It’s nearly a year since the pandemic started, but far from being inured to its impact, it’s likely that most attorneys are more stressed-out and unhappy than ever. Here Natasha McCain, Big Law Account Leader at ZERØ, assesses the problem and suggests how firms can, and should, relieve the pressure.
Are lawyers doing okay at the moment? The evidence would tend to suggest that they’re not. This won’t be news to anyone associated with the profession in North America. Even before the pandemic, the American Bar Association, in collaboration with the Betty Ford Foundation, established in a landmark study that slightly over a fifth of nearly 13,000 registered lawyers had screened positive for hazardous and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking. Meanwhile 28 per cent of respondents experienced symptoms of depression, 19 per cent of anxiety, and 23 per cent of stress. The study concluded that lawyers exhibit problematic drinking at a higher rate than any other profession and that mental health distress is also significant. So, do we think the pandemic will have made things better? Probably not.
Certainly the American Bar Association doesn’t seem optimistic. It hosts a webpage on mental health resources that lists no fewer than 67 links to sources of help, ranging from “Covid-19: Protecting Your Workforce’s Wellbeing” to “Staying Sober During Covid-19”. The same body noted in January 2021 that the pandemic was having a “devastating impact on the mental health of young attorneys”, many of whom have been upended and required to work without the close support of more experienced colleagues and mentors.
Nor is it hard to understand why unhappiness is rife right now. Like everyone else, lawyers have had to cope with the dislocation of their normal routines and social lives, suspension of plans, social isolation, career uncertainty and political unrest. There’s fear of the disease’s impact on their own health and that of loved ones, and possibly grief. There’s the pressure of either needing to stay productive at work while also teaching, parenting, cooking and cleaning; or alternately that of having to stay motivated while stuck at home alone, day in and day out, in isolation.
Of course all these adverse circumstances apply equally to the firm’s KM, innovation, support and operational staff too. However, in addition, lawyers can add the stressor of pressure to bill, piled on top of a new expectation that they work from home self-sufficiently, many doing their own administration now that the number of support staff has been reduced by many firms.
Work volume has also increased in many practice areas. We know for instance that the top firms were busier and earned more in 2020 than in 2019. As a result, many lawyers are putting in longer hours. Plus there’s no more potential respite from commuting for a couple of hours a day. Lawyers can just get out of bed and start working. There’s hardly any let-up.
Many firms are also focusing even harder on the bottom line, and requiring fee-earners to account for both their non-billable and billable hours, as well as continuing to levy financial penalties when lawyers either don’t submit billable hours on time, or submit hours below target.
Finally it’s also the case that lawyers may be peculiarly susceptible to poor mental health anyway – perhaps because of the demands put on them, and possibly the demands they put on themselves. Pre-pandemic, a University of Toronto study concluded that in both Canada and the US, there’s a strong correlation between signs of depression and career success in law. Indeed, lawyers in large, private sector firms – often seen as the most desirable roles – are the most likely to display depressive symptoms. This entirely flips on its head the experience of the general population, for whom career success typically equates to fewer mental health risks. How much more at risk of poor mental health must firm lawyers be in the current environment?
At this point, hard-headed cynics might be tempted to ask how much it matters. “If they’re miserable they can get out,” they may say. “Lawyers are easily replaced.”
But in the meantime mental health has a huge influence on quality of work and productivity: in fact the evidence is that mental health and happiness matter by around 13 per cent. At least that’s the figure that an extensive 2019 study by MIT, the Saïd Business School at Oxford University and the Erasmus University, Rotterdam puts on the boost to productivity that results when workers perceive themselves to be happy.
This isn’t a well-researched area, but the University of Warwick also uncovered scientific evidence for a link between employee well-being and organizational performance, this time in 2016. Testing the theory that happy people work harder, the study noted that happier workers use the time they have more effectively, increasing the pace at which they can work without sacrificing quality. The Warwick study found that happiness made people around 12 per cent more productive. Even if these figures are only half right, they still suggest that the happiness of employees is important enough to offer a significant competitive advantage to those firms that get it right.
How do firms increase lawyer and support staff happiness and gain that competitive advantage? When you ask lawyers, they say that their ideal workplace comprises people, the option to work from home and a better work/life balance. Yet most are working well over 40 hours a week, making a better work/life balance hard to achieve. Indeed a year-long survey of New York lawyers showed that they were working an average of 42 billable hours a week, and once they included the unbilled hours, it added up to around 66 hours per week. To underscore: that’s 24 hours a week of unbilled time.
Imagine the difference it would make to the firm and its people if two goals could be attained. One: more of that unbilled time is converted into time that is legitimately billed, increasing revenue for the firm. And two, firms automate and streamline many routine tasks so that the amount of genuinely unbillable time is reduced as much as possible. This will give lawyers and others their time back, decrease their stress, increase their happiness and boost their productivity. The fact is that firms have a huge opportunity here to achieve both these goals, just by leveraging modern technology.
I’m talking here about technology that takes full advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The tool that I work with uses both. Plus it was built from the ground up to meet the specific needs of law firms and those who work for them. As a result our mobile email application comes with an intelligent built-in timer. This passively records how much time fee-earners spend interacting with individual client emails. In addition it can also tell whether a lawyer is reviewing or responding, and can generate a draft time entry narrative that appears directly in their time entry system. With this functionality, lawyers can easily capture time across their day without the pain of laborious time entry for them or their assistants, plus it increases billable time, which should make the firm happy.
The same technology can also delegate non-urgent but still important tasks to a digital legal email assistant that learns each user’s habits and automatically files their emails into folders or directly into their Document Management System. The dreaded, joy-sapping, admin work that always gets last priority, but still has to be done, is taken care of. It gives people their time back, plus it relieves them of a wearisome task, both of which makes them happy.
This technology also allows people to sort their inboxes using smart filters that can display emails by importance, by sender, and more. It makes it easier for users to access the information they need more efficiently, helping them save time and focus on higher value work.
It also includes wrong recipient detection that prompts senders to check any time it looks as though they’re about to send an email to someone not related to the matter at hand. This helps stop tired and stressed individuals from disastrously sending highly sensitive information to the wrong recipient. Which is definitely something to be happy about.
We’re in a pandemic. Like everyone else – but probably more so – lawyers in particular are likely not doing okay. But much of their stress can be relieved by intuitive modern technology that will not only save them and their colleagues’ time, but also has the power to make everyone happier and more productive. This in turn can make firms much happier too.
Natasha McCain is a Big Law Account Leader at ZERØ – a Silicon Valley-based disruptor committed to developing, engineering and deploying breakthrough artificial intelligence for law firms. Using machine learning, neural networks and smart automation, ZERØ’s mission is to help firms become more profitable by making them smarter and more efficient.