Overcoming the crisis of wellbeing in-house
I qualified as a solicitor in February 1987. I was an in-house lawyer for more than a decade until 2000, including two general counsel roles. Since 2000, I have consulted with, trained and mentored literally thousands of in-house lawyers around the world, and I have never been more concerned for the mental well-being of the profession.
Partly, I suspect, we are victims of what has happened to very many people, not just lawyers, in all walks of life. We have all been swept along by the need to be more efficient, to cut costs and to do more with less. We have all assumed technology (especially email) has helped us to our jobs better, when in reality it has just made us more available for longer and blurred boundaries between work and home.
In-house lawyers mostly work in small teams, lack infrastructure to support their roles, are without significant peer support and soak up the pressure heaped on them by work colleagues who have their own stresses to manage. It can be a lonely and attritional environment.
A change in-house
In March 2014, I wrote an article about a crisis of wellbeing. I began by discussing the privilege of being a mentor. I said then:
It is something I relish and that provides me with the most job satisfaction I can imagine. For many years, my work in this area consisted mostly of meeting talented, good people needing some encouragement, support or direction as they developed their careers. It was never all positive: when someone is unemployed, overlooked or even bullied, there are tough conversations and some difficult things to hear, but the tone was nearly always about taking action, reconciling disappointment and moving forward.
In recent years, however, there has been a noticeable change in tone and content in the majority of the mentoring conversations I have. It is increasingly a concern and it is something I now feel compelled to write about in more detail. Let me describe four instances from this year that will show why I am so worried. None of the examples are exaggerated, although I have changed some details so that confidentiality is assured.
A senior in-house lawyer in a big team, a global brand. This lawyer is responsible for pan European commercial activity. A problem has arisen in southern Europe and there is the possibility of a regulatory investigation. This is not a dramatic scenario; this should not be overly perplexing.
I meet the lawyer for a coffee in a public place; we chat about family and weekends, but I can see the lawyer is anxious. I look him straight in the eye and there is a tear forming. His hands start to shake. He tries to look away, to hide his discomfort. I ask him if there is something he wants to talk about or if he would prefer not to.
Two hours later we have talked through a number of issues – he is overworked, he is unsupported, he feels the full weight of responsibility for the possible regulatory breach, he is working far too late, far too often. His boss is disconnected and unaware. He is at the end of his reserves and running on empty.
A lawyer between roles. Her last role was made redundant. In her last role, her boss, who had joined the company earlier in the year, gave her an appraisal and said she was performing satisfactorily, but that he wanted more. He suggested a development programme. HR became involved and the assigned HR professional made it clear that she needed to perform at a higher level; meeting expectation was a minimum requirement. However she was given no clues as to what was needed other than platitudes and clichés. Her confidence dipped, she became poorly, her confidence dipped some more. She was offered redundancy and never went back.
For five years this lawyer was performing above expectations, was clever, thoughtful, creative and successful. To meet her now is to see a shadow of the person she was. It is very sad to see.
A lawyer in a successful in-house team. Last year the team went through a high profile reorganisation designed to bring work in-house that had been previously outsourced. The general counsel apparently wanted the team to work ‘smarter’, to prioritise better, and to be more efficient. The GC, however, gave no direction as to how this would be done, offered little leadership and waved away requests for additional resources. The lawyer I met was working 70 hour weeks, was exhausted and at the end of his tether. His Blackberry pinged dozens of times in the time we were together. Each ping seemed to me to be like a form of torture for him.
We worked on a project last year to help a team redefine its role. The team was overwhelmed with work and had minimal process. We offered some insight and some practical steps – to be honest, it was a routine project. No rocket science needed.
We held a discussion session to report back to the team; we sat round a table and shared the thoughts we had to help the team improve. One lawyer listened quietly, said nothing, but then started to cry, in front of colleagues, tears streaming. We stopped and asked gently if we had upset her. She said they were tears of relief because she had been thinking of resigning because she didn’t know if she was able to carry on, but now she felt there was a way forward.
I am not exaggerating. These are just four examples of many.
A report on the wellbeing of in-house lawyers
In July 2015, we published our first report on wellbeing for in-house lawyers: www.lbcwisecounsel.com/downloads/LBC-Well-Being-Report-web.pdf. The report drew on survey findings, interviews and focus groups. As a result I made the following ten recommendations.
1. Regular wellbeing assessment: Managers should assess wellbeing in the team on a regular and frequent basis. Boundaries should be agreed and measures (formal and anecdotal) should be in place to assess progress and to alert for early signs of weakness or deterioration.
2. Training: Managers must have formal training to understand wellbeing and mental health indicators.
3. Leading by example: Managers must lead by example and be aware of how their behaviours are influential.
4. An open culture: It is critical to have an open, unsuspicious, culture in which conversations are encouraged and where we keep an eye on our colleagues.
5. Flexible working: Flexible working must become the norm. Working from home when useful should be encouraged. Arrival and departure times in the office should be at the discretion of the employee and time off for family commitments should be promoted and encouraged.
6. Get a mentor:Every lawyer should have a mentor. Your bosses have an expectation of you; the good ones see the need to help you fulfil your potential, but, essentially, you are a temporary and replaceable component in a machine. While your interests align to the interests of the business, all can seem great, but never lose sight of the fact that you are just passing through. You will be discarded if you outgrow the role, if you fail to perform (whatever the reasons), if someone better comes along, or if you wear out. For all these reasons, get a mentor. My strong recommendation is that your mentor is someone who is outside your world of work, but consider having a workplace mentor as well if that helps you. A mentor is not there to provide ‘tea and sympathy’; they should provide a safe place for you to talk openly and be an independent, friendly sounding board. Someone who can gently challenge your status quo and your direction of travel. A place exclusively, selfishly for you.
7. Make changes: Talking is a good first step, but momentum comes from change and change encourages more change. I am not talking about revolution, but be seen to have done something and ask others to help you change more.
8. Explore wellbeing practices: The slightly discredited mindfulness bandwagon may do the concept of mindfulness a disservice. However mindfulness techniques (including meditation, breathing, relaxation etc) are critical skills to practice. Do not be put off by trendy labels or overblown claims, explore what works, experiment and adopt.
9. Policy review:Policies on recruitment, induction, appraisal and feedback should be reviewed in the context of wellbeing, adjusted as necessary, and brought into line.
10. Do not suffer in silence:Finally, whatever you do, however you feel, please never suffer in silence. Do whatever you can to find the courage to raise your concerns.
Light at the end of the tunnel
The report has been widely read and a great many in-house lawyers and teams have started to address the wellbeing of colleagues individually and in teams. Some GCs now include the topic as a fixed agenda item in team meetings; others have sought out specific training and a few have found performance indicators that are part of personal development planning – making wellbeing a metric of success. It is not yet enough, but it is a great start and I am delighted to see such progress.
The report has also brought people into our world who offer significant and in-depth expertise of their own. So for example for former city employment lawyer Richard Martin, now with Byrne Dean (http://www.byrnedean.com/) has provided excellent, insightful and practical help to in-house teams. In my judgement, his work should be a mainstay of the approach all teams take.
Richard had his own wellbeing crisis a few years ago and to hear him present so brilliantly now with such passion, expertise and authority on the issues he faced and overcame is truly inspirational. I have no financial interest in this, but in my opinion literally every team should have a session with Richard or someone like him.
I have found the last two years very difficult professionally. It is not easy to listen to some of the things I hear. More people contact us now seeking support because of the article and report, and more people need help than I ever realised.
It is therefore still a crisis, in my opinion, because we still barely scratch the service of what should be done; however, ironically, I am also more hopeful than I was two years ago. Then I felt I was one of only a very few people to see what was happening; now I know there are experts like Richard Martin, charities like LawCare and a significant number of GeCs who truly ‘get it’ and from whom we can all learn.
The role of in-house lawyer will not get easier. Businesses and institutions employing lawyers will not necessarily understand the work pressures they create and which lawyers typically then manage poorly. The answer to our crisis therefore has to be one that we take into our own hands; thankfully I believe the answers are within reach.
Every team, leader, manager and every individual lawyer really must step up and take responsibility for their own behaviours and for constructively challenging destructive environments and patterns of work. The ten recommendations above still stand; they were written hoping they would make a difference. I now know they will make a difference.