we’re on a good trajectory.