New Zealand Law Society - Second Performance and Wellbeing Study a valuable picture

Second Performance and Wellbeing Study a valuable picture

By Geoff Adlam

A survey of New Zealand lawyers conducted in 2018 and again in 2019 shows that serious health and wellbeing issues remain, but there are indicators that the deep self-scrutiny and impetus for change of the last year are having an impact.

Both surveys were carried out by the College of Law New Zealand in conjunction with customer insights agency Perceptive. The 2019 survey focused on understanding how key measures of workplace health and wellbeing had trended over the past 12 months, using the 2018 survey as a benchmark.

The College of Law says it and Perceptive are committed to a long-term partnership to continually monitor wellbeing in the legal industry. Such an annual health-check will be an important source of information on the legal profession. The areas targeted by the surveys are those which have emerged as key issues in other recent research, including the New Zealand Law Society’s April 2018 Workplace Environment Survey and the December 2019 Purea Nei – Changing the Culture of the Legal Profession report and research findings.

While it attracted responses from just 3.8% of New Zealand’s lawyers, the full survey is an important addition to the research about New Zealand’s lawyers and legal workplaces today. Some of the findings are summarised here, but the full report gives a valuable picture of the current state of mind of some members of the legal profession on major issues in practice and the workplace, particularly younger women.

Participation

The surveys were carried out in November 2018 and 2019 and 525 lawyers participated in each (coincidentally, and not the same individuals). At the end of November 2019, 13,744 New Zealand-based lawyers held practising certificates.

Of the 2019 respondents, 74% were women and 26% men, out of kilter with the current 52% women, 48% men breakdown. The analysts say responses were weighted to reflect the actual gender breakdowns.

A relatively high 10% of respondents were aged 18 to 24, and 40% were aged 25 to 34. Medium-sized law firms contributed most respondents – 29% – followed by large law firms (22%) and small law firms (20%), with 20% practising in-house. The biggest group of respondents by role were staff solicitors (41%), followed by associates (10%) and senior associates (10%). Partners and directors contributed 9% of respondents.

Stress and burnout

On average, 2019 participants said they were working 44.7 hours in a normal week. This was down 2.6 hours from 2018. And the number of billable hours a lawyer was expected to achieve in a day was 4.6 in 2019, down from 5.7 in 2018.

The (relatively) positive theme continued with a question asking participants if they had ever felt like they had been burnt out at work. In 2019, 46% said they had within the last month – compared with 54% in 2018. This is, of course, still alarming. Just 13% in 2019 and 9% in 2018 said they had never felt burnt out.

Physical health and mental health continued to be of major concern. Over half the participants had suffered impacts on these in the past year due to burnout. A high 61% of 18 to 34-year-old said their mental health had suffered as a result of burnout, compared with 28% of those aged over 55.

When asked how they relieved stress, exercise and confiding in friends, family or colleagues continued to be most common. More lawyers saw a health professional in 2019 than in 2018, and 44% used alcohol in 2019 as a coping mechanism.

Physical health and mental health continued to be of major concern. Over half the participants had suffered impacts on these in the past year due to burnout. A high 61% of 18 to 34-year-old said their mental health had suffered as a result of burnout, compared with 28% of those aged over 55.

When asked how they relieved stress, exercise and confiding in friends, family or colleagues continued to be most common. More lawyers saw a health professional in 2019 than in 2018, and 44% used alcohol in 2019 as a coping mechanism.

When asked if their workplace could do more to reduce stress, 62% said yes – down from 66% in 2018. Younger lawyers (80% in 2019) and those in large law firms (82%) were particularly sure their workplace could do more.

Asked what their place of work could do to improve work-related stress, 62% opted for offering mental health days, 62% for having better policies around incentivisation for overtime work, 55% for increasing the level of training for senior staff around how to be effective managers, 53% for having better support services, 52% for giving employees the “right to disconnect”, and 49% for holding senior staff more accountable for the way they treat their staff.

Another question asked about the importance respondents placed on managers and senior staff having management skills as part of their selection criteria and/or an increased focus on such training. A high 94% felt it was either very important (71%) or somewhat important (23%).

Bullying and harassment

Bullying and harassment continue to be key issues in the legal profession. There are indicators of change, but these still have a significant impact on lawyers, particularly women.

When asked “besides yourself, do you know anyone who has been bullied within your workplace in the past 12 months?”, 42% of respondents said they did – 48% of women and 35% of men. Younger lawyers were more likely to know someone, with 48% of those aged 18 to 34 in this group, along with 59% of those in associate roles and 48% in staff solicitor roles.

Asked “besides yourself, do you know anyone who has been sexually harassed within your workplace in the past 12 months”, 10% of respondents said they did – 12% of women and 8% of men. Lawyers aged 18 to 34 (15%) and those in large law firms (18%) were most likely to know someone who had been sexually harassed.

One encouraging change from 2018 is in the proportion of lawyers who felt their workplaces needed to adapt to address some of the potential issues raised around sexual assault allegations and bullying. In the 2019 survey, 38% said their workplace needed to adapt; this was down 10% from 48% in 2018.

However, there was a junior/senior role divide in 2019 and 48% of associates or staff solicitors said their place of work needed to adopt – compared to 19% of senior associate or partner/director roles. Also, 54% of those working in a large firm said it needed to adapt.

The improving trend was also reflected when participants were asked whether they had seen tangible changes in their work or area of law that increased their confidence that the system would respond appropriately to allegations of sexual harassment and bullying. While just 41% either strongly agreed (10%) or agreed (31%), this was up 8% on 2018. However, 40% neither agreed or disagreed and 18% disagreed – with 7% strongly disagreeing. Interestingly, 82% of those working in large law firms agreed there had been tangible changes.

Alcohol

One section of the survey focused on “the alcohol culture”. Just 4% of respondents (up from 2% in 2018) said alcohol was consumed a great deal in their workplace, and 29% (down from 32%) said it was consumed a moderate amount. Large and medium-sized firms had the highest level of alcohol consumption, with 57% in large firms saying it was consumed moderately or a great deal, and 43% in medium firms.

Asked if the drinking culture in their workplace made them drink more than they otherwise would, 9% either strongly agreed or agreed. However, 42% strongly disagreed and 36% disagreed. When questioned about office policy, over one-third said there were none they were aware of – but just 4% of large firm lawyers said they had no policies, compared with 40% in medium firms and 65% in small firms.

Unconscious bias

In the past 12 months, 38% of 2019 survey participants had experienced some level of bias against them in the workplace, 17% were unsure if they had, and 44% said they had not. The most commonly encountered bias was gender, followed closely by age. A high 37% of non-New Zealand European lawyers said they had experienced ethnic bias, and 38% of all women had experienced gender bias.

Support

Friends, family and colleagues were the key sources of support and advice for the lawyers who completed the survey. This did not change between 2019 and 2018.

When asked if the legal services industry had adequate support services/systems that are both available and accessible to lawyers when they are struggling, 36% agreed – up 8% from 2018. A further 37% neither agreed nor disagreed, but 21% disagreed and 15% strongly disagreed. The most popular support system/structure was one completely external to the legal services industry. Awareness of New Zealand Law Society initiatives was at 68% in 2019, up from 64% in 2018.

Where to from here?

A very illuminating question was posed near the end of the survey, with participants asked to reflect on how change could be achieved. The most popular was a change of generations or improvements to leaders – demonstrating the impact of management and leadership on workplace health and wellbeing. The relatively high performance of “other” indicates that there is no shortage of ideas or commitment to overcoming the issues which confront New Zealand’s legal profession.

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