The focus on wellbeing and mental health in the legal profession over the past few years has been both much-needed and long overdue. The pandemic was a catalyst for change for a profession that was already under strain and stressed out before anyone had even heard of Covid-19. The demands of clients who were equally, if not more, stressed than the lawyers have increased during this time (and show no sign of returning to pre-pandemic days). And while the increase in flexible working is positive, within many firms office culture is more fragmented than ever and that elusive ‘team feeling’ hard to locate.
In my work as a former lawyer turned therapist for lawyers, I notice common themes that come up again and again. Many are the ones you would expect: stress, anxiety, depression, overwork, questioning the meaning of being a lawyer. Am I doing any good? Am I actually helping people?
There is also one very common theme that it seems to me no one ever talks about. It causes huge harm and undermines workplace happiness and cohesion. And it’s rife within law firms.
That is playing favourites.
What do I mean?
Most law firms are structured as partnerships. There are some teams where partners work together well. Despite different partners bringing in varying amounts of work, there is a common purpose and approach and a (more or less) equitable division of work within the assistants in the team.
On the other hand, there are many where that is not the case. Teams headed by a grouping of senior lawyers will often be made up by partners with different styles (sometimes wildly so), slightly different practice areas and different (sometimes opposing) views about the way in which their area of law should be practised. What happens is that each partner starts to develop their preferred associates and trainees to work with; those with complementary styles. Teams start to become siloed, with the juniors increasingly taking on the characteristics of the particular partner they work with.
You might be reading this thinking ‘well of course, that’s inevitable. It happens everywhere. What’s the harm in it?’. The danger is that this often leads to certain associates being favoured and others left out in the cold. Some associates find themselves not being taken under the wing by any partner. They drift within their department, sometimes for years, being given dribs and drabs of work here and there, without being tied to any senior in particular. Over time, this has a hugely detrimental impact on their self-esteem. Particularly when other associates are often quite clearly ‘in the club’ or celebrated as a ‘star’ within their team.
Often this issue is compounded by the snap judgements that are rife within the fast-paced world of law. A trainee makes a mistake on a case and a view starts to develop that they may not be up to the job. A junior takes some time off due to a mental health issue and suddenly they are deemed ‘fragile’ and are shielded from the difficult or juicier matters. This may be done with the best of intentions but it often has a marginalising effect.
I am not saying that differentiation between members of a team is not inevitable. Sometimes, there may be legitimate issues with the assistant’s work. Unfortunately, this may be coupled with a curious passivity about grasping the nettle and addressing issues with them directly. Rather, sometimes they simply get written off. Or they may be left to deduce that there is an issue from the absence of work they are given. They may hear snippets in team meetings, via emails and in corridors about the sorts of work the other ‘in favour’ assistants are doing. Again, over time, this starts to chip away at their confidence, often, in a more corrosive and insidious way than a partner sitting down with them and having that difficult conversation, however fraught it might be.
What to do?
Some teams and firms have tried to address these issues by creating a system whereby, whenever a case comes into the team, one particular partner decides how the work should be allocated. Such schemes work with varying degrees of success and often end up being circumvented by partners, keen to revert to their assistant of choice.
I hope one outcome of the pandemic will be that we no longer sacrifice our internal working environments on the altar of excellent client service. To create effective teaching and learning environments within law firms, we need to take a thorough look at these insidious and corrosive habits that we all have a tendency to form. We also need to devote more time to those difficult conversations and to learning how to train others well rather than simply staying in our comfort zones. Not an easy task, given the ongoing pressures from client work, but one the profession must face.
The success of a law firm is an inside job after all.
Annmarie Carvalho is a therapist, trainer and non-practising solicitor and mediator