Working in law can be a pressured environment. Whether it is the challenges of workload volume, demands of clients, requirements of compliance or responsibilities for business development, these pressures come in many forms. And, they can be unrelenting.
Lawyers have to contend with all of these factors, of course, and law firm managers face the additional duties of caring for their employees.
Typically, where there is pressure, there is stress. And, stress does not make a happy workplace.
In this latest article, Deborah Witkiss at Insight Legal outlines these pressures, explores the impact of stress and proffers a solution – which comes in the shape of legal technology.
Pressures on fee earners
Tackling the aforementioned pressures on solicitors working at the coalface of law, beginning with workload, volumes have escalated to worrying proportions of late. There are multiple complex causes.
For example, courts went into the pandemic with a backlog of tens of thousands of cases. These self-same courts emerged from the pandemic with up to 48% higher backlog, according to the National Audit Office. Apparently, this backlog will be a problem for years to come. In basic supply and demand terms, there is not enough fee earning capacity (supply) to meet increased case numbers (demand). To complicate matters further, the courts themselves are struggling with enough judicial capacity to deliver its ambition to reduce the backlog.
Another enduring legacy of the pandemic is reduced staffing levels. Redundancies and recruitment freezes combined to pile up workloads on remaining employees. Contrary to expectation, home working did little to improve this situation.
You see, despite avoiding travelling into the office, which for London commuters was a significant time saving twice daily, working from home actually meant people being available round the clock. Essentially, many lawyers simply filled the commute time with work time; moving even further away from a work-life balance. With hybrid working now the de facto operating model, this is a phenomenon that is going nowhere.
The net result? If Legal Cheek’s recent research is anything to go by, some of the longest working days our sector has experienced – the worst law firm offender racking up an average start time of 9.14am and average finish time of 11.28pm. These hours are unsustainable – without burnout.
Next come pressures from clients. ‘More for less’ is one modern mantra from savvy clients. Another common complaint is disappointment that a case has not gone the way the client thought it would. Again, Covid-19 has only served to exacerbate the issue – soaring expectations have been widely reported. Even the most senior and experienced solicitors can buckle under the weight of these encumbering expectations.
Compliance is a consistent and constant concern. Industry regulators are unapologetic about their hard stance on compliance – and rightly so because clients and their monies must be safeguarded, whatever it takes. Comply or face the consequences – with no exceptions. Yet, the governing rules and regulations themselves are extremely complicated to keep on top of without assistance.
Finally, there is pressure associated with contributing towards the running of a successful business. This contribution can be anything from satisfying clients so they bring repeat business and refer your law firm to others, to pitching in during board discussions on business development opportunities. This extra responsibility can be a step too far for the already-stretched lawyer of today.
Pressures on law firm managers
Almost universally, law firm managers have fee earning duties – meaning all of these pressures apply. On top of this, there is the added obligation of employee wellbeing. Cast your mind back to the untenable working hours mentioned earlier. The law is not currently a culture promoting wellbeing.
There is a direct correlation between pressure and stress. The more pressure you (and your employees) are under, the more stressed you (and they) are likely to feel. The impact of stress is far reaching, from decreased productivity, to missed deadlines, to mistakes, to rising sickness rates, to resignations – blending to hit a law firm where it really hurts: their bottom line.
In other words, fail to look after your staff and the outcome will not be pleasant for all parties concerned – you (as output drops), your employees (who do not feel valued and whose workload hikes up if covering for absent colleagues) and your clients (as standards slip and support received becomes lacklustre).
Reflections on stress
Mental health charities, such as legal community specialists LawCare, report escalating requests for help from stressed-out professionals. In its ‘Life in the Law’ research study of 1,700 lawyers, LawCare’s headline finding was respondees being at ‘high risk of burnout associated with having a high workload, working long hours and a psychologically unsafe working environment’.
To quote some of the survey’s statistics, 69% suffered mental ill health in the preceding 12 months, 80% said their work was fast paced with tight deadlines, 28% advised they were required to be available to clients 24/7, 59% expressed concern over their work-life balance and only 48% of those in managerial positions had received supervisory training.
Clearly, there is much to be done to improve the lives of lawyers and their managers – and it starts with software.
Achieving a healthy workplace through software
There is no single quick fix to the legal world’s sometimes unhealthy culture. Leadership training, reward and recognition schemes, appraisal and engagement initiatives, and wellbeing programmes will undoubtedly be components in resolving the ongoing predicament. As a legal software provider, technology’s role is the focus here – case management and legal accounting software designed for law, to be precise.
Surprising as it might at first seem, your software goes a long way to promoting a robust and pleasant workplace.
As a starting point, software provides workflow support to guide users through the tasks associated with cases in progress. Along the way, prompts and reminders ensure nothing gets missed and everything is performed to deadline. Your workflows also control who tasks are allocated to and when escalations occur, making sure that the right things are not just done at the right time and in the right way, but also by the right people.
Within your workflow, software permits the creation of client care and T&C document templates. Carefully word this collateral in order to set expectations properly and apply uniformly in your practice. Couple with the ability to better service these clients via the workflow and calendar cues referred to above. Your clients and contacts can even self-serve, with the option of using a case enquiry portal to track the progress of their case, supply information and receive documentation. Plus, enjoy Outlook and legal forms integration for client communication at its finest.
As already intimated, law firms have unique accounting requirements governed by stringent compliance regulations. Only specialist legal accounting software will suffice. Straightforward posting routines, integrated Making Tax Digital functionality, reliable anti-money laundering checking, accurate invoicing including online payment links, automatic reconciliations, in-built compliance checks and comprehensive reporting allow your accounts to be handled optimally.
As a complete practice management system, your software gives intelligence tools to access the right performance information to make sound commercial decisions. By understanding your up-to-the-minute financial position against business and staff key performance indicators, and identifying trends, you can forecast and plan for your future success.
The best software contains supervisory features to keep workloads evenly balanced across team members so no one is overly stretched, flag work not done as it should be or milestones not reached for rectification, time recording data analysis (chargeable and non chargeable) to make sure your people are clocking up reasonable hours for wellbeing maintenance and workflow to empower them to action tasks quicker thus shortening their working day.