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UK: How well are mental health initiatives working in law firms?

  • Professional Indemnity Insurance
The Knowledge
8th April 2024

Measuring risk can provide clues – and having the right conversations can improve results

There’s no doubt that law firms are having more open conversations about mental health these days – and have taken action to support employee wellbeing in a range of ways. The International Bar Association says approximately three-quarters of law firms have initiatives in place to support employees’ mental health. Tellingly, a majority of these measures were in place before the pandemic, which brought mental health challenges to the surface for many firms.[1] However, it’s not clear that these efforts have translated into improved mental wellbeing in employees. According to the 2023 ALM and Compass Mental Health Survey of the Legal Profession, lawyers reported experiencing an increase in stress, anxiety and depression. Approximately 71% of the nearly 3,000 lawyers surveyed said they had anxiety – a 5% increase from 2022. Further, last year there was a 24% increase in the number of people contacting LawCare, the mental health and wellbeing charity for legal professionals.[2]

Clearly there is a disconnect between firms’ efforts to support mental health and their employees’ day-to-day wellbeing – but why? Are the programmes that law firms have introduced not reaching their people in the right ways? Are firms putting the onus on employees to take care of themselves without providing environments conducive to wellbeing? Or has progress been made, but transforming cultures will simply take time? Getting to the heart of the issue isn’t always straightforward.

“We find that firms want to do what is best for their organisation but may struggle to know how to get started,” said Sharon Glynn, director of underwriting at Travelers Europe. “We work in partnership with our firms to get the conversation started – for those early in their wellbeing journey – or keep the conversation going – for those more advanced. Every firm is different and has distinct challenges, so we ask questions that help bring potential areas of risk to the surface. A firm’s leaders may already be aware of these risks, but discussing them with their insurer can help push them higher on the priority list.”

Firms that can openly discuss their risks and find ways to measure and manage them stand to gain significant advantages – both as an employer of people who have evolving expectations when it comes to their work, and as a business looking to compete for clients.

“Not only is protecting employees’ mental wellbeing the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business,” Glynn said. “Employees in psychologically safe workplaces will feel more comfortable in their roles and more able to raise concerns, which will help them perform at their best for clients. As a result, firms will be less likely to have to manage the distractions that accompany investigations of errors, will experience fewer claims, and can spend less time and money recruiting and training new employees on a continuous basis. Their time available for fee earning will increase.”

Making the case for managing risk
The UK’s top law firms are growing – the top 50 firms increased their fee income by 6.5% in the last financial year, on top of a 10.9% increase the previous year. But has that growth come at a cost? Claims have been on the rise in recent years too – and many of these claims have roots in employee stress and other mental health concerns. Firms that can get a handle on claims arising from these risks achieve the dual benefit of promoting employees’ wellbeing while protecting the financial health of their business.

Paul Smith, senior risk management consultant at Travelers Europe, studies loss data on solicitor firms to identify areas where risk management can help. Late last year, he reviewed sets of solicitors’ data between October 2000 and September 2023 specifically relating to claims over £250,000. He found that these large losses have persisted over time, become more costly, and occurred in law firms of all sizes. His research identified patterns in the kinds of errors that lead to claims for large loss. He found that the most frequently notified errors pertained to retainer management failure. These errors are often simple, such as not following instructions, taking the wrong step in a process, or missing a time limit.

“Retainer management errors tend to be simple mistakes and are often the result of human error, such as distraction, in turn caused by stress, pressure or fatigue,” he said. “Where slips and lapses in procedure occur, a firm should ask whether this is possibly a reflection of the culture of a firm as a whole and whether steps could be taken to address or improve the work environment.”

Studying the circumstances behind claims can reveal clues about a firm’s largest areas of risk so that these concerns can be measured and managed. A firm might be able to avoid significant claims by working to change its culture in ways that discourage employees from working at times when they are more prone to being exhausted or distracted.

Starting the conversation – and listening to concerns
Promoting employee wellbeing is best accomplished when there is shared responsibility – between employee and employer, and across functions within the business. While employees must take the initiative to speak up when something goes wrong, employers have the responsibility of providing an environment in which people feel they can raise concerns and get support without damaging their careers. Similarly, senior leaders can ensure that supporting mental wellbeing isn’t simply an HR-specific concern or a subject that surfaces primarily during mental health awareness weeks; rather, it’s a daily priority and topic of conversation across organisational functions. In law firms, training can help ensure that the right conversations are happening within teams and actions are taken in response. Senior partners can also reinforce the need for having these conversations across the firm at every level – and capturing the feedback that comes from them.

Insurers are encouraging these conversations too. Travelers, for example, not only partners with law firms to improve their risk management as it relates to mental wellbeing, they are a partner of LawCare and they also provide specialised support if and when claims occur. Their claim team consists of lawyers who understand the challenges firms face and can guide them through the claims process accordingly. On a personal level, Travelers also offers a post-claim wellbeing service, which enables the individuals involved in a claim to access confidential specialist support to help them cope during a time that has the potential to be personally devastating.

“Behind the statistics about mental wellbeing in the law are people in need of support,” said Glynn. “When we encourage conversations about mental health, we can help remove the stigma around it and ensure that the people who need support feel comfortable accessing it. Now that the challenges of mental wellbeing are no longer an open secret in firms, there is a real opportunity for firms to be not only financially successful, but are places where people come to work feeling their best and doing their best work and that’s good for everyone.

The information provided is for general information purposes only, and is not intended as, nor does it constitute, legal or professional advice. No representation or warranty (express or implied) is given as to the accuracy or completeness of the information.