Working around the clock and checking emails 24/7, long hours and stress are endemic throughout the legal profession. Lawyers thrive under pressure and are expected to willingly embrace it. The added strain caused by the on-going outbreak of COVID-19 across the globe has made it more important for the legal profession to manage our stress, mental health and wellbeing. Extraordinary times demand different approaches. The Mindful Business Charter ("MBC"), launched in 2018, is the perfect tool to eliminate unnecessary workplace stress by identifying long-needed changes in the working practices of the legal sector.
From Global to Local – the MBC Journey
The MBC came about through conversations between Barclays, Pinsent Masons and Addleshaw Goddard in London in 2018 about a need to change the rules of engagement between clients and lawyers to safeguard mental health and wellbeing. Given that it is impossible, and undesirable, to eliminate all workplace stress, the MBC prioritises small but significant changes to working practices which can have a big impact on mental health and wellbeing.
Since its launch, the MBC has gained increasing acceptance across the legal and financial services sectors with 38 signatories, including the UK businesses of Goldman Sachs, Lloyds Banking Group, NatWest, RBS, Ashurst, Baker McKenzie, Clifford Chance, Eversheds Sutherland, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Paul Hastings, Simmons and Simmons and Squire Patton Boggs. At Pinsent Masons, we have launched the MBC in the Hong Kong office as part of our global programme to do the right thing for our employees, clients and communities. Other law firms in Hong Kong are also looking to do the same.
The MBC has been embraced widely because its aim is clear: drive positive change through targeted adjustments in our daily work, and ultimately, across businesses and professions to make our work lives sustainable and more resilient. The MBC can be adopted by law firms and other businesses across the globe to drive this important change.
Why the MBC?
Anxiety, depression and stress, late nights, working on holidays and constantly pinging mobiles are a fact of life for every lawyer. While technology advances have made our lives easier, life as a lawyer may not have become better. Clients and supervisors expect excellent performance and quick turnarounds. This causes long hours, high workloads and poor people management. Many firms adopt an adversarial culture, in which colleagues are competitors. When coupled with miscommunication and individual differences in working behaviour and style, there can be detrimental impacts on business performance and employee wellbeing.
In recent years, the legal profession has become increasingly aware of the negative impact of 'business as usual' on lawyers' performance, productivity and retention. To tackle this problem, law firms have sought to improve employee mental health and wellbeing, ranging from offering counselling services to subsidised gym membership. However, little has been done to tackle the underlying working practices that cause unnecessary stress.
The MBC Principles
The MBC sets out to tackle unnecessary stress by setting out best practice and behavioural principles that will result in people feeling happier, valued and positive about their work. Its commitments are made at both the organisational and individual levels through four key pillars.
- Openness and Respect
Centred on building trust and effective communication, the first pillar reminds us to discuss upfront with colleagues about their preferred method of communication. Whilst some prefer face-to-face interactions, others may prefer emails and these preferences can change based on circumstances. The MBC emphasises being conscious and mindful of an individual's preferences and working patterns.
Face-to-face interactions are often perceived as most efficient in generating dialogue and ideas. However, after a full day of meetings it is natural for people to need some "me-time" to check through emails. The MBC reminds us that we can each take the extra step to be more observant or proactive about preferred modes of communication and to adapt our style to suit our colleagues and clients.
Smart Meetings and Emails
Our inboxes are overflowing and our diaries packed. The MBC reminds us that we do not need every person to attend every meeting in person. It advocates providing dial in details as a default unless it is imperative that everyone attends in person. We can all be more mindful by ensuring only the right people are copied into emails and making use of clear subject lines to accurately reflect the email's content.
The COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as a turning point for many businesses and firms in Hong Kong and across the globe have adopted agile working and smart meeting arrangements. Advancements in communications and collaboration technology mean that effective meetings are being run by parties that are miles apart every day.
To integrate these modern ways of working is to recognise something that the MBC champions: businesses should take advantage of the opportunities afforded by technological advancements and reconsider the need for a face time culture in favour of one based on trust, understanding and respect.
Respecting Rest Periods
Given the nature of legal work, lawyers are always connected and have oftentimes forgotten the need to "disconnect". The COVID-19 outbreak, which has made agile working even more common around the globe, has made the boundary even harder to draw. The MBC asks us to be considerate and find the right balance between our professional and personal lives. Annual leave is part of the period for us to recharge and the MBC calls for this to be respected.
When support is required outside of core working hours, options should be given for when the work needs to be done if it is not truly urgent. For many lawyers, the default assumption is that "everything the client needs is urgent". However, the stress this sudden work brings on the team can be reduced by asking a simple question: how necessary is this?
Consider the following – a firm's banking team received an email from its client on late Friday afternoon requesting a facility agreement to be drafted by the following Monday. The lead partner resisted the default assumption and instead emailed the client to ask if there was a pressing need to finalise the agreement within the stipulated timeline. He explained that this would require the team to work flat out over the weekend. He got an immediate reply - the agreement was only needed by the business on the following Wednesday. One simple question made a positive difference in safeguarding the wellbeing of the team. The MBC is not a 'slacker's charter' and the legal team would have gotten the agreement done by Monday if that was required. What the MBC calls for is a change in default behaviours that can cause avoidable stress.
Lawyers often work as part of a bigger team, and the MBC reminds us to adopt a mindful approach to collaboration, instruction and delegation. Providing sufficient context and information when delegating a task and explaining the purpose, timetable and ultimate recipient can help ensure that the task is properly understood and results in better task performance. The MBC also encourages teams to negotiate rather than impose deadlines and to speak up when a deadline is unachievable.
Just months into its launch of the MBC, Pinsent Masons' Hong Kong office is seeing a clear change on this front. Email subject lines headed "Not for today" or "Not urgent – till next week" are being increasingly adopted which allow the recipient to prioritise tasks appropriately. Not only are junior lawyers willing to speak up if a deadline is unrealistic, senior lawyers increasingly look to engage their junior counterparts upfront on their expectations when delegating tasks.
At the organisational level, the MBC asks law firms to (i) drive forward the actions and change necessary to support the MBC; (ii) promote a culture of openness about mental wellbeing; (iii) include performance against the MBC / responsible business during relationship review meetings with clients; (iv) include responsible business as an area of assessment during significant procurement; and (v) promote and introduce the MBC to new members.
The MBC Journey Ahead
The MBC is a collaborative exercise that brings together the legal profession and their clients to agree that we can do things differently and that, when we do, both service quality and delivery will improve. There is no magic wand to wellbeing nor can improved mental health happen overnight. They are important goals to strive for and the MBC is making a tangible difference to the wellbeing of the profession as a whole. With the growing importance of the issues it seeks to address and the tested solutions it proposes, the MBC can drive forward better mental health and wellbeing for all, across all sectors, over time.
Find out more about the MBC at https://mindfulbusinesscharter.com/. We are actively engaging with law firms and other professions to promote the MBC more widely in Hong Kong. If anyone reading this article is interested please get in touch with us.
By every small change we can make a big difference.