Retaining autonomy in legal practice

It is not unreasonable to suggest that junior lawyers are, sometimes, required to work extraordinary hours for their employer, whether they are in the public or private sector, or a big or small law firm. Technological advancements have helped revolutionise legal practice in so many positive ways, making it easier for lawyers to complete work tasks if and when they have to work late. But those same technologies can, potentially, also perpetuate the need to work late. A significant number of lawyers, regardless or seniority, will have remote access to their work emails via their mobile phone, tablet, or home computer. Whilst this is useful from a client’s perspective, and theoretically increases productivity, I have concerns about the long-term impact this practise has on a lawyer’s health and wellbeing, in that remote access does not allow for the same level of physical, and therefore emotional, separation from work as one might like in their personal time. Work can, in this sense, always be merely a few screen touches away.

The potential need to address the needs of one’s client and other workplace demands at any hour of the day feeds into an idea that should be of concern for any legal practice – the impact of a lack of autonomy that junior lawyers may have. The impact of limited independence in your professional role can spill over into the personal sphere, as one of my book interviewees noted:
“When you get into a law firm, you may have absolutely no autonomy. You won’t even have autonomy to say, “Next Wednesday night, I’m going to book a dinner with my friends at 8:30pm.” Why? Well, because you have no idea whether you’re going to get out at 8:30pm or not.”

The practice of billing is another issue for consideration here. Mental health expert and international speaker, Graeme Cowan, reported that “…all the evidence shows that [billing] is not healthy; it’s measuring input and time rather than effectiveness”. In accordance with the research Graeme refers to, I worry that young lawyers will make a determination of their self-worth based on how many hours they can bill in a day, rather than how productive they have been in a larger sense.

What someone does about this perceived lack of autonomy is ultimately up to them – it is a matter of preference and comfort. Personally, I value having as much creativity and freedom in my work as I possibly can (hence why I haven’t gone back to the law firm environment since graduation). Others thrive on the intensity of billing challenges, technological accessibility, and the necessity of cancelled social plans. Where you sit on the spectrum is something for you to decide, but what I would suggest to you is that, if you get to a point where your legal work starts to affect your wellbeing in some way, then you need to speak to someone about changing your work practises and/or finding a different role. At the very least, make sure you are aware of how much autonomy you are afforded in the role you have, and how you feel about that.

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Article by: Jerome