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The ‘direct business ramifications’ of burnout in law

As the foundations underpinning the culture in the legal industry and traditional law firms remain flawed, the managing partner of Hamilton Locke said the firm is investing in additional training for leaders and support for staff to combat burnout and growing mental health issues in a turbulent market.

user iconLauren Croft 28 September 2023 Big Law
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Poor mental health and being overworked in the legal profession have been continually revealed to be all too common, with lawyers working upwards of 50 hours a week and the vast majority being “very exhausted”.

In conversation with Lawyers Weekly recently, Hamilton Locke managing partner Nick Humphrey confirmed that mental health issues and burnout in the legal industry remain a growing concern.

“We are highly attuned to the prevalent and growing mental health issues in the legal industry, with high levels of stress, burnout, lack of purpose, long working hours and intense job demands taking a toll on many legal professionals. We understand the industry’s frustration with bureaucratic management structures and pressures to deliver short-term profits at the expense of employee development,” he said.

 
 

“The legal profession can be demanding and high pressure, which can negatively impact mental health and wellbeing. Law firms are notorious for their misalignment with the interests of internal and external stakeholders and are commonly built on incumbent delivery models and partnership structures. This results in flawed, bureaucratic models and a deviation between the interests of people and clients.”

This comes after the Corporate Mental Health Alliance Australia (CMHAA) recently released the findings of a survey that delved into the key factors influencing employees’ mental health in the workplace.

According to the Leading Mentally Healthy Workplaces Report 2023, burnout has emerged as a significant issue affecting Australian workers, with 44 per cent of survey respondents claiming burnout is affecting their performance at work.

The survey data also established a relationship between burnout and reduced performance. Among those performing below their usual level, 58 per cent reported experiencing some symptoms of burnout, with 26 per cent reporting persistent burnout.

This, CMHAA chair and Microsoft Australia & New Zealand managing director Steven Worrall said, underscores the critical role organisations play in shaping employees’ mental health and wellbeing, with positive performance leading to positive outcomes and vice versa.

“This vital piece of research is important given we spend about a third of our lives at work, and this can contribute both positively and negatively to our mental health. When mental health is good, people are productive, happy, healthy, and can manage life’s challenges and stresses. When it is poor, we can find it hard to function, to find meaning in our work and daily life,” he said.

“The CMHAA calls upon all organisations to create safe settings that foster open dialogue and normalise conversations about mental health; prioritise employee mental health as a core part of their business strategy; and build employee, leader and organisational capability that can support a thriving workplace.”

Within the survey, employees reported positive impacts on their mental health from having supportive managers and colleagues (68 per cent) and good relationships with their managers (61 per cent).

This is something Mr Humphrey echoed, as “managing partners are now in the industry of healthcare” as they strive to look after their staff, particularly amid a potential recession, an increased uptake of technology and general decision fatigue as the legal market quickly evolves.

“The legal industry has got massive margin compression where lawyers’ salaries have gone up significantly over the last few years. Premises costs have gone up. But there’s a lot of pressure from clients on rates and fees. So, firms are under a lot of pressure and then that cascades down to partners and then from partners to lawyers and so on. Lots of partners are feeling stressed because they’re uncertain about whether they’re going to get work, with management setting them higher and higher targets and clients wanting more for less,” he said.

“So, the partners are very stressed and stretched. And then people are trying to work much longer hours to hit budgets and targets. And working longer hours to still generate less in billables. And then you’ve got this constant fatigue of meeting invitations and emails.”

While Mr Humphrey noted that some stress is good for productivity and problem solving, he is increasingly seeing higher and higher stress levels, which is leading to increased burnout.

“Burnout can manifest itself in, you know, people simply can’t make decisions, they simply can’t respond, they simply can’t get out of bed. The incidence of a burnout is extremely troubling. You get massive disengagement, poor health, loss of churn in your business and so on. So, there’s a very big human cost to all of this, but there’s also direct business ramifications. If your people are burning out, then you’re losing your main asset. So, I think the business needs are enormous,” he explained.

“I think for law firms and professional services, it’s training and coaching our leaders to be aware of [the signs of burnout] and then how to help. And getting rid of the stigma around mental health and having the conversation. And being deliberate about people’s workloads and getting away from the ‘glory days’ of doing all-nighters and working till 3am and not getting any sleep and working on weekends. We’ve got to get away from that so that we can get our people to run a marathon, not a sprint.

“The hours that our firm does would be way lower than the big competitors. The big competitors are people doing 2,000 hours and 2,500 hours. We expect our people to be productive and efficient, but nowhere near those sorts of hours. And we’ve got to stop this always-on culture where people are sending text messages at 9 o’clock on a Friday night and chasing stuff over weekends all the time. And we need to embrace work from home and flexible working and part-time partners, which are all things that we do.”

Hamilton Locke doesn’t mandate in-office days, has a strong D&I strategy encompassing parental leave, equality, LGBTI initiatives and domestic violence leave, as well as multiple career development programs and mental health initiatives, in addition to the firm’s da Vinci Development Program, which supports staff to improve their physical and mental wellbeing outside the workplace.

“We’ve built and developed a people-centric firm that fosters a supportive and nurturing culture that prioritises our employee’s wellness and development. We’ve created a different approach to the traditional law firms. We acknowledge that the foundations underpinning culture in traditional law firms are flawed. We’ve identified an opportunity to build a high-growth firm that evolves the traditional legal sector and focuses on the intersection of our people experience (PX) and client experience (CX).

“Sophisticated talent is seeing BigLaw as identical and duplicative – with a lack of purpose being a consistent theme. Talent wants a differentiated offering around people, culture, community and values. Legal professionals are perceiving BigLaw firms as ‘same same’, with a push towards unique talent proposition. We focus on optimising our employee’s people experience (PX) through our purpose-driven culture and values-based leadership team. We recognise that development-related activities contribute to the long-term value of the firm when aligned with its purpose, objectives and values,” Mr Humphrey added.

“We recognise concerns of burnout and lack of purpose and develop programs that encourage and incentivise holistic growth and support the idiosyncratic needs of our people.”