Many law firms have realised the benefits of work-life balance for their employees, introducing new rules and policies about what is and is not expected after the 9 to 6.
But that does not mean everyone will apply these new rules consistently. It can be difficult to change attitudes, and manage client expectations and workflows when lucrative work comes in unexpectedly. A strict and pressurising billable hours model may still preside over the everyday, without tight controls around it. And so, the status quo remains. If you want to make partnership, you will need to put in the long hours.
However, a lack of work-life balance can have a detrimental impact on lawyers’ mental health and wellbeing. A 2021 worldwide study by the International Bar Association found poor work-life balance is a key reason why one-third of lawyers said work had ‘a negative impact or extremely negative impact’ on their wellbeing. And a study by LexisNexis last year found over two-thirds of mid-level associates would think about moving jobs for an improved work-life balance.
Earlier this year Victoria Zinzan, a member of the Junior Solicitor Network Advisory Committee, also put a spotlight on the acute experiences faced by junior lawyers in this environment. She wrote in the Gazette about the expectation for junior lawyers to be available 24/7, and not admit to being over capacity in order to progress. But that needs to change, because, ‘there is a burnout crisis we are starting to feel’ and, ‘there is a strong difference between working hard and burning out and almost killing yourself’.
But for junior lawyers who work hard and are ambitious it can be difficult to challenge these working conditions without feeling like you are shooting yourself in the foot. And where your firm has introduced work-life balance policies but supervisors are ignoring them, it can be even harder to put your head above the parapet and ask for breathing space around work.
As an HR professional in a law firm, I would recommend the following to junior lawyers in this situation:
Identify the stressors. It is important to think about what is making it difficult to have a work-life balance. Is it the long hours, heavy workload, the last-minute requests, the perception/expectation you need to pick up emails in your evenings and at weekends? It can be very difficult to change this culture alone, so think about what it is possible to change. Consider if there is a way to set boundaries so you are still available but only at certain times in the evening and at weekends.
Learn how to say no. This is important, not just for yourself but also for those senior in the team so they can gauge your capacity to take on new work. You may worry that it could impede your progression, but if you frame saying no in a constructive way – ‘I could take this on, but I’ll need to push back this other project’, or ‘I would really like to focus on this element’, or ‘could I work with you/shadow you on this as I’m not sure what I’m doing?’ – it could remove the worry. It will also show partners that you are still willing to learn, work hard and progress.
Speak to your supervisor. You may prefer to run for the hills rather than have this conversation. But after you have reflected, it is important to speak to your supervisor. It is especially important that a supervisor is aware if you are struggling with mental health because of the workload. Employers have a duty of care and it may be that the supervisor is unaware of the detrimental impact work could be having because you are still performing so well. Communicate the boundaries that you have considered that will help with your work-life balance and discuss how to make that work. If a supervisor is unreceptive to making adjustments, it is worth speaking to HR. They will be able to help you access wider support and have those difficult conversations about poor working practices.
Speak to peers and join initiatives. Join any initiatives within your firm that are leading on work-life balance. Talk with peers and discuss creative solutions (SA Law has a wellbeing working group which brings together ideas from across the firm and helps people to make them happen). A joint effort could help influence the negative behaviour and attitudes towards work-life balance across the firm. Take advantage of counselling and other wellbeing initiatives offered by HR. For example, SA Law has mental first-aiders who hold open-door chat sessions to ensure employees have a point of contact to help them talk and make decisions about their mental welfare.
If you are unable to have a work-life balance as a junior lawyer, these approaches can help establish a strategy without the fear of harming development. If your firm is not listening or making reasonable adjustments it may be worth looking at firms which do provide flexibility and practise what they preach.
Do not stay silent. The patterns and disciplines you set early in your career create the foundation for your future working life. Learning how to set boundaries at this stage will help look after your mental health and build resilience to cope with future challenges.
Kelly Pike is head of HR at SA Law, St Albans