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Structural inertia and the wellbeing crisis

Law has a wellbeing crisis on its hands. And while most people are aware of the impact of overworking, the pandemic and poor mental health, there’s another culprit hiding in plain sight: structural inertia.

Although there’s been a lot of excellent work done around wellbeing, and the addition of legal tech to counsel’s toolbox has made work life easier, legal remains a slow-moving industry.

What it means to be a counsel has not changed much structurally in recent times. As an example, time in the profession continues to be the somewhat arbitrary way in which the efficacy of counsel is evaluated. This means some of our top prospects are spending their time on low-value tasks instead of being fast-tracked or challenged as they would be in other professions. Can you imagine a similar scenario in a highly disruptive tech company, with your best and brightest graduates doing nothing other than low-value work? No, I didn’t so.

Because of legal’s tortoise rather than hare approach, a bottleneck has been created when it comes to upskilling. Work is being double- or triple-handled purportedly for educative processes, the result being a huge loss of efficiency.

The bottleneck is illustrative of the tension between the way we learn or are taught as lawyers, with university graduates woefully unprepared for legal practice (see more on this here: link to article on future of law degrees) and the realities of the job.

It is presumed that young counsel will spend their first couple of years on the job doing the grunt work before moving on to greener pastures. This contributes to a reluctance by firms to invest further or fast-track extraordinary candidates when the system makes it easy for them to hire the finished, more polished product.

The consequence of such a set-up is that those at the top are working too hard and those on their way up are failing to reap the benefits of their arduous work. It’s the reality of the legal profession as we know it, and it’s burning people out before they even get the opportunity to truly begin.

The flow-on effect means those higher up the chain are not only doing their own work but also triple-checking and correcting the work of those in their team. This multiple handling of work is illustrative of a structural inertia or, put another way, a culture of inefficiency that negatively impacts everyone involved - from eroding confidence to piling even more work on counsel.

Although legal remains steadfast in its commitment to the old ways of working, there is growing disquiet at every level of the profession. Wellbeing is an issue – from junior to senior level, in-house counsel to GC – which sends out clear signals that the system isn’t just damaged or failing, but rather that it’s broken.

The introduction of legal tech and the adoption of more work-life friendly policies are steps in the right direction, but it would be a missed opportunity if we did not go one step further and adopt some of the systems that efficiently drive change in other business functions.

There is evidence that pushing these boundaries can be very fruitful, as Australian firm Law Squared has proved. The company has challenged almost every element of what it means to work in the law, getting rid of the vertical structure and titles, and all the while supporting staff through the momentous changes.

By removing individual financial and performance metrics, and rewarding collaboration over competition, Law Squared is an example of a true shift away from the traditional hierarchical structure model. Staff are reaping the rewards of buying into the team-first mentality, taking pride in working collectively to forward the goals of the company. The result is a team that operates like a well-oiled machine, able to deliver work of exceptional quality in a manner that suits both company and clients.

While Law Squared’s approach may not work for every company, they are illustrative of the multitude of benefits that can result from challenging the systems we work in and what it means to be a lawyer.

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