A crisis of well-being

March 2, 2014

I have written many times about what a privilege it is to be a mentor.

It is something I relish and provides me with the most job satisfaction I can imagine. For many years my work in this area consisted mostly of meeting talented, good people needing some encouragement, support or direction as they developed their careers. It was never all positive, when someone is unemployed, overlooked or even bullied there are tough conversations and some difficult things to hear, but the tone was nearly always about taking action, reconciling disappointment and moving forward.

In recent years however there has been a noticeable change in tone and content in the majority of the mentoring conversations I have. It is increasingly a concern and it is something I now feel compelled to write about in more detail. Let me describe four instances from the last few weeks that will show why I am so worried. None of the examples are exaggerated although I have changed some details so that confidentiality is assured.

Example One: A senior in-house lawyer in a big team, a global brand. This lawyer is responsible for pan European commercial activity. A problem has arisen in southern Europe and there is the possibility of a regulatory investigation. This is not a dramatic scenario; this should not be overly perplexing. I meet the lawyer for a coffee in a public place; we chat about family and weekends, but I can see the lawyer is anxious. I look him straight in the eyes and there is a tear forming. His hands start to shake. He tries to look away, to hide his discomfort. I ask him if there is something he wants to talk about or if he would prefer not to. Two hours later we have talked through a number of issues – he is overworked, he is unsupported, he feels the full weight of responsibility for the possible regulatory breach, he is working far too late, far too often. His boss is disconnected and unaware. He is at the end of his reserves and running on empty.

Example Two: A lawyer between roles. Her last role was made redundant. In that role her boss, who had only joined the company earlier in the year, gave her an appraisal and said she was performing satisfactorily, but that he wanted more. He suggested a development programme. HR became involved and the assigned HR professional made clear that she needed to perform at a higher level; meeting expectation was a minimum requirement. However she was given no clues as to what was needed other than platitudes and clichés. Her confidence dipped, she became poorly and was signed off work, her confidence dipped some more. She was offered redundancy and never went back. For five years this lawyer was performing above expectations, was clever, thoughtful, creative and successful. To meet her now is to see a shadow of the person she was, it is very sad to see.

Example Three: A lawyer in a successful in-house team. Last year the team went through a high profile reorganisation designed to bring work in-house that had been previously outsourced. The General Counsel apparently wanted the team to work “smarter”, to prioritise better and to be more efficient. The General Counsel however gave no direction as to how this would be done, offered little leadership and waved away requests for additional resources. The lawyer I met was working 70 hour weeks, was exhausted and at the end of his tether. His Blackberry pinged dozens of times in the time we were together. Each ping felt like a slap across his face. It seemed to me to be like a form of torture for him.

Example Four: We worked on a project last year to help a team redefine its role. The team was overwhelmed with work and had minimal process. We offered some insight and some practical steps – to be honest it was a routine project. No rocket science needed. We held a discussion session to report back to the team; we sat round a table and shared the thoughts we had to help the team improve. One lawyer listened quietly, said nothing, but then started to cry, in front of colleagues, tears streaming. We stopped and asked gently if we had upset her. She said they were tears of relief because she had been thinking of resigning, she had not known if she was able to carry on, but now she felt there was a way forward.

I am not exaggerating. These are just four examples of many.

Each week I hear from good people who are struggling. Many times there are tears, often there is anger, and always there is a sense of helplessness. Last week was one of the hardest however. A good friend who has been struggling for some months with diagnosed mental illness sobbed uncontrollably and talked of dark thoughts. We both knew what he was saying; we both knew he needed far more help than a friend alone could give.

I think we have come to a very serious point in the way we manage teams, the expectations we place on people and the damage we do with attritional workloads. I believe we have collectively made five significant errors.

  1. In-sourcing work to save external legal fees without adjusting responsibilities to deliver work that was already in progress.
  2. Letting demand go unchecked, while refusing to increase resources. Just saying work “smarter” is as useless as “let them eat cake”.
  3. Cutting administrative support over many years because for all things in all ways we must all be self-sufficient.
  4. Creating an expectation of universal availability and connectivity for no good reason other than that mobile technology allows it.
  5. Recycling efficiency clichés, but not investing in technology or process. 

The cumulative effect is not apparent immediately; at the beginning we can clearly cope, but sooner or later we start to cope less well. Then at some point, perhaps some months later, perhaps longer, the wear and tear of this takes its toll. We drift passed warning signs, we fail to plan and we substitute hope for strategy. We simply ignore the evidence of our own eyes.

My next comments therefore are directed at every General Counsel, every Head of Legal and every team leader:

Do you know how people in your teams are coping? Do you know the impact your management decisions and your plans are having on your teams? Are you equipped to judge the well-being of your colleagues? Do you know the warning signs?

I am prepared say that if you do not know the answers to these questions you are failing in your role and you are failing your colleagues.

I am just one person with a very narrow window on a very big world, but if what I see is representative of life for lawyers in some in-house legal teams, we are as close to a mental health crisis as we have been in my entire career. It is serious and it is real. It is a dreadful, avoidable, crying shame.

Paul Gilbert

© 2024 LBC Wise Counsel. All rights reserved