Prioritising health and wellbeing in the legal sector



02 March 2020

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) [1] projects more than 24% of people living in the UK will be aged 65 or older by 2042, up from 18% in 2016. These shifting demographics are starting to impact the world of work. 

Take the legal sector. Currently most lawyers are between 25 and 44 (58%).[2] The largest group are aged between 25 and 34 (46%) and for partners it is between 45 and 54 (35%). People in the 55 to 64 group make up 14% of all lawyers in law firms. However, this is likely to change, with firms increasingly having an older workforce.

The age people retire is also increasing, with some people continuing to work past the state pension age either because they haven’t saved enough in their pension pot or because they are choosing to do so.

The UK’s birth rate is at its lowest since records began too.[3] Fewer people will be coming into the workforce and the impact on the future workforce will be significant. There may be a potential shortage of workers, and a greater chance of more workers suffering ill health while still working as they are older - businesses need to be prepared.

Traditional employee benefits, and a “one-size fits all” approach no longer meet the needs of a multi-generational workforce and will need to be reviewed and considered along with key “People Risk” challenges:

  • The cost of absence & presenteeism
  • Errors and Omissions, and wider legal exposure
  • Reputational Risk
  • Employers’ Liability

Employers will need to ask “how do our employee benefits and Employee Value Proposition (EVP) strategy effectively support the wider business strategies in mitigating these risks?”


The legal sector is known for higher-rates of burnout. Billable hours, and ultimately utilisation rates are measured by recording time in six-minute intervals; often, annual billable hour targets can range from 1,700 to 2,500, or up to 7.5 hours a day. [4]

This pressure can create mental health issues. Whilst billable hours still exist in many areas, other methods, such as fixed-fee or retainer options, are commonplace. A survey last year from UK insurance firm, Protectivity[5], found that lawyers are the second most stressed professionals in the country – with 63% in the legal industry reporting stress daily.

Other research by the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society[6] who surveyed its members about resilience and wellbeing in 2017, found that 90% of junior lawyers were experiencing stress in their roles, with over 26% reporting severe levels of stress.

As a result, presenteeism is becoming a growing concern for employers and is estimated to cost the UK economy £15.1billion every year, making it nearly double the cost of absenteeism. [7]

This links into the wider conversation around the link between people believing they can’t be off for various reasons, including high pressured working environments and culture, management style and financial driven targets.

But what impact could this have?

Imagine a lawyer is six months into an intensive case and they begin to struggle with their health. The demands of their workplace are high, and they feel unable to ‘let go’ and handover to a colleague. They don’t rest when needed and a mistake happens.

The lawyer is already struggling mentally, so a claim is made via their Professional Indemnity (PI) Insurance; HR becomes involved and a disciplinary process starts which leads to the lawyer going off on long term sick, as a combination of a mental health condition and another diagnosis; we are seeing mental health become a secondary diagnosis once someone has been off work due to other reasons.

Eventually, the lawyer feels unable to return to work at all and ends up suing the law firm claiming more support should have been provided, earlier diagnosis, some form of pathway should have been in place to protect this from happening etc. This situation can and does happen and demonstrates why an effective employee benefits are so vital in supporting the workforce.

Some would argue those working in the legal sector are rewarded very well in terms of salary and benefits, but these perks may not be enough to satisfy a multi-generational workforce. For instance, millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (born from 1997 onwards) are increasingly focussed on health and wellbeing and often place more value on wellbeing benefits than on salary increases or pension.

On the other hand, those in their 50s and 60s may be more concerned with pension savings and having medical insurance and critical illness cover in place.  

Embracing health and wellbeing

There is a growing need for law firms to move towards the personalisation of benefits. Firms also need to make flexible working and the option for shared job functions more commonplace. This is especially important when employees have families.

They need to develop more robust health and wellbeing strategies too, which some law firms have been slow to embrace. Law firm Ashfords made some interesting points on their blog last year that sheds some light on why this is the case. [8]

They highlight the “perfect storm” in the legal profession for encountering issues with wellbeing. The personality types of those entering the profession are commonly prone to wanting to achieve perfectionism, whilst being happy to undertake as many working hours as possible to do so.

They point out that this means that firms need to juggle a commitment to employee wellbeing with the reality that, sometimes maintaining excellent client service will perhaps unavoidably entail late nights and a stressful working environment.

But they make an important point. Although there is an element of the latter being beyond a firms’ control, recognising this and taking responsibility to address employee wellbeing as far as they can certainly isn’t. I couldn’t agree more. 

Is progress being made?

We have seen a large number of law firms become a signatory of the Mindful Business Charter, which aims to:

  • Promote a culture of openness about mental wellbeing
  • Ensure responsible business is included as an area of assessment during significant procurement processes
  • Drive forward the actions and necessary change in support of the principles of the Charter.

The Charter is supported by mental health charity Mind, the Law Society, LawCare and the Solicitors Regulatory Authority. Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing have become a signatory, leading the Employee Benefits profession to do so.

Our reason for doing so, like so many others, is because we are committed to developing better mental health and wellbeing working practices. The Charter has changed things - by signing the Charter, it puts the signatories in a collective commitment to change working practices and remove the unnecessary stress that can affect employees' mental health and wellbeing, which will lead to more effective working and enhanced productivity.

Another example is the public announcement [9] in January that court staff should be entitled to a full lunch hour will be welcomed by some as a way of encouraging employees to take a break, free from guilt.

However, some believe that the traditional ways of working need to be overhauled to better reflect the flexible and agile way that people using the courts live their lives.

What is clear is the need to support a better work/life balance continues to be a priority for the sector. Ensuring that staff can disconnect from work and maintain a positive work/life balance is essential to improving their health and wellbeing and their productivity and performance.

Firms also need to put in place an appropriate employee benefits strategy tailored to the needs of their workforce. Fee earners, support staff and partners will all want and need something different which needs to be considered when developing the strategy.

Developing an employee benefits strategy for the future

To build a sustainable business for the future, law firms need a robust, healthy and adaptable workforce. Forward-thinking employers understand that they will need to assume greater responsibility for the health of their workforce. With the workforce changing, the wider benefits being offered must evolve and take into account the Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) policies of the organisation.

By incorporating D&I in the wider “employee” offering, the EVP and offering will become more targeted, more effective ROI can be measured on a regular basis through Data Analytics. The wider D&I and employee wellbeing strategies need to be linked. If it isn’t, not all staff can or will be supported.

Employee health and wellbeing therefore needs to be at the centre of any employee benefits package, so that firms can better support existing employees and can attract the best talent in a competitive employment market.