This month’s Mental Health Awareness Week took place in an unprecedented time for all organisations, and the legal profession particularly should take this time to learn a ‘new normal’. In recent years, ‘wellbeing’ has become something of a buzzword, akin to marketing trend or hashtag, however the meaning goes somewhat deeper - what can the employer offer its employees to tackle the ongoing challenges, and are we communicating enough on the subject? The legal profession in recent years has been giving priority to wellbeing initiatives partly to show how aware it has become of the importance of wellbeing, but that does not necessarily mean this ‘issue’ is engrained in employers’ cultures and minds. 

John Petrie

John Petrie

The Covid-19 crisis has given us time to think about whether we dedicate enough time to this essential ingredient to business success. Mental health and wellbeing in the workplace should be part of the DNA of the business, the structure and, most importantly, the culture which is what defines a company. These times make it all the more difficult to keep in touch with employees and monitor both individual and team wellbeing. Until we realise that the wellbeing of staff is the most crucial element of business success and approach this matter conscientiously with full understanding, we are far away from achieving the rewards.

There are some excellent initiatives in the legal profession at the moment, helping professionals to work more efficiently – webinars encouraging us to share our tips for working successfully from home, discussions on the gradual return to the workplace, and communication ideas for virtual business development and ‘staying in touch’ with clients. These initiatives are important and a welcome helping hand, however what is more important is for legal businesses to find out from their employees how they can feel supported, training staff to manage a time which stressful and can cause anxiety to many.

One example of a pre-existing initiative which could be mirrored successfully in other organisations in these testing times, is Herbert Smith Freehills’ Mental Health Champions Programme. The programme aims to train staff with interest in mental wellbeing on how to support others and sign-post issues. Hogan Lovells has created a ‘promotion watch’ programme offering ‘resilience training’, a confidential helpline and other support mechanisms for those who have recently been promoted, which is known to be a stressful time for professionals.

At the Bar, a dedicated wellbeing website was created in 2016 by the Bar Council to promote mental health and wellbeing, not only for barristers but also for clerking teams and professional support staff, something of a breakthrough in the industry as many don’t feel encouraged to open up about mental health. At Serle Court, for example, our barristers are succeeding in finding new ways to work, taking positive action to address those additional stresses is becoming part of the culture. However, the approach to understanding wellbeing in barristers’ chambers can be challenging given barristers self-employed status. How do we ensure our members’ wellbeing is being observed, and who is responsible for doing so? Is it the chief executive, the clerks, or other barristers – or is it a joint effort of all, including peers? Perhaps more stringently, we should also ask whether barristers’ chambers could provide a human resource professional to evaluate this matter.

Technology plays a major role in this discussion. On different levels, it has enabled barristers and their staff to work from home. Some might argue that stress levels are reduced due to the lack of travelling, and being able to spend more time at home with family. However, in this ‘new normal’ it also provides round the clock access to emails and phone calls arguing that the standard 9-5 working day no longer exists. It has always been a challenge to find the right balance between the Bar and family life, and this extends to staff some of whom feel they are never off work. How many times does an email get sent saying 'sorry to interrupt you on an evening or weekend'? In lockdown, one might even not even think twice about emailing at the weekend.

Serle Court has an excellent collegiate atmosphere and has introduced a series of small initiatives, which collectively ensure individual needs are at the forefront of the business. Regular meetings are held via StarLeaf; a weekly meeting between the clerking and business development teams to discuss individual opportunities and remote practice development talks with barristers focussing on work opportunities and wellbeing over the last few months. On a social level, our marketing team has introduced a weekly ‘Not in the Pub, Pub Quiz’ and ‘Friday night drinks’, both welcome distractions from the working week.

Another good example of the integration of wellbeing into the legal profession is found in charitable foundations. One such foundation, LawCare, is dedicated to helping with mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession. Its ‘Law in Lockdown: Leadership and Compassion’ Conference which took place on 20 May drew together Simon Davis, the president of the Law Society, and various leadership and wellbeing experts to address some very current issues. Such an important initiative to help us adjust to a very different world where we will need to cope with a very different way of living.

Perhaps the main challenge in addressing wellbeing in a company/industry is the need to challenge cultural norms. There is a business case for improving wellbeing in the legal sector as we need our barristers and lawyers to maintain the highest mental capacity possible, to be able to deliver their best level of performance to clients. A clear mental mindset is critical for this to be achieved therefore 'minds' are a precious resource and should be cared for. The Mindful Business Charter is all about committing to real change in how lawyers and their clients work, reducing avoidable stress in the workplace. Two particular points they highlight are ‘respecting rest periods’ and ‘mindful delegation’. They are calling time on that long-held city attitude that professionals need to be always ‘online’ to prove their commitment; a cultural mindset that professionals need to work long hours, with little sleep and constant accessibility.

As mentioned earlier, this has to a degree reached barristers’ chambers, exacerbated in those sets with a significant offshore practice. This remains unchanged where barristers are asked to meet the needs of their clients - the early morning calls with the Far East to late night calls with the Caribbean means the sun seldom sets on some chambers. It would require cultural change to reverse what has become a norm. Will the current crisis allow us to stop, think, and assess whether we should challenge these norms?

It is not just barristers that are affected by long hours, but also the staff. Some believe that a flexible working policy can also be a threat to the quality of work and training in the workplace. With all staff working away from the office, it could be argued that there is less of an opportunity to learn from others, including senior staff.

How do we attempt to replace those moments of connection at the water cooler or by the kettle? We will all need to think creatively as how to approach new methods of working and communicating. At Serle Court, the daily ‘tea’ still happens despite not being in chambers. StarLeaf allows barristers to connect, perhaps with more meaningful discussion these days as members have had time to pre-empt what they would like to speak to their peers about. Perhaps investing in targeted initiatives such as training and mentoring, so that ways of interacting occur in more productive ways. We need to be realistic about the potential downsides and think creatively about solutions. But a collective attitude that we should all be looking after our own, and each other’s mental health and wellbeing should be our priority.

The real challenge has always been changing the cultural mindset in the workplace and dealing with the knock-on effects of making change to long-established working habits, especially if other competitor businesses are not making such changes. It could be said that the Covid-19 crisis has forced the hand of the legal profession. Does it risk losing a competitive advantage, or are the benefits for a business where wellbeing is part of the DNA such that it could provide a competitive advantage?

There is no reason why it should only be the large law firms that are concerned about employees’ mental health and wellbeing. We should all be looking to the day when every place of work, regardless of size, industry or location, consider mental health and wellbeing in every aspect of its work so that it is engrained in the culture and not separately defined.


John Petrie, Chief Executive, Serle Court