Work-Life Balance & Work-Place Productivity in The Legal Sector
Life in the legal sector is commonly associated with long hours, challenging deadlines and a high-pressure working environment where busyness is worn as a badge of honour. This makes striking a balance between productivity and burnout extremely difficult. These intensive and high-pressure environments becoming a norm have resulted in lawyers being the most overworked and stressed out professionals in today’s workforce . However, law firms need to understand that overworking their employees is counterproductive. Doing so significantly impacts one’s work-life balance resulting in their overall productivity level being negatively impacted .
This article outlines the relationship between productivity and a healthy work-life balance, the importance of working towards employee wellbeing, how law firms can help lawyers achieve a better work-life balance and why achieving this goal is important for the firm’s business.
What does a healthy work-life balance look like?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a ‘work-life’ balance as the amount of time one spends doing their job compared to the amount of time one spends with their family and doing the things they enjoy’ . The 2019 Law Society of England and Wales report found that 46% of solicitors surveyed stated they were regularly expected to work longer than their contract hours . Moreover, 38% of solicitors surveyed found it difficult to take a break from work in their personal time . Under the Cambridge Dictionary definition and the statistics highlighted, it is safe to say that many legal professionals may not be achieving this balance, making them feel that their personal time is not solely their own.
However, the meaning behind achieving a work-life balance is not straightforward. The term ‘work-life balance’ is extremely subjective and can mean something different to every professional. It can mean the extent to which an individual’s needs are met in work and non-work aspects of life, the support offered by employees in terms of fringe and non-monetary benefits, or simply being able to manage work and personal responsibilities without feeling overwhelmed . Following the pandemic and a general shift to a more flexible working culture, the meaning and approach toward achieving a work-life balance are constantly evolving.
This approach is also different for different age demographics within the working population . According to Forbes, Gen X emphasises work-life balance and looks for perks such as extended maternity/paternity leave, adequate vacation time and work from home. However, millennials are reported to be more concerned with finding a career path that supports their life outside work, and those born between 1945 and 1960 tend to stay at companies for long periods and prioritise job security instead of a work-life balance .
What disrupts a healthy work-life balance?
Long Working Hours Being a Norm
The pressure to work long hours begins in the early stages of a lawyer’s career. The industry-wide culture of being accustomed to such high pressure working environments and simply accepting committing to long hours as the norm is reinforced as early as when students are still completing their legal education and are yet to start their first job. Legal Cheek‘s survey in 2021 highlights that most trainee and associate lawyers work more than 11/12 hours in a day, especially in London, compared to those trainees and associates who work outside the city . Working long hours significantly impacts one’s ability to meet personal responsibilities, which can add further stress and anxiety or simply prevent lawyers from taking time out for themselves, impacting their mental health.
Use of Time-Tracking Tools & Micromanagement
The approach taken by partners when managing junior associates and trainee solicitors also affects one’s work-life balance. The way one leads a team, manages their work and takes control of the operation can also negatively impact work-life balance depending on the environment the team leader creates and their expectations. While most people prefer hybrid working as it offers more flexibility and work-life balance, some employers can be guilty of micromanaging remote workers. Micromanaging has been an existing problem long before the pandemic and has become even more of an issue after the rise of remote working. It is considered a big red flag for employees when their employers constantly keep tabs on their every move using workflow management systems and time tracking or time management software. The Owl Labs State of Remote Work report found that 90% of employees stated they work as productive or even more when working remotely . However, 36% of managers still struggle to trust their employees to focus and work productively .
Presenteeism & E-Presenteeism
The global evaluation of wellbeing in the legal profession carried out by IBA has found a strong stigma associated with legal professionals voicing concerns about their health. The study found that 41% of respondents felt that they could not discuss their wellbeing with their employer because they believed it would impact their career, causing a rise in presenteeism . Presenteeism refers to working when one is not physically or mentally capable. While the employee is technically at work, their productivity is much lower than when they are in full health, resulting in a higher chance of mistakes . The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that 83% of its respondents had observed presenteeism in their organisation, and 24% of respondents had stated that the problem had worsened compared to the previous year . Presenteeism can not only impact one’s work-life balance but can also create problems in the business of a law firm by creating a hostile culture where employees are not supported. This impacts a law firm’s reputation and employee retention rate and creates huge remedial costs for the firm. The Centre for Mental Health calculated that presenteeism costs the UK economy £15.1bn per annum, while absenteeism costs £8.4bn .
Furthermore, with the rise of remote and flexible working options, there is a risk of e-presenteeism.
This simply refers to the equivalent online problem. With all the time saved from not having to commute and worry about getting home late, it is assumed that there is no longer a good reason not to have back to back meetings. However, this is also a negative habit, especially for junior lawyers who may feel that because they are working from home, they should be able to work even though they’re feeling unwell .
How does a healthy work-life balance impact a lawyer’s productivity?
Lawyers are more motivated to take up additional tasks and responsibilities at the office when they have a healthy work-life balance . A good work-life balance results in less tension and anxiety in the workplace, allowing lawyers to perform their tasks successfully and do more work without feeling burdened. Ensuring a good work-life balance increases employee motivation, which can be difficult to achieve, especially during a global pandemic where remote working has become the norm. Having employees who are excited to come to the office and approach their tasks with a good attitude creates a positive culture. Work-life balance has proven to be a self-perpetuating productivity enhancer, making it crucial for law firm management to start prioritising employee well-being because it is the right thing to do and because it fosters motivation and efficiency.
Reduced Stress Levels & Burn Out
A survey conducted by Protectivity, an insurance firm, found that 63% of respondents active in the UK legal industry reported stress at work on a daily basis . What is more concerning is that the problem of dealing with stress starts early on with junior lawyers as well. The Law Society Junior Lawyers Division’s (JLD) annual resilience and wellbeing report highlighted that one in 15 junior lawyers had experienced suicidal thoughts . These figures are extremely concerning, and law firms need to ensure a healthy environment where there are internal policies and stress management resources to protect their employees. For example, suppose a lawyer has a sick family member or loved one who needs care. In that case, it makes sense for them to work from home, which would allow them to balance working while meeting their personal responsibilities. If the same employee were working at a law firm that does not offer flexible working options, they would always be stressed when coming to work which would negatively impact their work productivity and ability to meet responsibilities at home. Lastly, ensuring a good work-life balance avoids lawyer burnout. This is a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped with work resulting in emotional, physical and mental stress . Making lawyers feel comfortable at work by offering remote working legal support and encouraging them to communicate if they feel overwhelmed avoids this pressure and allows them to enjoy a better work-life balance and be more productive.
Better Mental Health
The ALM’s 2020 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey found that 31% of lawyers felt depressed, 64% experienced anxiety, 10% reported an alcohol problem, and 3% felt they had a drug problem, and the most concerning statistic of them all was that 35% of survey respondents did not know whether their firms offered any mental health support . Not offering any mental health support can significantly impact an employee’s productivity and engagement level. Law firms must invest in a robust well-being program to provide their employees with the resources to achieve a healthy work-life balance. Future facing law firms should consider alternative working styles to accommodate the needs of their employees. This allows employees to perform better and makes them feel more valued, which increases their engagement and overall loyalty to the firm.
Why should law firms prioritise employee wellbeing?
Offering employee support and encouraging a good work-life balance allows law firms to build an inclusive culture that promotes openness and transparency regarding the firm’s strategy, which encourages employee engagement and collaboration . Moreover, lawyers’ better work-life balance is also linked to higher organisational performance, better employee retention rates, improved reputation, increased cost savings, and increased profitability .
Greater Employee Retention
Work-life balance within a law firm is crucial to maintaining a strong employee retention rate. After working hard during the early stages of their career, senior lawyers and partners start prioritising a better work-life balance and looking for jobs elsewhere if their current employer is not meeting their expectations. Research shows that 77% of senior lawyers want to make changes in their professional life to reflect a better work-life balance and that 22% stated that they would leave their current firm if their new demands were not met . Therefore, law firms need to prevent this from happening as senior lawyers who have been working for the firm for years are trusted by the firm’s clients and have built long term relationships with them. Clients may not be happy with their lawyers leaving and may switch to the new firm the lawyer ends up working. It is also an additional cost to replace those that leave the firm and wait for them to get more familiar with existing clients.
Improved Talent Acquisition
Prioritising employee well-being and offering flexible working options to promote a healthy work-life balance also helps law firms compete for the best talent each recruitment cycle. Employers have been trying to determine the best way to attract millennial workers, and doing so may be the best way. The millennial generation of workers is projected to make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025, which calls for law firm management to prioritise their needs and accommodate their work-life balance expectations . The younger generation has different values and priorities that focus on flexible working hours, balancing family life, and flexible working . Catering to these demands ensures that law firms can compete for the best talent and are not falling behind on new trends in the legal industry.
Avoids the Cost of Presenteeism
Nearly 300,000 professionals with long-term mental health problems lose their jobs each year . This costs employers £54 billion every year, with presenteeism contributing to half the cost . As mentioned earlier, presenteeism is present in high-pressure industries such as the legal sector. The foundation of a healthy workplace is being comfortable and open enough to take time off when required when both mentally and physically ill. This includes stress, anxiety, struggling with substance abuse or dealing with family problems. When lawyers come to work when facing these issues, it impacts their productivity, impacting the firm’s profitability. Not providing the right support to employees at the right time can also result in them being let go, which adds a further cost for law firms when hiring and training new lawyers as a replacement. By simply offering employee well-being support, cultivating an open culture and being a good employer can do wonders for the firm and its employees.
There is scope for the legal sector to offer a greater work-life balance due to the changing demands and attitudes regarding mental health, employee well-being and flexible working. Focusing on these elements and truly caring for employees can foster fulfilling legal careers that encourage a work-life balance while still being highly productive. Law firms need to reconsider their values and the culture they wish to promote to meet new employee demands, retain talent and stay competitive in the legal market.
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