The ideal legal workplace should be a place where you thrive — not merely survive. But despite the initiatives over recent years to tackle issues surrounding wellbeing across the legal profession, it remains a problem for many. One recent poll of UK workers suggested that lawyers are the second most stressed professionals in the country. (1)
Impossible targets, an ever-expanding caseload, insufficient support from management, unrealistic client demands, a culture of long hours and internal competitiveness: these are some of the most common causes of work stress for lawyers.
If any of these sound familiar, the most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. And of course, tackling the causes of stress early can prevent them from getting out of control. Organisations such as Lawcare and Wellbeing at the Bar are also very useful sources of information and support.
“This is my client. These are my files.”
Collaboration, historically, has been resisted in the legal profession. Because of the nature of caseload management and client relationships, it’s almost inevitable that you will develop a strong sense of ownership over your work. But sometimes, this sense of ownership can go too far: especially when lawyers mistakenly believe that seeking additional input is a sign of weakness.
A strong work culture encourages collaboration; something that’s as true of the legal profession as anywhere else. When a crisis arises, this attitude encourages everyone to pitch in to help resolve it as effectively and efficiently as possible. More generally, a fresh perspective can sometimes be what’s needed to move a case along. One of your colleagues down the corridor might just have the precedent you are missing — or the name of exactly the right expert witness your case needs.
There are a number of ways to enable collaboration within a firm or chambers. It could be as simple as actively encouraging an open door policy. Alternatively, you might want to introduce a more structured mechanism for collaboration. For instance, round-table meetings once or twice a week, where fee earners are encouraged to talk through their problem cases and share ideas, or introducing collaboration software so that working together on cases is made simpler. This group-focused approach can enable you to resolve problems more efficiently, thereby boosting productivity.
You have a particularly tricky statement to draft. To get it right, you fully intend to devote a big chunk of your afternoon to the task. But then things start to go slightly awry: the attachments you need are scattered across various folders — so everything looks set to take longer than you anticipated. Next comes a flurry of urgent-sounding notifications in the corner of your screen that you feel the need to read and respond to. Finally, a longstanding client who was scheduled to see you tomorrow morning telephones to see whether you could possibly fit them in later today instead.
We all have days when what you actually achieve looks very different to what you expected to get done. If it happens frequently, this absence of adequate time management can seriously impair your productivity.
Breaking off from one matter to another, and then going back again, can be incredibly inefficient. This is especially true where the tasks involved are relatively complex and require a certain amount of recapping each time you open the file. In fact, research indicates that it takes an average of 23 minutes to resume work after being interrupted by an unrelated task.(2) It can also so easily increase the scope for procrastination. After all, with a busy caseload, there is always something to conveniently divert you from a difficult or unpleasant task — but only if you allow it to.
Effective time management demands prioritisation, along with setting realistic estimates for how long individual tasks will take. Set yourself a daily task list; one that allows a certain leeway for unforeseen events – and make sure you stick to it. Always remember: to retain control of your caseload, the starting point involves gaining control of your diary.
[Read more: 7 productivity tips for lawyers to improve efficiency]
Thanks to developments such as digital case management and e-filing, the legal profession has gone some way in shedding its traditional, rather anti-tech image. That said, firms and individual lawyers can still harbour resistance to change, potentially stopping them from reaching their full potential. Not least because, when dealing with sensitive information, some technology could leave you at risk of a cyber-attack.
But what practical bottlenecks are you still struggling with? Could technology offer you a way to solve them? As one notable example, it’s so easy to waste time on searching for and sifting through scattered documents, instead of actually reviewing them. A digitisation solution could be just what’s needed to free up your time for more valuable (and billable) tasks.
For more tips and advice about best practices to improve your efficiency, as well as articles on the main issues concerning the legal sector, be sure to visit our dedicated Insights Hub.
Right now, new technology is making it easier for lawyers to work with digitised documents. Most lawyers are familiar with pdfs: the standard file format for storing scanned documents, as well as for exchanging them with other parties. On the flip side, if you have ever tried to edit, copy or search through text in such a file, you’ll know just how frustrating pdfs can be to work with.
It’s fair to say that bringing up the topic of work pressure to non-lawyer friends isn’t always guaranteed to trigger a massive outpouring of sympathy. The problem lies in the old myth that a lawyer’s life must be a glamorous rollercoaster ride, packed with variety, intellectual stimulation, high-octane court showdowns, along with a bulging bank balance. If there’s a little stress along the way, then surely it’s just all part of the job?
Logic might suggest that to operate as efficiently and productively as possible on complex problems, a culture of collaboration would be a must for any legal organisation. But while the adjectives, cut-throat and competitive seem to be frequently levied at law firms, that phrase, collaborative seems to rarely get a look-in.
For any forward-thinking lawyer, the benefits of legal technology (or ‘lawtech’) are hard to ignore. In areas such as case management, research, communications and more, tech is helping to boost productivity, drive efficiency and, most important of all, deliver better outcomes for clients.