Page published on 10th May 2023
Page last modified on 5th January 2024


On 27 March 2023 we co-hosted a webinar, “Too busy to flourish?” with LawCare. The event was part of our Inclusivity Unlocked! series. It aimed to help IP sector employers and managers think more creatively about working practices and culture, so as to tackle our increasing mental health problems whilst also reaping the benefits of what we learned during lockdown.

We were delighted to welcome five expert panellists, all of them passionate advocates for mental wellbeing in the legal sector:

The webinar was chaired by IP Inclusive Lead Executive Officer and LawCare Champion Andrea Brewster OBE.

A recording of the webinar can be accessed here, or read on for our summary of the highlights.

What are the issues?

It is not new that the culture and practice of working in legal services can impact mental health. LawCare’s Life in the Law survey (2020-21) aimed to understand this better. With over 1700 respondents from a range of roles, they found that 69% of respondents had experienced poor mental health in the previous year and 20% had experienced bullying or harassment in the workplace. Legal professionals were found to have higher risk of burnout compared to an established cut-off score, with younger respondents, those from ethnic minority groups and those with a disability reporting higher burnout scores. These results were echoed in our own 2022 mental wellbeing survey with Jonathan’s Voice.

Lucinda Soon’s PhD research focuses on the work environment of lawyers and how this impacts their wellbeing. From a systemic global literature review she has found that workplace demands associated with stress and burnout include things like “techno-stress” (the ability to cope with new technologies), a mismatch between personal values and firm culture, low levels of autonomy, low levels of peer support, feeling you don’t belong, feeling incompetent, and feeling disinterested or unstimulated by your work.

Elizabeth recognised that many of these issues are cultural and so we should be looking for cultural solutions. We all have a role to play in looking at these issues – individuals, law firms, insurers, professional bodies, educators, etc – a sense of a shared responsibility across the legal profession. However, Lucinda explained that there is a big difference between the demands and pressures affecting different groups of people, and so there is no single solution.


Incentives for change

Maurece and Polly talked about their experiences in creating better working cultures and practices and the associated benefits for the business, such as improved growth, happier and more productive staff, improved staff retention, ease of attracting new staff, improved client care, risk reduction and regulatory compliance.

Back in 2017, Maurece’s firm took a serious look at how they could improve their working conditions. The whole firm took a month away from the office to explore this and they realised that they could work more effectively if they embraced flexibility and looked critically at how they worked. They instinctively knew that giving their staff more autonomy was the way forward and so they asked their teams to look at how they could work more innovatively, productively and efficiently, their incentive being a 4-day working week. Since 2020, a 4-day working week was implemented for everyone at her firm – that is 100% of pay for 80% hours for 100% output. The results for both the staff and the business have been impressive. 91% of staff said they had a good work-life balance and 84% said they felt well-rested. The business has grown by a quarter in the last 3 years and staff turnover has decreased by 50%. They also have no challenge with recruitment, whereas other law firms are struggling to recruit. Maurece believes that employees are now more aware of the range of working practices and cultures offered by different firms and will move to find something that suits them. For Maurece, a 4-day working week is the future.

Polly’s firm was founded more recently and from the outset they really challenged traditional ways of working in the law. She agrees that embracing a culture in which people can do their best work benefits every part of the business – from staff retention to client care to risk reduction. For her, the incentive for change is the significant value provided throughout the business.


Why is the regulator getting involved?

For regulators, unfair treatment of colleagues can pose a risk. If there has been a question of  alleged misconduct, the regulator will want to know if workplace culture was a contributing factor. They will look into toxic workplace cultures, such as bullying, harassment, failure to address these issues or provide support systems, pressure to take short cuts, etc. This is discussed in the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA)’s 2022 Workplace Culture Thematic Review and its associated guidance (see for example its “Workplace environment: risks of failing to protect and support colleagues” guidance). The guidance explains the SRA approach and the main standards that apply to law firms, such as an expectation on managers to challenge such toxic behaviours and an expectation that everyone is treated with fairness and respect. It does not direct working practices and procedures, but it does make clear that the SRA will take action when appropriate. This guidance applies to law firms and others regulated by the SRA and provides examples for other regulators. As the Legal Services Board regulates both the SRA and the IP-specific regulator IPReg, similar guidance could also be adopted by IPReg in the future. The SRA will hold individuals and firms to account when enforcing.


How to make changes and resources to help us

The WHO guidelines on mental health at work (2022) are free to download and provide evidence-based recommendations for organisations, managers and individuals to promote mental health, prevent mental health conditions, and enable people living with mental health conditions to participate and thrive in work.

The SRA guidance referred to above is a fantastic resource, providing many useful ideas and practical suggestions, as well as case studies exploring various issues.

LawCare have a range of resources on their website and a newsletter which you can subscribe to. Take a look at their free Fit for Law online courses for legal professionals, which promote psychologically and emotionally healthier ways of working in the law. Or listen to their “Legal Mind” podcast which explores a different issue each month.

Professional bodies also often share best practices on their websites.

Lucinda referred to data indicating that successful interventions tend to be focussed on addressing systems, rather than individuals, and on involving employees in co-designing changes. There is also growing evidence that line managers play a pivotal role in protecting mental wellbeing, and that upskilling line managers improves behaviours relevant to wellbeing.

In fact, all of the speakers emphasised the importance of good people management and supervision, yet the LawCare survey indicated that fewer than half of manager respondents had had any training. Lucinda’s co-researchers have developed a list of behavioural competencies for managers including being respectful and responsible; managing emotions and having integrity; proactively managing and communicating existing and future workloads; dealing with conflicts and difficult situations promptly and fairly; and being accessible and sociable and engaging empathetically with employees. Whilst these behaviours may sound obvious, there is a need for organisations to support managers in developing and embedding these behaviours, if they are to effectively support employees.


Examples of different approaches

  • No individual time or billing targets – individual targets can be counter-productive to teamwork and mental wellbeing; instead team-wide targets can be helpful in ensuring delegation/sharing of the workload.
  • Self-managed annual leave – where staff must take a minimum amount of holiday but no maximum level is imposed or there is the opportunity to purchase additional leave.
  • Flexible working model – where staff can choose when and where they work. Polly’s experience is that it is possible to build a strong culture and provide good supervision through remote working.
  • Most cases co-worked with at least two legal professionals.
  • Collective decision-making regarding new work – enabling colleagues to challenge each other’s capacity, both in terms of the volume of work and also the type (considering the complexity and associated stresses). A “traffic light” system can help establish who in a team has capacity for a higher and/or more stressful workload.

Polly emphasised that such practices are only part of their overall approach to wellbeing. She also recognised that it’s OK to get things wrong. It’s better to try a new approach, keep talking to your staff about what’s working or not for them, and make adjustments if necessary, rather than not change at all. Flexibility means something different to everyone, so it’s always best to ask and to aim to support individuals in whatever works best for them.


Are we doing enough?

The final question considered by the panellists was whether the effect of working culture on mental wellbeing is given a high enough priority. In recent years, Lucinda has seen exponential improvement, with more pressure being placed on organisations to address these issues, particularly from the regulatory side. In the future, she said she’d particularly like to see more auditing of what works and more small changes, for example managers facilitating employees to craft their jobs towards what works best for them and what they enjoy.

Jessica thought that there is more and better support available than 15 years ago, but that more improvement is still needed. She said she would like to see more organisations having culture audits, and ensuring that an organisation’s culture truly reflects what its policies say.

Polly considered that there’s a lot to be optimistic about and that things are definitely moving in right direction. She thought that change will be driven by junior members of the profession demanding it.

Elizabeth reminded us that these challenges have been around for a long time. The recent shift is towards recognising a shared responsibility for change, that is, both organisational and individual responsibility. She believes organisations that don’t start thinking about these issues will find themselves left behind.



We would love to hear your thoughts, comments or suggestions in light of this report and of the event itself. Please get in touch with us by commenting below or via email to [email protected].

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