At the dawn of the new millennium, organisations around the world handed out shiny new toys to their people. Everyone was thrilled. BlackBerrys allowed staff to organise appointments, jump on calls and check emails wherever, and whenever. Employers provided basic functional training on how to use the devices, and sent a grateful workforce on its way.
What was unappreciated at the time was that having a BlackBerry fundamentally changes the individual's relationship with the working world - and no one gives you training for the psychological impact of being permanently switched on. Two decades later some are asking: is it time to unplug?
Society may have moved on from BlackBerrys, but that little red flashing light became a symbol of how technology has transformed working life.
To the subconscious mind, red means ‘warning’, or ‘danger’. It is reminiscent of paging doctors and emergency services – yet the reality for most legal professionals is that the level of urgency attached to each email is far from life and death. As time has passed, the lines between urgent and important have become blurred, and the habit of compulsively checking emails deeply entrenched.
Further, as technology has improved, it has become harder to keep professional and private lives separate. Excessive working and burnout among lawyers is increasingly commonplace.
"A senior colleague of mine once spent weeks working late every night to show support for his team who were still in the office", says Jonathan Bond, Director of HR at Pinsent Masons. "One day, a staff member turned around and said, 'It doesn’t matter how late we work, you’re always here later'".
This manager's well-intentioned act of support was actually exacerbating the problem, putting further pressure on his team to work into the night. By realising the effect and leaving at a sensible time, he set an example and the team soon followed suit, to great effect says Bond.
This hyper-competitive culture has become a defining attribute of the legal profession as professionals jostle to show who can work the hardest.
Unsustainable working practices are bad for productivity, bad for physical health, bad for client relationships and bad for gender diversity. It has become a truism that the culture of focusing on hours inputted rather than outcomes achieved has discouraged female talent from aiming for the next level in their careers, or even staying in the profession.
Further, there is also evidence to indicate that avoidable working practices are bad for mental health.
Head of Workplace Wellbeing, Mind
Experiencing poor mental health at work is really common regardless of the kind of role you do, but if you work in the legal sector, there are particular factors that could put you at greater risk of developing a mental health problem.
According to the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA), a survey of law graduates revealed that 73% of respondents had experienced a severe or rare mental health problem. Researchers have also established that people attracted to the field of law are even more likely to develop mental health issues than medical students.
"Experiencing poor mental health at work is really common regardless of the kind of role you do, but if you work in the legal sector, there are particular factors that could put you at greater risk of developing a mental health problem," says Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind.
And yet, research conducted by Pinsent Masons into client attitudes found that few senior lawyers want an 'always on' commitment. As one client pointed out, "we don't want busy fools”. Clients instead want people who are fresh, dynamic and energised.
So, what is to be done?
There are some steps which organisations can take unilaterally. Pinsent Masons, for instance, has overhauled its bonus scheme so that it focusses on adding value for clients through innovation, efficiency and quality. "In short, we started to reward lawyers for outputs more than inputs", says Bond.
However, true progress will require collaboration between both buy and supply side. In the last two years a number of financial institutions and law firms have partnered to develop the "Mindful Business Charter". This is a set of agreed, common-sense rules about respecting rest periods, and being clear in instructions about what needs to be done, who needs to do it, and when it is required.
In the Mindful Business Charter, legal professionals on both sides of the fence are asked to 'build in' healthy habits. Signatories to the charter have agreed that no one should send instructions to lawyers late on a Friday afternoon – unless it’s urgent, in which case it should be made clear exactly how urgent. The implicit assumption that work needs to be done immediately has been removed; such requests instead need to be explicit.
Senior staff are encouraged to lead by example, for instance not replying to emails at late at night. Longer vacations are promoted and 'offline means offline' has become the mantra.
The authors of the charter hope that it provides a blueprint for other industry sectors. Speaking at the launch of the charter Philip Aiken, Managing Director of Barclays, said "The take-up of the Charter from so many of our banking and legal counterparts shows the power of collaboration to foster change. I believe it shouldn't stop there. We hope that in time these principles will be applied in all organisations across all sectors."
Aside from the charter, agile working is being championed by a number of early adopters. While it remains unusual in the sector, law is actually well-suited to flexible working. With the exception of client meetings, there is a lot of work which can be completed in a range of locations apart from an office.
Says Bond, "We’re at a moment in history where attitudes to work are changing. As they do, it’s important that we learn to be more mindful with our use of technology, and strive to improve wellbeing among our bright minds which are dealing with complex client issues. Those minds need to be trained, stretched and rested, just like the bodies and minds of elite athletes."
If the profession is brave enough to acknowledge there is a problem, collaboration and community will be key to resolving it.