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Comment: Could better work allocation be the antidote to law’s hidden mental health crisis?

With junior lawyers more likely than ever to report being stressed, the IBA among others has urged firms to concentrate on the “provision and encouragement of remote working, better workload/work allocation processes, and improved work-life balance”. That requires the ability to allocate work in a fair, transparent and unbiased way, says William Dougherty.

By William Dougherty, founder of Capacity

A 2019 survey from the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) provides a troubling window into the wellbeing of junior lawyers in the UK.

Some 93% of the respondents reported being stressed in their role, with almost a quarter classifying themselves as severely or extremely stressed. Nearly half (48%) of those surveyed reported experiencing mental ill-health, with 14% of those experiencing suicidal thoughts. 58% had considered taking time off work for mental health reasons, but did not do so. When the JLD compared their findings with the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division, they found US lawyers reported similarly alarming mental health issues. Clearly, this is an industry-wide problem.

I invite you to reread the paragraph above. How does it make you feel? Whether these figures surprise you or not, this is the cold reality of working as a junior lawyer. What we’re glimpsing here is a hidden epidemic of stress and work-related mental illness in the legal profession – the kind that goes unreported and unnoticed outside of anonymous surveys.

Worst of all, the 2019 survey doesn’t account for the ‘terrifying’ spike in mental illness we know to have arisen during the pandemic, including a steep rise in employee burnout. The economic cost of poor mental health at work is staggering: in 2017 it was estimated to cost the UK economy £34.9bn a year, or £1,300 per employee.

As an industry, will we continue to perpetuate this reality, or will we use this moment to bring about the cultural changes that could make our industry a better place in which to work, and a place where better work is performed? Significantly, 78% of respondents to the JLD survey thought their organisation could be doing more to support their employees. And organisations can do more.

But first, they need to know what’s making lawyers unhappy. A 2021 global survey from the International Bar Association (IBA), which set out to understand mental wellbeing in the legal profession, is unequivocal. The extensive report found that “competing demands, long hours, and unrealistic time pressures were the most commonly cited problems” encountered by lawyers.

Workload issues were found to remain at a constant throughout a lawyer’s career, but concerns around work-life balance, physical wellbeing and mental health appear to disproportionately preoccupy younger lawyers. Alarmingly, it’s not just those already in the profession that are suffering the impact of these cultural issues. The legal profession’s reputation precedes itself, with 84% of aspiring lawyers having concerns over their ability to manage the stress of a training contract, according to a 2021 survey from The Corporate Law Academy (TCLA).

So, how should a firm begin attempting to solve these issues? Among three key recommendations, the IBA has urged firms to concentrate on the “provision and encouragement of remote working, better workload/work allocation processes, and improved work-life balance”. Senior lawyers may assume this means less work handed to more junior lawyers – but that’s only one way to attack the problem. Another, as the JLD recommends, is for firms to ensure systems and processes are as efficient as they can be to enable employees to do the best job they can.

At present, work allocation in law firms is anything but efficient. Work isn’t allocated to the most appropriate person, and current systems – if they exist at all – are manual, time consuming and often frustrating, involving spreadsheets, walkarounds, and unseen emails or unanswered telephone calls.

Work allocation platforms can cut all of this out by enabling lawyers to communicate how busy they are with the rest of their team, ensuring work is diverted away from those who have the most on their plate. This makes business sense, seamlessly optimising how work is distributed. It spares lawyers engagement with their firm’s existing, exhausting distribution channels. And it results in a cultural shift, with hard workers recognised, the underworked better occupied, and each individual liberated from the pressure of accepting work they simply don’t have the capacity to undertake.

There’s another benefit to modernising work allocation. The JLD also recommends encouraging “staff empowerment, diversity, and inclusion” as a way to boost employee wellbeing across the board. Next generation work allocation will seek to maximize autonomy for junior lawyers, allowing them, where appropriate, to select their own work, empowering staff. It will close the window of work-allocation bias in firms, helping to create a more inclusive environment.

Scientific research has found that autonomy over tasks is more than twice as likely to improve job satisfaction than salary, working hours, and working environment. Workers’ control over their workflow reduces levels of work-related stress and makes employees significantly happier. And unsurprisingly, job satisfaction strongly correlates with improved quality of work, which in turn translates into increased profits for the business, and lower employee attrition.

So while it’s true, as the IBA has stated, that unrealistic time pressure must be addressed in the law industry, the available evidence suggests that’s just part of the solution. As people, we perform better work at a faster rate when we’re empowered – and we quickly feel we’re over-capacity when work is allocated in a slap-dash, inefficient manner in an environment when it can be difficult to justifiably say “no”.

I’ll remind you that 78% of those surveyed by the JLD thought their organisation could do more to support their employees. Improving work allocation seems like such an easy win – setting off a ripple effect of productivity and satisfaction within firms – that it should be topping the list when organisations are considering how to do more for their staff. To ignore this opportunity is to slip behind those firms that have finally got the memo on mental health and productivity.

I recently gave up my job in Big Law to help law firms tackle their latent mental health problems, and the productivity drain they entail. My experience, and those of the hundreds of junior lawyers I’ve listened to, suggests it’s not just high workloads that causes stress; it’s also the way that work is allocated that gets junior lawyers down.

So I developed “Capacity”, a work allocation platform designed to make lives easier right across the law firm hierarchy. It’s based on the principle that work allocation is one of the key channels through which legal professionals interact. That means work allocation doesn’t just affect a firm’s bottom line – it has a profound impact on its culture too.

With Capacity, we’re taking a broader view of what makes lawyers productive, which happens to be exactly what makes them happy. And it turns out that’s not benefits, freebies, salary hikes or workload let-offs. It’s just a case of allocating work better.

William Dougherty is co-founder of Capacity, which is a work distribution platform. Dougherty founded Capacity in 2018 with the aim of providing an unbiased way to distribute work and improve employee wellbeing. He was previously an associate at global law firm Dentons.