Practitioner – love thy staff (and yourself)

June 1st, 2017
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By Edrick Roux

The legal profession, one of the oldest professions known to man and arguably one of the most prestigious, has always been one of the stalwart guardians of society. Being regulated by a governing body, it is one of the few professions in the world that requires not only a tertiary qualification, but also admission via a court application. The standards required of the individuals who wish to join the legal profession are exceptionally high, and understandably so, as legal practitioners are effectively the defenders of the public trust and are duty bound to uphold the law in all aspects.

It is a profession that entails long hours, a keen intellect and a desire to deal with exceptionally complicated legal matters effectively on a daily basis, facts which are known to each and every member of the profession intrinsically.

Unfortunately as opposed to only being required in an exceptional circumstance, the legal profession has reached the point in society where intense working hours and a nigh on unforgiving work environment have become the norm. Even more shocking, this is often the standard by which professionals measure the performance of the staff working under them – some taking the stance that if a staff member does not work long hours they are not bringing their ‘A game’ to the table or that they are not taking their career seriously.

Of course this leads to stress levels experienced by such staff to rise exponentially – especially those staff who are relatively new to a legal practice. It is from this perspective that this article seeks to investigate –

  • the causes of this stress;
  • the effects that such stress has on individuals, their practice and ultimately their careers; as well as
  • providing some practical insight on how to deal with such stress.

Sources of stress to practitioners

The first step in dealing with any problem is identifying the root cause, for once the problem has been identified a solution can be found. In this context, the likely source of most stress is the very nature of the legal profession.

Make no mistake, despite the lofty ideals to which all legal practitioners should aspire, work in the legal field usually takes place in a gruelling work place, which requires exceptional competence and dedication. Due to this, practitioners often ignore the delicate balance between their professional and personal life.

The following factors contribute significantly to the mounting tension of professionals in such a work environment –

  • the perceived lack of personal and professional growth by the individual;
  • inadequate professional training or support;
  • the constant awareness of potential risks relating to reputational damage;
  • mounting, and numerous, deadlines which come in seemingly unending waves;
  • fee targets;
  • lack of time for recreational activities;
  • lack of social interaction with individuals outside the circle of immediate co-workers; and
  • personal circumstances, ranging from death in the family to run of the mill family conflicts.

Although the above-mentioned are not the only drivers of stress, they are likely the primary factors. The presence of any of the above-mentioned are nothing new, and each and every individual has dealt with at least some of these at some point in their lives, however, with advances in technology in recent years it has become much harder for professionals to shut off from work in order to find a measure of peace and quiet to recover.

As Aldous Huxley said: ‘They must intoxicate themselves with work. … No wonder they daren’t stop working. They might find out what they really are or rather aren’t’ Point Counter Point (London: Vintage 2004).

Effects of stress on the practitioner and their practice

With probable causes identified, the effects must be analysed – from the moment an individual enters into practice, whether for their own account or working as a legal practitioner for a firm or corporate entity – they are almost immediately assailed by all of the above.

For some, like those hardened veterans who are effectively Methuselahs of legal practice, dealing with these issues has become a mere matter of course, it is only a matter of time before they manage to hit their stride and adapt to their circumstances.

But for others, especially Millennials and newly admitted attorneys, the process is not nearly so easy. Torn between trying to prove their worth and increasing their contributions to the business, these individuals often find that they feel like they are drowning and unable to cope.

This can in turn lead to, inter alia

  • lack of sleep and increasing levels of fatigue;
  • irritability and aggression;
  • a growing sense of despondency;
  • difficulty with concentration on even simple tasks;
  • reduction in productivity;
  • decreasing quality of professional performance; and
  • increasing the likelihood of ‘burnout’ by the individual. (‘Burnout is a type of psychological stress. Occupational burnout or job burnout is characterised by exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm and motivation, feelings of ineffectiveness, and also may have the dimension of frustration or cynicism, and as a result reduced efficacy within the workplace’ (www.en.wikipedia.org, accessed 25-4-2017).

The presence of any, or all of these, can have exceptionally far reaching and potentially devastating consequences. These range from the damage to their professional reputation, and thus to their career, to damage of a more personal nature – many an individual suffering from such stress has professionally, and with near military precision, ruined relationships with friends, family and in some cases even their significant others due to lack of a method to cope.

Burnouts are equally severe, requiring many months of recovery before the individual will be able to function on the same level as they did previously, let alone improve their performance.

Yet even with the above in mind, the far more serious risk – something which each and every professional should be aware of in respect of those individuals who work under their supervision – is an increased risk of suicide, which may accompany severe cases of anxiety and stress.

If one was to think that suicide is not a significant problem in South Africa
(SA) – think again. According to Health24 the information and statistics from the Crime, Violence and Injury Prevention Review, between 8% and 11% of all of the non-natural deaths in SA are due to suicides. Shockingly this number translates into a staggering 21 suicides per day (www.health24.com, accessed 25-4-2017). According to the review (op cit) some of the warning signs, although it must be noted that the signs are not always as obvious as these, which should never be ignored are as follows –

  • if the individual begins to talk more about suicide and death (admittedly this line is blurred a bit in a trust and estate practice);
  • if the individual has made an active decision on a suicide method and started making the necessary preparations;
  • the individual has withdrawn from friends and family;
  • there are clear signs of mood swings;

it has been expressed that the individual feels hopeless or trapped;

  • a clear differentiation in their normal routine;
  • an increase in the use of alcohol and drugs (substance abuse);
  • a drive to getting their affairs in order;
  • the individual has started saying farewells to people; and
  • the individual has high anxiety levels.

It would be a truly disheartening if anybody was to ignore any of these signs in any of their staff and in my opinion such careless disregard would be a violation of the very principles, which the legal profession enshrines.

Dealing with stress

Ultimately how each individual deals with their stress is largely a personal matter and will have to be approached very delicately, however, there are a few things which employers can do in order to assist them in this regard, such as –

  • the creation of mentorship programs to guide staff through past experience of seniors;
  • the implementation of active health and wellness checks;
  • regular discussion with superiors in the workplace;
  • professional assistance should be made available to staff should cases, which justify same be identified (for a referral to a psychologist, psychiatrist or support group, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group can be contacted at (011) 234 4837 or 0800 20 50 26);
  • a cultural shift in the mindset of the individual to not only strive to provide quality services to clients, but also to find a clear ‘work and life’ balance;
  • encouraging individuals to make use of their friends and family as confidantes and thereby ensuring that there is a ‘release-valve’ for pent up tension and stress;
  • encouraging an increased emphasis on personal happiness by advising staff to make clear goals for themselves, both professionally and on a personal basis;
  • a simple mindset shift to try and encourage a more jovial work environment;
  • perhaps the simplest of all – acknowledgement of the achievements of staff from time to time; and
  • an increased emphasis on spreading awareness of World Suicide Prevention Day (10 September).

Conclusion

The legal profession is much more than just a career or a business, it is a calling. As a result the legal profession is filled with stoic and (often overly) serious individuals who have forgotten what it is like to break the veneer for even a moment to just have a laugh. It is usually these selfsame individuals who believe that the only truly important thing about the legal profession is making a profit.

This stoic demeanor is then carried over to the next generation of legal professionals, thinking that the stress, frustration, exhaustion, anxiety, fatigue, anger and growing isolation they are confronted with daily are the norm. Even worse they quite often feel they cannot approach anybody to discuss these issues because it may be perceived as weakness.

Furthermore, this problem is not unique to SA. In 2012 a survey of the legal profession in the United Kingdom (UK) found that more than 50% of the profession felt stressed and that more than 19% of the profession was suffering from clinical depression (www.lawsociety.org.uk, accessed 25-4-2017). In 2013 the Law Society in the UK interviewed
2 226 legal professionals and found that more than 95% of the candidates interviewed said their stress was extreme or severe (www.lawsociety.org.uk (op cit)).

So perhaps it is time for us all to admit that it is okay to drop the veneer for a moment and to take some time to live our lives and acknowledge the stresses that assail us. It might just do us all some good to follow the advice from the preface to the 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: The Original 1855 Edition (New York: Dover Publications Inc 2007):

‘This is what you should do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and the crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men … re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.’

So my challenge to all practitioners is this – take some time for your staff. Break your seriousness and solemn demeanor for a moment or a day just to speak to your staff and your juniors to gauge their state of mind. You never know – a moment of genuine concern shown to a staff member might just make all the difference in the world – both to the business and the individual.

Let me leave you with the following –

‘“Unmitigated seriousness is always out of place in human affairs” counsels the philosopher George Santayana, adding “Let not the unwary reader think me flippant for saying so; it was Plato, in his solemn old age, who said it.”’ (Michael Dirda Book by Book (New York: A Holt Paperback 2005)).

Edrick Roux LLB (UP) is a legal adviser (Trusts and Estates Division) at PricewaterhouseCoopers Africa in Pretoria.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2017 (June) DR 26.

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