Weekly take: Law firms must act now to fix toxic cultures
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Weekly take: Law firms must act now to fix toxic cultures

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Numerous studies show that lawyers are increasingly stressed at work and looking for a way out, but law firms are still in denial

Last January, I wrote about the toxic work culture in the legal industry that has increasingly pushed young practitioners to quit the profession.

My opinion followed a 30% increase in the exit rate of young practitioners in Singapore in 2021 compared to 2020.

A similar trend was spotted in London, with firms struggling to retain lawyers despite offering lucrative salaries.

Now, 12 months on, I write this piece to assess what has changed over the past year. In summary, a deep dive into different mental health studies conducted among lawyers reveals that not much has changed, and certainly not for the better.

A recent report by LawCare, a legal charity in the UK, revealed that 22% of people contacting the organisation for support were primarily concerned about their career in the law, marking a dramatic increase from just over 8% in 2021.

For the first time, the numbers of people with career concerns and those seeking help because of stress were the same, the report revealed.

The trend of lawyers losing interest in the profession isn’t limited to the UK, of course.

For example, the number of practising lawyers in Singapore dropped for the first time in half a decade.

Only 613 new lawyers were admitted to the bar between 2020 and August 2021, marking a yearly decline of more than 100. In 2022, even fewer lawyers – 597 in total – were called to the bar.

My story

First, let me explain – after clearing the bar exam in India in 2014, I worked at a law firm for over four years before moving in-house for a leading electrical goods company.

In both roles, I often found the work I was doing repetitive and unfulfilling.

While my in-house role at least provided a better work-life balance, I felt stressed and overworked during my stint at the law firm. Throwing more money at the problem every year wasn’t a solution to how burned out I felt.

Worst of all, I had to deal with overly competitive colleagues and office politics that would take the joy out of doing meaningful work, which rarely came my way.

Peer problems

That’s why, this morning, I delved into different studies and research projects investigating rising mental health issues among lawyers to explore more about what’s stressing them out and why they are increasingly looking for the exit.

Surprisingly, rather than the reports themselves, the reactions of lawyers found in the comment sections of these studies were more eye-opening – and not in a good way.

Lawyers who feel stressed with their jobs and look for a way out are often branded as “those who can’t hack it” by their peers and other practitioners, including those who don’t even know them and aren’t familiar with their struggles.

As someone who left the legal profession in 2021, this ill-conceived outlook doesn’t surprise me.

The lack of empathy among peers and seniors discourages more lawyers from openly discussing the state of their mental health or the unhealthy work culture at firms.

When a section of lawyers dismisses how their peers feel as an “artificial problem”, law firms are inevitably less likely to take action to create an inclusive and supportive workplace.

Another section of lawyers believes that if someone is getting into the legal profession, they already know what they’re signing up for and that monetary rewards associated with the job justify the long hours, heavy workload, and more.

The few senior-level practitioners who are sympathetic to the challenges faced by junior associates have only one piece of advice: do the hard work for a decade or so and then move in-house where you can have a better work-life balance.

No one seemed remotely interested in finding a solution to the main issue at hand – how to build a better and more inclusive and associate-friendly work culture in law firms.

Internal issues

Plenty of studies indicate that junior lawyers with less than five years of post-qualification experience are the ones who feel most burned out or even victimised at work.

The promise that “things will be better in the future” may not be enough when someone is struggling to find a balance between having a healthy personal life, doing meaningful work, and performing and earning well enough to pay off student loans.

Most junior practitioners have very few people they can talk to who understand their struggles and the demands of the legal profession.

And most law firms encourage an unhealthy amount of competition between junior lawyers by extensively focusing on billable hours-based performance.

Several other factors stress out lawyers too.

In the intellectual property industry, for example, prosecution lawyers are not often held in the same esteem as litigators, who are regarded to be more capable of handling complex issues. This could also add to a junior lawyer’s stress levels.

If you are a lawyer handling IP deals and mergers and acquisitions, you’ll probably take home a lot more money than some of your peers who put in the same number of hours. And that could be seen as unfair by others.

What’s more, a junior lawyer’s initial worth in some firms is determined by whether they graduated from a tier-one law school.

If they don’t have a degree from such a school, they may get stuck doing labour-intensive and less fulfilling work, even though their primary interest may be working on more complex issues, such as cross-border IP litigations. This needs to change.

Wrong focus

In my op-ed last year, I pressed on the need for more conversation on work culture issues in law firms.

While there has been plenty of research since then, few law firms have come out to openly discuss what they’ve been doing to build a more supportive system within their practices and to address mental health issues faced by lawyers, including those on the bottom of the ladder who experience the most pressure.

In fact, some firms have approached the problem from a completely wrong direction and tried to paint their practices in a good light by explaining why the associates who stayed back are choosing not to leave.

To me, this seems like hogwash to shirk responsibilities and justify inaction – factors pushing more and more lawyers to call it quits.

If law firms merely expressed their shock at the research data that reveal mental health realities within their practices and simply set out to disprove them, not much would change.

I won’t be surprised if even more lawyers look to quit the profession in the coming years.

The time for mere conversation is over. There’s a need for concrete action on the part of law firms to build more equitable, supportive, balanced, and mental-health-friendly workspaces.

When an associate reaches out to a partner saying they are overworked, the response shouldn’t be, “OK, but can you do it anyway?”.

For now, we can only hope that 2023 will bring better results in terms of less conversation and more action.

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