The price of perfectionism: Time to stem the flow

You know that old adage, ‘everything has its price’just four words which forewarn the sometimes blissfully naïve of the cost of a desired object, outcome or opportunity.

In the legal sphere, there is a price for perfectionism, and it carries a trifecta. The emotional, social and financial toll on practising lawyers in Australia is driving them first to the brink of their mental wellbeing and then out of the profession at an alarming rate, and it’s up to us to stem the flow.

Challenges

It’s generally known that lawyers are ‘primed’ to be perfect. In the courtroom, in mediation or at settlement conferences, there is seemingly no room for error in the lawyer world. Every word, comma, and sentence must be on point and perfect. Think of all those red-pen marks over your draft documents or the volumes of tracked changes with each review or re-read.

Client expectations are high, if not very high. And understandably so. Clients expect solutions to their problems on time, every time. The premise of the transaction is, ‘I am paying you good money and I expect good service’.

Lawyers are expected to perform perfectly, on time, every time for their employers – to meet billing targets, to juggle excessive workloads, to do ‘whatever it takes’ to get the job done. In fact, 71% of lawyers agreed in a recent survey that a willingness to work long hours is necessary to excel.

The 2019 In-House Council Trends Report, undertaken by the Corporate Counsel Australia, found that 7% of in-house counsel work more than 60 hours a week, 20% work between 51 and 60 hours and 40% work between 41 and 50 hours a week.

For women with children in the legal profession, balancing family responsibilities with their work is a recognised challenge. There’s plenty of research that shows taking up flexible working arrangements has a negative impact on progression prospects, such as being allocated unsatisfying work or being passed up for promotion.

The Law Council of Australia online survey of practising lawyers revealed there’s another cost to one in two women and more than one in three men who have been bullied or intimidated in their current workplace. This shows that workplace cultures and leadership practices are far from flawless, despite the push for its own workforce to be just that.

Consequences

Some 85% of respondents in the survey of legal professionals across Australia and New Zealand said they experienced anxiety, with 60% saying they had experienced depression – or knew someone who had. In fact, the Law Council now cites statistics which suggest that one in three lawyers will suffer depression, high anxiety and stress. Is this the true price of perfectionism?

At a basic level, some studies show that employees who work longer hours do not increase productivity. Instead, they generally suffer greater stress, fatigue, and low morale as well as higher rates of injuries and mistakes on the job. And the price to pay for ignoring mental health issues has a nice round figure, according to Headsup Organisation, of $10.9 billion a year.

Is it any wonder, then, that as the focus on mental health and wellbeing has become more prevalent in our lives, attrition rates in the legal profession have risen?

In another survey, the Law Council found that, of 4000 past and present lawyers, 57% had practised for less than five years. The two most common ‘push factors’ for leaving law were discontent with workplace culture as well as leadership and direction of the organisation. It won’t surprise you to hear they left their prestigious, highly sought-after careers for better work-life balance and flexibility.

Given the cost of a law degree has doubled since 2000, ranging from $46,000 for a Bachelor’s degree to $58,000 for a sought-after double degree, doesn’t that make this profession wildly expensive for hip pockets and headspace? Sure, there’s currently a glut of graduates for the few positions available, but that shouldn’t stop legal firms from addressing the price of perfectionism to retain the lawyers who do find positions!

What can we do as leaders, as individuals and as an industry to counteract the emotional, social and financial cost of chasing such unattainable perfectionism?

Solutions

For my part, I’ve tried little things to reduce stress in the workplace; like abolishing time costing, time recording and billable hour targets. Yes, I accept that from a management perspective it reduces visibility of productivity at a team and lawyer level, but it’s a price I’m happy to pay to improve morale and mental health.

The little things that firms can do will vary depending on scale and area of practice, but surely it’s time that we as a profession take positive steps to acknowledge the price we pay for perfection. Rather than providing psychological support in employee assistance programs, isn’t it better that we do our best to address the cause rather than just focussing on a cure?

Sources:
National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) Report.
Lawyer’s Weekly story ‘Working overtime is self-defeating
Cost of Australian law degrees (2020 update).
The financial cost of ignoring mental health in the workplace.
The Law Council of Australia mental health and wellbeing portal.

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