28 Mar 2024

Reflections from our Chair - March 2024

By Colin Passmore

It so often happens with news features that we see an intensive few days of reporting and commentary, and then something else comes along which takes over the headlines and we then “move on”. This seems to have happened with the debate on the long hours culture in the legal profession. However, it has at least given me the space to try to find the right words to express my views, which I hope will provide some Easter reflections.

First, I have to say that no reaction to the increasing number of news reports about our long hours culture can ignore the tragic case of Vanessa Ford. My heart goes out to her family and colleagues and indeed to the management team at her firm who found themselves the point of focus for a problem that clearly impacts widely on our profession.

It is easy to say that the legal profession is one where hard work is regularly required such that a 9 to 5 working pattern just isn't realistic: the demands of clients, the Courts and indeed our business models will never permit this. It is equally easy to say, as I can, that I came into the profession 40 years ago, knowing from my earliest days that this is a tough and demanding job, and that as a result I have done my share of weekend working, the occasional all-nighter and (as a litigator) have had seen countless evenings intruded upon by the demands made, not only by clients, but also opponents and even Judges ("by 9am tomorrow morning please"). I am only too aware that in other legal disciplines, the demands for intensive working can be equally high, if not more so as a big deal nears completion.

And I can also point to the fact that this is still a great profession to come into (we have no shortage of candidates) and the rewards all round remain high. 

But it is clear that something very serious and bad is going on. Vanessa’s case is the most terrible example of this. And yet the concerns this has generated go much wider: if one accesses on-line chat functions on various legal journals, it is clear that there is huge concern over the impact - physical and mental - that long hours working is causing and that the rewards we talk about as the prize for becoming a lawyer simply are not the answer to sustaining this culture. 

My experience as Chairman of the CLLS is that our member firms are acutely aware of these matters and are not shying away from them. I know from first-hand experience that many senior and managing partners are trying their best to address them. Whatever the criticisms made of the well-being programmes that firms put on, these are not just for show: they are provided in a genuine effort to alert all lawyers to the need to look after their physical and mental health and to encourage people who might be struggling - in whatever way - to ask for help which firms then provide. I would like to think that all CLLS member firms thereby are mindful of the need to foster a working environment where it is possible to speak up and say, without fear of retribution in any form, "I need help, I need some space". 

But having reflected in the course of trying to write this note, it is clear that something more is needed from the profession to address this very serious problem. While a number of lawyers may feel sufficiently resilient and sufficiently supported to get by, it is not good enough to assume that this is the case for everybody. In short, my sense is that we have to effect a step change about the way we work. This means we must put our colleagues’ welfare at the top of our list of priorities, which in turn means we must properly discuss with clients - and our colleagues - the impact of client work, we must instil and enforce monitoring systems in law firms (and chambers), to ensure we have senior staff who are responsible for noting and intervening when the pressure on an individual is in danger territory, that we should continue to offer (even mandate) mental health support, and that we need to involve all levels at this. We also need to take the Mindful Business Charter very seriously, and reflect on what the MBC has had to say in its recent very thoughtful, open letter. 

This is not, as I have said, a means to introducing a 9 to 5 culture - the business of law cannot realistically function without continued hard work in return for the rewards available: the complexity and challenge of the work we undertake will continue to expect higher levels of commitment and sacrifice than perhaps are found in other professions (albeit I acknowledge that hard work is required in many other professions, not least the medical profession). But there is a limit, and if expectations truly require lawyers to work continued back-to-back lengthy shifts then something really has to change. Nobody can really be expected to take on that level of commitment without there being a risk of suffering serious adverse consequences. 

These views may not be popular with everybody - but frankly if we are to avoid having the position dealt with by regulation, as some are suggesting, then we as responsible leaders must act and must act now: we cannot go on with a significant number of lawyers at all levels who are suffering from the way in which we now expect them to work. 

If we can help at the CLLS to co-ordinate a City-wide response to this challenge and to act as a platform for sharing best practice then we shall be only too happy to help.

March 2024