The legal profession has a reputation for its rigorous nature, long hours, high-pressure environments, and intense competition. A potentially dangerous combination for mental ill-health and burn-out, it can also increase the risk of claims. With the SRA paying closer attention to culture and wellbeing, we discuss why this should be a priority for firms.
Within its ‘Workplace environment: risks of failing to protect and support colleagues’ guidance, issued in May 2023, the SRA acknowledged that it had received complaints that “some firms have an unsupportive, bullying or toxic working environment and culture”. It went on to say: “This kind of environment can impact significantly on the wellbeing and mental health of a firm's staff. It can also lead to mistakes and poor outcomes for clients - or serious ethical concerns, for example when staff feel under pressure to cover up problems.”
The SRA are carrying out visits to review how firms are addressing mental health and wellbeing so firms need to be prepared. If, for example, there has been an incident that has not been reported to the SRA, the firm will need to justify why? Providing evidence of your rationale will go a long way towards defending your actions if this becomes necessary.
As the SRA has made clear, poor working conditions not only impact the wellbeing of individuals, but also present a regulatory risk, where a firm’s culture may contribute to individuals committing misconduct. Workplace culture and how a firm protects and supports its staff is therefore increasingly of interest to insurers.
Negligence claims have been directly linked to fee earners feeling overwhelmed, or experiencing stress and depression. Furthermore, an environment where a blame culture is prevalent may lead to staff at all levels feeling like they need to hide a mistake, which can then lead to a claim.
Ensuring that your firm operates and maintains a positive workplace culture is therefore not just morally imperative, but makes good business sense and an important risk mitigation strategy.
A positive workplace culture is one where mutual respect, fairness, open communication, psychological safety and supportive relationships are the norm.
The importance of positive culture and wellbeing
A positive workplace culture is one where mutual respect, fairness, open communication, psychological safety and supportive relationships are the norm. It should encompass both personal and professional growth, and encourage a balance between work and personal life. Lawyers who operate in a positive environment are likely to be more committed, motivated and engaged. This can then lead to improved performance, reduced staff turnover and an enhanced reputation for the firm, including how insurers may view you as a more desirable risk.
Promoting positive culture and wellbeing in law firms
Many law firms are taking proactive steps to promote a positive culture and wellbeing. These range from flexible working arrangements and reduced billable hour expectations, to stress management workshops and mental health support services. Some firms have appointed wellbeing officers, developed wellbeing policies, and are investing in training to build resilience and manage stress effectively. Some insurers have also extended their value added services to include mental health support following a claim notification.
Many firms are also working hard to create working environments where diversity is celebrated, inclusion is paramount, and everyone feels valued. This inclusive culture can also lead to more open conversations and less stigma around mental health issues.
A positive culture that prioritises wellbeing is a vital endeavour. Not only does it contribute to develop happier and healthier lawyers, which increases productivity, it also helps to build a more resilient and sustainable legal profession.