In my last musings I discussed the price many of us in the legal world are paying for our occupational roles in helping to keep the scales of justice tipped in favour of our clients and in delivering quality of legal services that is required of a profession.
The heavy workloads, the intense pressure to meet deadlines, the long working days and weeks are taking their toll in numbers reflected in the 85% of us across Australia and New Zealand that responded to a recent Law Council survey to say they’d experienced depression. And then there was the matter of those lawyers who, (57% of us) after getting pushed to the brink of their emotional and mental wellbeing, decided enough was enough and chucked in their costly law degrees, in a bid to stay sane and take another vocational path.
Empathy and leadership
It’s unsustainable for us to lose more than half the practicing lawyers in Australia in the first five years of their professional careers. Something has to be done to slow the attrition, and here’s why I think Empathy is the key.
I’ve been practicing law for more than three decades, so I take it somewhat personally when I hear fresh-faced, young and motivated lawyers attain a degree in their chosen field and set to work in the service of their clients on to decide some few years later that it’s too hard to stay in the game.
Now don’t get me wrong: like many other professions, practising law IS hard. This line of work can sometimes be unrewarding, frustrating and downright nihilistic. But that’s when it takes a mentor, a senior member of the practice, a – shall I say – Leader to make a case for the path to perfection without having to pay the ultimate price.
Author and motivational speaker, Simon Sinek, tells us that leading is not about being ‘in charge’ but taking care of those that are ‘in our charge’: and that’s the difference between a leader and a manager. And while those two aren’t mutually exclusive, I don’t know whether many of us have realised it yet: you CAN be a leader without being a manager.
Leaders of the legal profession may not be the ones with the fancy titles, they could be practicing law in a regional firm in outback Queensland – but they will support, and be empathetic towards the junior lawyer who joins the ranks and discovers the strain in the cut and thrust reality of a demanding and adversarial profession.
Sinek says leaders don’t take charge of things, they take care of people. They may not be responsible for the job, or the case, but they take responsibility for the person who is. To me, this is empathy in its truest form, and had a little of this gone to even some of the 57% of the 4,000 surveyed lawyers who left their jobs in the first five years of their practise, then I think we may have had a different outcome. The next question on this survey should have been “Did you receive any support from another member of the legal profession in your first years on the job?” I suspect that the overwhelming response would have been that there was underwhelming mentoring on offer!
Practicing empathy and mentorship
It’s World Kindness Day this week (13th November) and that’s a great reminder to all of us, but especially the Leaders out there, that empathy starts with a kind gesture, showing care for those around you. Empathise with the juniors in your practice, remember when you were starting out and finding the long days and tiring negotiations build to a slow-burn panic. Trouble-shoot effective ways of counteracting unhealthy working habits that could lead to burnout and a premature exit strategy. Check-in, and often. Let them know that you know it’s tough, but rewarding. Go out for a coffee, or a beer. Let them let off some steam, feel vulnerable, confess to feeling out of their depth. A kind ear, a good chat and some acknowledgement that they’re “doing good” could be all the difference to that attrition rate next time we survey the ranks.
And just as the mission statement for the World Kindness Movement quotes Harold Kushner’s eloquent motivation:
“When you are kind to others, it not only changes you, but it also changes the world”
I’d like to buy a vowel please… we all need to buy empathy; with a capital E.
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