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So many workplace stresses for lawyers ‘are about the people around them’

With more junior lawyers experiencing typically higher levels of anxiety and depression than other professions, law firms are being encouraged to take a deeper look at their workplace cultures.

user iconLauren Croft 04 July 2022 Big Law
So many workplace stresses for lawyers ‘are about the people around them’
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That’s something Fionn Bowd, chief executive of boutique law firm Bowd, said will help take some of the stress away from lawyers just beginning their legal careers.

Speaking recently on Legal Lightbulbs – the newest podcast stream from Lawyers Weekly and Bowd, Ms Bowd said that whilst this issue is certainly not a new one among junior lawyers, it’s more widely spoken about than before, with younger lawyers more likely to be “overt” about their concerns – and more likely to move if they’re unhappy.

“We know that lawyers have got particularly high levels of depression, anxiety compared to other professions, but we’re also talking about general unhappiness that isn’t to do with diagnosed or clinical mental health issues, but is a very simple form of just being unhappy as lawyers, unhappy as juniors, unhappy with their choice of profession, unhappy with their firm or their employer, and this is a big picture issue outside of the higher incidents and prevalence that we have of mental health issues as lawyers,” she explained.


“And [law firms have] tried a lot of different things, a lot of different solutions, a lot of different band-aids. They’ve kind of thrown a lot of things at the wall to see if anything sticks in terms of trying to help with the job satisfaction and the willingness of junior lawyers to stay, none of which, certainly anecdotally, appears to have worked.

“And so, firms are feeling increasingly desperate about their pipeline and about what they’re going to kind of do in terms of lawyers, and my company works for law firms – so we listen to them and hear from them quite a lot, but from a much bigger picture, I’m concerned about the profession. I’m concerned that we are losing people who we shouldn’t be losing, who would make and do make excellent lawyers, and some lawyers who should be staying within law firms in terms of their skill set and their career progression, but who have chosen not to because of the environment.”

In terms of coming up with a solution to why younger lawyers are particularly unhappy, Ms Bowd said that the profession needs to take a deeper analysis of the problem rather than fixing issues superficially.

“This really comes down to three different things. One is the inherent nature of the work and the personality types of lawyers and the types of people who are attracted to law as study and law as a profession, and much of that, I think, is inherent. Then you’ve got structural issues which are not in fact inherent and that are effectively adopted by us or inherited by us, but that doesn’t make them inherent. They’re just the structure that we have at the moment,” she added.

“[There are also] some quite serious cultural issues that are causing a crisis within the profession, and then we have a structure that we’ve inherited which is one of the things that I think can be examined.”

Additionally, when it comes down to the workplace culture within the legal profession and the structural frameworks within firms, Ms Bowd said there are a number of “microaggressions” within many legal offices – some of which involve other people and some which involve the working environment.

“My husband is a lawyer in a large corporate, and he talked about, oh, a few years ago, they moved to kind of completely flexible. [And] basically, you have no desk. You just have to turn up every day and find a spot to work, and if that wasn’t dehumanising enough, at one point, they did have their own little box they could put their things in and lock up, and then just recently, even that’s been taken away from them so they can only have it for the day. So, you bring your things in, put it in the box, and then you have to take it at the end of the day,” she said.

“And there are so many of those kinds of things that happen in the workplace that make it a really, very unpleasant place to work compared to being at home where you’ve got all of your things around you, everything’s set up for you, and you know where everything is, and it’s all very cosy. [And] so many of the stresses that occur in the workplace for a lawyer, particularly for a junior, are about the people around them.”

These stresses can include a number of situations – from a partner being in a bad mood to hearing raised voices in a nearby office when there’s a problem with a case, added Ms Bowd.

“That’s about the stressful environment, about the personalities around us, about how people do and do not contain their emotions in a workplace, particularly for lawyers, are all things that create a very significant degree of stress, particularly as a junior, particularly when you don’t know what’s going on or you have no control, or you feel you might be in the firing line and you feel very insecure. Why would you choose to go back into that environment every day if you didn’t have to?

“I suspect there are a lot of people who think they wouldn’t cope if they knew what they were in for. I mean, one of the things about lawyers and the personality types of law students, particularly those who get to the end and have very high grades, is that they like a challenge, they like to throw themselves at things, and they don’t expect things to be easy. They’re quite happy to work very hard, as long as they can see that there’s a benefit and a reward,” she said.

“[But] often, I see people carrying a real degree of self-doubt and lack of confidence very deep down where they feel that they couldn’t cut it, that they really weren’t good enough, that they’re kind of an impostor because of the experience that they had in a law firm where they felt they weren’t good enough compared to others, and that can sit with them potentially through their whole career or for a very long time until they find their place. So, that’s not serving them. It’s not serving the profession either.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Fionn Bowd, click below:

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