World Mental Health Day took place earlier this month, so UnitedLex’s Dan Reed looks at the potential impact legal tech has on lawyers’ mental well-being
On World Mental Health Day, people across all industries took a long hard look through the mental wellbeing lens and thought about how they could better support peers and colleagues who might need a helping hand. The issue is particularly pertinent in law because on the one hand legal careers attract overachievers, i.e. people often prepared to abuse their health and well-being to do well; yet on the other hand, lawyers’ minds are the precious entity that clients are buying, so the business case for promoting mental health and well-being is strong.
New legal tech – is it really all sunshine and roses?
Technology has an interesting part to play in this. The promise of the tech revolution is that life will be made easier. In the case of the law office, that’s about legal robots and AI taking over the mundane, repetitive work (and doing it at super speeds), leaving the more interesting work for the human lawyers to do. But as we all know, the reality is that technology is threatening to turn us all into slaves in other areas of our lives, with bad phone habits and other tech addictions, with knock-on impacts in the workplace. A simple example is the professional who’s now expected to be constantly ‘online’, switched on and ready to respond to emails from their bosses or clients, whether they are at home or at work, and whatever time of day.
Significant stresses also arise from the way that legal work is changing as the much-talked-about digital revolution in business has become reality. Legal work itself is changing and if lawyers aren’t properly educated in how they need to do law differently in the digital age, life is not going to be comfortable and the pressures will mount. Take a simple example of contract drafting: today commercial contracts have to be much more ‘dynamic’ because the world changes so fast that the situation a contract is designed for at the start of its life may be entirely different only one year later. This needs to be factored in to the drafting, adapting to the client’s changing needs over time. Lawyers who don’t understand this will be flailing in their day jobs.
Lawyers’ pressures in the digital age have simply shifted from one place to another – and so their risk of feeling under strain and developing mental health issues has not necessarily been reduced in a meaningful way by the evolution of legal technology, just changed.
So what steps can we take collectively to make sure we’re getting the most from the benefits technology, without the negative impacts on mental health?
Grappling with the future
One of the easiest solutions to the problem is education – in short, the digital and technological ‘skilling up’ of lawyers across all levels of the hierarchy. To be clear, we’re not talking about teaching lawyers how to use apps or new computers here. Training programmes instead need to help them understand how the world is changing, and how client’s needs and demands are changing in tandem, and so how lawyers’ advice need to change to keep step.
Receiving the right training saves lawyers from feeling lost or out of their depth, and this can help then lead a more successful and enjoyable career.
'Work hard, play soft’
Picasso was once quoted as saying computers are useless because they “can only give you answers”. While that’s now changed to a degree, as we now have ‘machine learning’ and computers that can teach themselves, it does underline an interesting point about the value that humans offer that tech substitutes can’t: humans are extraordinarily valuable for their ability to do more than just answer true or false, and provide facts and figures - we’re emotionally intelligent interpreters and, for the time being, that skill set applies only to us and not to the robots.
With this in mind, something else that can remedy the problems legal technology is causing to lawyers’ mental health is making clear to new entrants to the profession that ‘soft skills’ (such as managing interpersonal relationships) are just as important as the ‘hard’ ones (e.g. being knowledgeable and diligent). As an industry, we should be encouraging those entering the profession to switch off and digitally detox as well as work hard. And we should be teaching them that, by building down-time into their schedule and taking care of their mental health, they are taking care of a valuable business asset: their brain. This not only makes them attractive to clients, but in turn to potential employers too. And of course today, they always have the option of working in an entirely new way, with contract lawyering options opening up with companies such as Pinsent Mason’s Vario taking a lead in this area, completely revolutionising the shape of legal careers. Lawyers entering the profession, as much as anybody else, should think hard about how to make their legal career work for them. A fulfilling career and a healthy life are within grasp if lawyers just reach for it. Mental well-being is possible, but they all have to claim it for themselves.
About Dan: Dan Reed is Founder and CEO of UnitedLex which leads large-scale legal business transformation projects for global companies. Prior to this, Dan worked as general counsel and CFO to a number of private-equity-backed companies.