What stress means for new lawyers
Olivia Parker, Careers & Outreach Executive at the Society, looks at the causes of and potential solutions to stress for legal professionals in the early part of their career.
The issue of stress was thrown into sharp relief with the arrival of April’s edition of the Journal. An article by the Scottish Young Lawyers Association (SYLA) made us all turn our attention to a matter that is frequently misunderstood by the legal profession and indeed, wider society.
Then, last month saw the launch of Legal Wellbeing Scotland, a new initiative to promote and support mental health and wellbeing in the Scottish legal community.
Are we seeing the first pushes that will trigger a wider discussion around these issues? New lawyers are certainly keen to push for a more open conversation and a more supportive profession.
This post marks the first in a monthly series on the theme of wellbeing, specifically for those in their early career.
What are key triggers of stress for new lawyers?
1. Let’s start by looking at the traineeship. It might just seem like part and parcel of qualifying, but, the sheer act of transitioning from university to the workplace shouldn’t be underestimated.
After all, an office environment couldn’t be more different from student life. Even the way the workplace operates in terms of office politics, physical layout, how information is accessed and the hierarchical structure, can be overwhelming. Acclimatisation might not be automatic.
2. Then there’s workload - a word right on the tip of almost everyone’s tongue. From the discussion at a recent meeting of the New Lawyers’ Reference Group, a voluntary group made up of those in their early legal career from LLB students to 5 years PQE, it became clear that the ‘sink or swim’ attitude is still worryingly pervasive in some workplaces and this can be a major trigger for stress.
Think back to your days as a trainee. You’re constantly trying to impress a partner, keen to prove worthy of whatever work comes your way and reach new levels of responsibility and exposure.
But you have no control over what your workload will look like. A supportive, helping hand from a more experienced colleague will likely speed up your progress and help the transition. The last thing anyone wants to hear at that point is ‘yes it’s tough but you’re a trainee, I’ve been there too and I made it’. That would only encourage trainees to play a risky game of trial and error with their workload in order to progress, putting their wellbeing in a vulnerable position.
3. The character traits of new lawyers also play a part. Rather counterproductively, it seems common for new lawyers to display traits that prevent them being naturally able to ask for help when they need it. They associate themselves with words like ‘competitive’, ‘perfectionist’, ‘motivated’, ‘overachiever’ and ‘target-driven’.
It’s another big reason for employers to proactively offer assistance, as trainees don’t always have either the will or the confidence to seek assistance when they need it.
So how can employers help?
It’s always worth remembering that it’s a trainee that arrives to the workplace on day one, not a fully-qualified solicitor. You can’t rush the essential growing process and additional nurturing will only encourage a healthier workplace.
Employers need to drive positive messages and practices throughout their teams and make sure that staff know that a ‘helping hand’ – whatever form that takes – is available.
In some instances, the New Lawyers’ Reference Group suggested that there’s a training need that employers need to respond to proactively.
Let’s take client management as an example. Interacting with senior clients, working with colleagues and managing expectations are all competencies that are highly workplace-specific and can normally only grow with experience. But initiatives like internal workshops, work shadowing and advice clinics from colleagues could be a great way to accelerate a trainee’s learning, while minimising the risks of learning through trial and error.
Unanimously the group agreed that firms and organisations shouldn’t just be paying lip-service to their mental health policies. There should be a greater onus on line managers and mentors to ensure their more junior colleagues are protected and supported. After all, they’ve all been a trainee too.
Who do new lawyers turn to when they need help with feelings of stress?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, perhaps worryingly, the general consensus of the group suggests that a line manager, or even HR, are likely to be the last channels a trainee will turn to when experiencing feelings of stress.
There was agreement that in reality peers and friends are more likely to be the first port of call, or perhaps in some situations an informal mentor. And the perception is that services like LawCare or the Law Society of Scotland Trainee helpline would only be consulted in a ‘crisis situation’.
To make it crystal clear, these resources are not a last resort and they should be used whenever you feel like they could help.
These observations suggest that there’s a worrying lack of recognised provision for ‘middle ground’ issues - those that potentially go above and beyond what a friend can help with, but not as far as feeling the need to seek the help of a trained impartial professional.
Is this again because unhealthy levels of stress are seen as part of the job, something to just put up with until that crisis point is reached?
Learning your tolerance levels can be hard for any legal professional, but it’s magnified for new lawyers who are already grappling with their professional strengths and weaknesses in a new environment.
Whilst we can probably all agree that ‘bad stress’ in unhealthy, ‘good stress’ in healthy levels can promote motivation and increase productivity. It’s about encouraging people to keep their finger on their own pulse and seek help as soon as they feel they need it.
We, as colleagues in the profession need to remember that we all fall somewhere on the complex sliding scale.
Watch this space! This is the first in a series of monthly ‘wellbeing’ blogs for new lawyers. If you’re interested in writing one yourself or have any content suggestions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Also join the conversation on this important topic in our LinkedIn group.