Promoting a good working culture in law firms - Part 1: What is a manager's role?
In May 2019, The Times reported that there was a looming mental health crisis facing the profession. Lexis Nexis’ 2019 report (The Bellwether Report 2019: Stress in the Legal Profession — Problematic or Inevitable), found that almost 66% of solicitors are experiencing high levels of stress, with 75% reporting that stress and mental wellbeing is a major issue for the legal profession. At the junior end of the profession, the picture is bleaker, with the annual Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) survey reporting this year that of the 1,800 junior lawyers surveyed, 93% reported experiencing stress at work with almost a 25% of those reporting severe or extreme levels of stress. Deloitte estimates that businesses are losing in excess of £1,500 per employee per year due to the costs associated with poor mental health.
Another alarming finding from the JLD annual survey of almost 2,000 lawyers surveyed was that many lawyers said they used alcohol as a coping mechanism and that it was having a negative impact on their mental health. Survey findings also demonstrated that alcohol and law firm drinking culture contributed towards bullying and harassment, diversity and productivity – all of which lend themselves to a poor workplace culture.
All of this is extremely worrying given all the recent media coverage relating to law firms and other professional services firms and the underlying “booze culture” reflected in most social events having alcohol as the main focus. This in turn has been linked to a number of cases being investigated by regulators where allegations of sexual misconduct have been made where alcohol was involved. This demonstrates the ongoing need to prioritise wellbeing and its importance in achieving a good working culture. In terms of achieving this, we have put together some practical tips for lawyers to consider.
This does not need to be about reinventing the wheel and there is a host of information already out there to help you improve your workplace culture. For example, off the back of the JLD survey, JLD issued guidelines on creating a healthy alcohol culture in the legal profession. This was after the survey highlighted that some junior lawyers felt excluded from core networking and firm social events due to events revolving around the consumption of alcohol. Such guidelines can be used to inform inclusive alcohol policies which firms are being encouraged to develop and implement. Practical examples arising from such policies include firms choosing to provide an array of enticing soft drinks at work events, such as “mocktails” and high end soft drink options, as opposed to the mundane selections of soft and fizzy drinks usually on offer.
Plenty of specialist organisations have undertaken research looking at particular drivers behind workplace wellbeing. Use these resources and review their research findings to really understand areas where you, as a firm, can improve. Look to explore opportunities for your employees to attend wellbeing seminars at work or webinars covering a range of topic areas, run by these expert organisations. Employees are likely to feel more valued and supported if such options are available to them.
Think about other initiatives which might boost employee wellbeing, both from a physical and mental health perspective. Firms could offer a cycle to work scheme, free fruit in the office, complimentary yoga/Pilates/fitness sessions which take place in the workplace, or provide access to a monthly on-site beautician at subsidised rates, on the basis that employees struggle to attend such appointments when working long hours and / or commuting. If this doesn’t work for your employees (and remember seek their views on what would work for them), you could provide each employee with a wellness subsidy which they can use for whatever they would like to undertake to improve their own wellbeing. This will very much depend on the individual but it could be used for a gym membership, it could be attending music lessons or learning a language.
Finally, consider providing employees with access to employee assistance schemes, including access to a confidential helpline and a counselling service, so that they have a means to discuss any difficulties they might be experiencing, with someone other than a colleague.
Research consistently shows that when employees feel their work is meaningful and they are valued and supported by their employer, they tend to have higher wellbeing levels, be more committed to the organisation’s goals and, importantly, they perform better. This might sound obvious, but employee engagement is not a simple thing to achieve, let alone maintain and improve upon. Nonetheless, a simple “thank you” can go a long way.
Really think about how you can keep your employees engaged. Feeling valued is a large part of this and investing in improving appraisal processes and regular pay reviews and bonus payment schemes will all contribute to employees feeling valued, as well as motivated to perform to the best of their ability. Consider conducting employee surveys to obtain feedback so that you are aware of areas where you are performing well and receiving positive feedback from employees as well as areas where feedback reflects a need for improvement. Be proactive in reporting back to your employees the findings of such surveys, with a detailed action plan of how you intend to improve in underperforming areas.
Depending upon the nature of your business and the roles employees hold, you may want to think about offering some in-built flexibility in respect of working arrangements. This not only helps employees to feel supported and minimises the risk of them feeling overwhelmed by their workload, but it may also lead to a greater retention in talent, as you might lose fewer staff to companies where a more flexible working pattern is on offer. While this might not be an option for everyone, it is certainly something to give more thought to, as unsurprisingly perhaps, this has a knock-on effect on another key area – equality, diversity and inclusion (which we will address in the third and final blog in this series).
Develop, implement and keep policies under review
Make sure that you have an extensive range of comprehensive policies covering key areas such as wellbeing, flexible (and remote) working, appraisals, supervision, benefits package, holiday, promotion, remuneration, career breaks, leave associated with any caring responsibilities (be this paternity, maternity, adoption etc). Remember that these need to be regularly reviewed and updated, and listen to feedback from your employees as to areas of policies which might need to be re-visited to reflect any changes in, for example, legislation.
Your office environment should reflect the wider values and culture of your firm. There are a few simple things that can help boost wellbeing and productivity. For example, try to let natural light into the workspace. Studies regularly show that natural light boosts energy levels, mood and productivity in the workplace and those exposed to natural light often find it easier to sleep and as a result are more revitalised and generally healthier.
Think about having some plants or greenery in the work place. This can offer an external stimulus for our brains and give us something else to focus on, essentially providing rest for the mind, without us knowing. Additionally, plants can make some people feel more “at home”, and therefore make us feel more relaxed and comfortable in our working environment.
Think about adding some colour to your workspace. Bright colours are more likely to suppress melatonin (the hormone which can make us sleepy) and boost energy levels, so you are more likely to be alert and focussed for longer periods of time. This is likely to increase productivity as well. Finally, include some personality in your office design – your firm’s culture should be in harmony with your workplace environment. This was also help employees understand, connect to and feel part of the firm and the firm’s values should resonate with them (particularly if the firm has a positive culture).
Finally, provide employees with the right equipment so that they can carry out their role comfortably in the office. This will include office equipment (adjustable height desks and chairs and other adaptable devices such as keyboard, mouse and double screens). The more comfortable you are, the more likely you will be able to concentrate on your work, and the more productive you will be.
Some law firms have an extremely good culture when it comes to promoting wellbeing, but others not so much. A well-publicised example of the latter was seen in the Sovani James case (see SRA v James  4 WLR 163) where the Divisional Court observed: “the pressure on the respondent was caused in large part by a culture in the firm which was toxic and uncaring.” No firm will want its culture to be regarded in this way, let alone formally reported as such by a court of law and failing to have in mind the wellbeing of your staff is increasingly becoming a risk issue. The danger is that a firm could have the best risks systems and processes in place, but if there is an inherently toxic culture where wellbeing is not prioritised or regarded as a focus area, those processes will be wholly ineffective. Simply put, there is a risk that a firm’s bad culture can - and more often than not will - drive bad behaviours.
Jessica Clay is a Senior Associate in the Regulatory department and specialises in legal services regulation, with a focus on regulatory compliance, legal ethics, investigations and public law matters.
This blog first appeared on Legal Compliance Insight on 15 April 2020
As the legal profession returns to the office after many months ensconced in home offices, many will be looking forward to the increase in social interaction and in-person activities which will inevitably follow. Alongside this, legal services regulators appear to be gearing up for a commensurate rise in bullying and harassment complaints. With developments apace in this area among the UK regulators and further afield, what are we likely to see next from the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA)?
Every solicitor knows that an undertaking is serious stuff. Arguably it is the greatest power available to a solicitor. A promise, if broken, that will lead to immediate and serious consequences for the giver. As such it can be relied upon to the ends of the earth. The power of undertakings has meant that they sit at the heart of every property transaction, bridging the time gap between the sending of money and the receiving of title. They are also used in other areas of commercial life and as part of litigation. The “brand” of a solicitor’s undertaking is so powerful that little thought is given as to where their power comes from.
Julie Norris and Jessica Clay consider SRA entity regulation and the imperative to create an ethical (ergo, compliant) legal workplace.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of good mental health and resilience both in and out of the office. Bronwen Still and Lucinda Soon consider your obligations
The solicitors’ watchdog is right to take charge of misconduct cases but it needs firmer guidance to succeed
In our fourth blog in our series on Beckwith v Solicitors Regulation Authority  EWHC 3231 (Admin), we turn our attention to consider what impact, if any, this landmark decision might have on the regulation of professional accountants. While the case turned on some very specific features relating to the regulation of solicitors as contained in the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) Principles and Code of conduct, some parts of the judgment may have more general application.
In the two years preceding Ryan Beckwith’s appeal to the High Court, the SRA pursued a handful of other sexual misconduct cases before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (Tribunal). These cases are varied and fact-specific and include sexual misconduct in and relating to the workplace and conduct outside of work.
Regulatory investigations across all sectors are increasing in complexity, with a corresponding increase in the size of the cost applications made by regulators upon successful prosecution. For solicitors facing investigation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (‘SRA’), the costs associated with prosecutions before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (‘SDT’) have made the headlines recently for their size. In Beckwith, for example, the Divisional Court referred to the SRA’s costs of c.£340,000 as “alarming.”
On 12 March 2018 the SRA published its warning notice on the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). This was in the wake of the widespread publicity at the time given to NDAs which had been considered too draconian in reach and effect.
In this 3-part tech blog series, we’ve explored how legal and accountancy regulators are driving and responding to changes in technology and innovation in their respective professions. We’ve also considered the commercial perspective, looking at interesting developments in these sectors , particularly around the use of artificial intelligence (AI).
In this second blog in our technology and innovation series, we look at some recent developments in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the legal and accountancy sectors.
In the first of our Tech blog series, we take a look at how regulators in the accountancy and legal sectors are supporting technological innovation in their respective professional sectors, and how they themselves might adapt their regulatory approach in the new era of digital technology.
It has been a year since the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) launched its Standards and Regulations (StaRs) and even longer since the revised Enforcement Strategy was rolled out. This time last year, we produced a series of blogs relating to launch of the StaRs and provided our views on what we thought you needed to know.
The route to obtaining a prestigious job in the legal profession is hard enough without the worry of whether past misdemeanours will prevent you from being admitted by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) as a solicitor. Convictions or cautions in early life (for even relatively minor offences), student disciplinary findings, civil debts and the like, are all capable of preventing prospective solicitors seeking admission to the roll becoming qualified as a solicitor. Since May 2018, prospective solicitors have had the ability to seek an early character and suitability assessment under the Authorisation of Individuals Regulations, enabling them to understand if something they did in the past could be a bar to entry to the profession.
After months of many solicitors working from home, it's easy to get comfortable. But with complacency comes the risk of non-compliance with your regulatory obligations. Jessica Clay provides a refresher on your duties, the risks involved in remote working, and how you can stay compliant.
As another case involving allegations of sexual misconduct relating to a senior partner of a law firm has been concluded before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal just this week, resulting in the imposition of a £10,000 fine being confirmed on 22 July 2020, it is perhaps safe to say that, for now, there is no sign that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has lost its appetite to investigate and act on reports of this nature that it receives.
Professor Stephen Mayson’s ‘Reforming Legal Services: Regulation beyond the echo chambers’ report has now been submitted to the Lord Chancellor as the final product of a two-year independent review into the regulation of legal services in England and Wales.
Julie Norris and Jessica Clay spoke at the end of January 2020 at the ARK risk and compliance conference on the topic of promoting a good working culture in law firms. This is the final blog in a series of three blogs. It focuses on the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives in promoting a good working culture
Julie Norris and Jessica Clay spoke at the end of January 2020 at the ARK risk and compliance conference on the topic of promoting a good working culture in law firms. This blog is the second in a series of three and focuses on the importance of wellbeing in the workplace.
With BBC reports that there have been 178,000 incidents of anti-social behaviour in the last four weeks across England and Wales alone, if a solicitor receives a fixed penalty notice for a non-essential journey away from home - do they have to inform the SRA?
Skip to content Home About Us Insights Services Contact Accessibility