Are you a leader in your legal practice? If so, are you looking after yourself and practising self-care? Probably not. Yes….you know that you should (and indeed would like to) be working less and spending more time with family and on hobbies that revitalise you but you are pressurised, have important deadlines and you just have to work late to get through it all. Is that sounding like your reality?

Well you aren’t alone. This is how we lawyers have learned to behave. It’s part and part of the culture of legal practice …. but is that OK?

Wellbeing as a leader matters for two important reasons.

Firstly unless you self-care you will become physically run down, mentally exhausted and emotionally drained. Your performance at work will be negatively impacted. Your behaviours and interactions with others will reflect stress responses and frankly you will be operating as a very poor version of yourself.

Secondly as a leader you are a role model. Your actions and words, like that of a parent, signals expectations around good-bad behaviours. Research shows that people within an organisation tend to mirror a leader’s way of being. This leads to organisational cultures developing. If you as leader do not self–care, habitually working late out of ‘office’ hours and at weekends, sending emails late at night, neglecting family, failing to rest and disregarding own physical and mental health, then what sort of culture is being signalled in your firm? You will be role modelling disregard for self-care.

What will the impact be on your people and your organisation? You guessed it: stress caused by overwhelm and overwork resulting in poor productivity, low morale and high levels of sickness; disengagement from the organisation and its client’s needs. At worst it will lead to a culture where empathy is in short supply and compliant presenteeism pervades. An unpleasant place to work and way of working - certainly not a healthy, sustainable, creative or productive culture where people are motivated and feel valued.

You, like 99.9% of leaders, are trying to do your best, wanting to do the right thing and working hard at it….. too hard - just like the bosses you role modelled as a junior assistant solicitor. The risk is, however, that unless you take direct action to self-care you will succumb to the same trajectory of isolation, overwhelm and eroding effectiveness that they suffered. You will also be setting neglectful behaviour patterns for all the people within your organisation.

October was mental health awareness month. The fact that the Law Society was actively promoting self-care last month shows how a tipping point has been reached. The landscape of wellbeing, self-awareness, authenticity and mindfulness is no longer for ‘others’ but it is for lawyers too. Self-care is not a luxury ‘nice to have’ but is a ‘must’ for all legal practices. It also makes sound business sense. People who are healthy and have work-life balance give optimal performance, are effective, productive and engaged with the organisation and its purpose. This equates to happy clients and a healthy bottom line.

There is lots of evidence that the work landscape has begun to shift away from alpha-driven organisational behaviours (i.e. excess fiscal return) towards more rounded person-centric organisations. This humanistic approach is here to stay and is demographically socially, politically and environmentally driven. Demographically, most legal practices are being run by Generation X (born in 1960s & 1970s) but the Millennials (Generation Y- born in 1980s & early 90s) who will make up over 50% of the UK workforce from 2020 together with Generation Z (born late 1990’s & early 2000s) expect wellbeing to be part of their working life. They want to experience their ‘best-selves’ at work and expect to be able to access a preferred wellbeing work/life model 24/7.

Evidence of this in action is the Junior Lawyers Division which, after a survey of its members earlier this year found that 93% experienced high levels of stress, lobbied for change. This resulted in revision of the Law Society’s Guidance for Best Practice ‘Supporting wellbeing in the Work Place’ (October 2019).

Given that self-care is critical to your health and wellbeing and that of your organisation, what practical steps you can take to kick start your commitment to self-care?

Firstly you could start to implement small changes to your own work routine. Maybe start with taking lunch away from your desk. Stop checking work e-mails after hours. Leave on time at least twice a week. This will positively impact on your wellbeing. It will also send a clear signal to your people the behaviours you want to see happening in your legal practice.

Secondly you can start creating a self-care and wellbeing culture in your organisation. As a Generation X leader you may feel that you don’t have the mental model, the language or the behaviours needed to change the culture, however, help is at hand as ‘Supporting Well Being in the Work Place’ offers a rich road map for legal practices. Key questions you can ask of yourself as leader and your fellow partners are:

  • Is wellbeing and self-care on the partnership agenda?
  • Do you actively demonstrate wellbeing and self-care?
  • Do you openly speak about mental health?
  • Are you genuinely committed to supporting wellbeing and self-care?

Your self-care is essential for your organisation. Your failure to self-care comes at a personal cost to you and has implications for your people and organisational health and success. If you don’t feel able to effect change for yourself or in your organisation then consider employing a coach and/or a culture change specialist who will support you through the process.


Dr Phyl Hughes and Alison Herbert