In Industry Insights

The wellbeing of people working in law firms is firmly under the spotlight. 

Following a string of high profile incidents and cases that call into question the culture of some law firms, the Solicitors Regulation Authority is determined to take action. The regulator sees workplace behaviours as firmly within its remit, particularly where toxic cultures lead to poor ethical decision-making. 

The SRA recently conducted a thematic review on wellbeing, and in the resulting guidance declared war on toxic cultures

They are now consulting on conduct rule changes that would:

  • require solicitors to challenge bullying and harassment
  • compel firms to create a culture of treating people fairly and with respect 
  • give the regulator wide powers enforce workplace culture failures

Some, particularly those of us who have experienced toxic cultures first hand, will see this as a welcome change. Others may well view it as regulatory overreach – there are certainly foreseeable problems with the proposed rule changes.

Either way, it is clear that firms must turn their attention to wellbeing issues, if for no other reason than to attract and retain talent. In a tight recruitment market, organisational culture may well be a deciding factor for the best candidates.

We spoke to Georgina Dicks, Head of Recruitment at Altrincham-based law firm Forever Legal.

“As a relatively new firm, we knew we needed to give our lawyers a reason to want to come and work for us. Most firms offer similar salaries, but not everyone has the benefit of a blank sheet of paper to create a culture with wellbeing at its heart. We need great people, otherwise we won’t be able to grow as a business. So that’s what we’ve been trying to focus on,” says Georgina.

“It’s a shame we are talking about toxic cultures in our industry, but it is unfortunately out there and I know lots of our candidates have been through tough working conditions.”

Is regulation the best way to tackle the problem?

“I think regulation has its place, and the SRA being aware of the problem and taking a leading role is most definitely part of the solution. But the responsibility has to be primarily on the employer to create great positive cultures and stop poor behaviours creeping in.”

What strategies have you put in place to develop the firm’s culture?

“For us it starts with recruitment. We look for candidates with strong emotional intelligence and empathy first and foremost. Is this the type of person who works well with others? Legal skills can always be taught and developed, but core empathy is something much deeper. 

“We know communication from the top is important. Everyone needs to understand how the business is performing and what is required of them. The senior management team also needs to be clear on their commitment to the company culture, ethos and staff welfare. We try to do this at every available opportunity: recruitment, onboarding, 1-2-1s and just daily in the office.

“We’ve also found that it’s important to recognise the potential in everyone and work hard to make sure that everyone is on the right path for their success – whatever that means to them.  We have a new initiative called Forever Futures, which tries to formalise peer-to-peer experiences and knowledge sharing, which is all part of creating this positive culture. We firmly believe that if we create the right environment for a positive culture, then it cascades down to everyone. Openness and transparency is fundamental too, and so we encourage an ‘open book policy’. We want people to learn from mistakes and know that there is never a stupid question.

“And I mustn’t forget the hug! We have a simple message, which is to make clients feel like they get a virtual hug from us. HUG stands for Happy, Understand and Give and it’s a core part of our identity. We try to extend this internally to our team too.”

Does the trend towards working from home have a part to play in workplace culture?

“Most definitely. Home working has its place, and some of our team are permanently working remotely. It’s really important for firms to listen to their team – working from home suits some people’s circumstances. For others it can be really lonely and stressful. 

“It’s also a challenge when you are trying to create a culture. Technology is great, but it’s no replacement for seeing people face-to face. So even for people working predominantly from home, it’s important to have those regular touchpoints.”

Wellbeing and culture are difficult metrics to measure – how do you go about it?

“We like to keep it simple, by listening to people during 1-2-1s and in those regular catch-ups. Having social events is a good way to see culture in practice – do people seem to enjoy each other’s company? Does everyone mix well, even those at different levels of seniority?

“Another key indicator of a great culture is resistance to change. For any law firm it’s really important that everyone has a shared understanding of what it takes to drive the business forward – and recognises their role in doing so. You can only achieve that cohesiveness if you have a happy and engaged team”.

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