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New Year’s Eve has come and gone, but how about your New Year’s resolutions? If you resolved to reduce your overtime, how’s that playing out? Are you sticking to your guns? What about taking up your company’s work-life balance policies – have you done so, or are you still all talk and no play? 

As you’re no doubt aware, changing the way you work is not easy – especially if those around you fall back into old habits, expecting you and your team to be at their legal beck and call. Nor does it help that, as natural problem solvers, lawyers are the go-to people for the business to chew over problems that are often not even legal in nature.

So, if you planned on starting the new decade with a clean slate, with new habits that support your wellbeing and that of your in-house legal team, here are three strategies you can use to stay on track.

1. Find Ways to Optimise Your In-House Team’s Legal Function

Optimising your team’s function could include introducing new technology, or outsourcing high-volume, low complexity work. It also includes finding the time to actually embrace innovative legal solutions. In the 2019 ACC Trends Survey, in-house counsel admitted that while they want to make greater use of technology, they didn’t have time to investigate it properly. It’s a Catch 22 – struggling to find time to identify solutions that will give you more time. But it’s worth the investment. The outcome will make your team more productive, allowing them to undertake work that makes better use of their experience, which in turn will make them feel valued.

Speaking at the ACC’s 25th In-House Legal National Conference in a panel session on ‘How to stop your lawyers burning out, tuning out and dropping out’, Canon’s Chief Legal Counsel David Field said that in-house teams need to think about how to solve optimisation. He gave the Hayne Royal Commission as an example of how better-led in-house teams managed the sheer volume of commission-related work: by rapidly pulling together an effective range of solutions using technology, legal process outsourcing (LPOs), offshore offices, and short term staff.

“Traditionally, lawyers have done everything that came their way, thrown themselves at large dark rooms with boxes full of documents,” he said. “We need to find new ways to do things, and that involves using technology differently and understanding the possibilities.”

This means taking time to identify and break-down your work processes (for example, through a design jam) and exploring ways of replacing processes with more efficient work practices or systems. 

2. Clearly Communicate Acceptable Work Practices to your In-house Team

 

Many in-house lawyers are reluctant to use their company’s work-life balance policies due to a perception that it will adversely affect their careers. Part of this can be attributed to the company’s culture and leadership.

Field references two types of leadership: self-leadership, and organisational leadership. He describes ‘self-leadership’ as:

  • being responsible for yourself;
  • having good hygiene; and 
  • having discipline around how you treat yourself as a resource. 

 

In other words, you share responsibility – along with the business’ leaders – for ensuring your own wellbeing. If you need to seek help, do so – whether it be from friends, mentors or even your law society.

At an organisational leadership level, a company has “responsibilities to the environment it creates, the culture it creates, workloads and resources,” Field said. If you are a people manager, you share accountability for creating a positive wellbeing environment.

Start by ‘walking the talk’. “Your team doesn’t just listen to what you say, they watch how you behave,” Field said. “You won’t have a lot of credibility preaching to be balanced if you’re not being balanced …it’s important to be quite present and conscious in relation to the signals you’re sending.” 

What Does Work-Life Balance Mean to Your Team?

If you haven’t already done so, talk to each of your team about what work-life balance looks like for them.

For many, it’s not about working reduced hours, but rather it’s about having the flexibility to balance their work and personal lives.

This could mean leaving work at 3pm to attend to their family then going back online later in the evening. Or, it may be the flexibility to attend medical appointments when required. 

For those in global roles, it’s also worth discussing viable work practices. Naturally, it’s not sustainable for someone to work a full day in the local office and then continue working through the night supporting an overseas office – certainly not long-term. But has anyone explicitly told them that it is acceptable to work any other way, and discussed what that might look like? It may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often assumptions are made.

For instance, they could work four hours in the morning, take the afternoon off to attend to their personal life, and work four hours in the evening.

3. Understand the Value You and Your In-house Team Represent to the Business

Field says lawyers are predisposed to being driven, often needing to prove something to someone or to earn someone’s approval. It can be easy to forget just how much you contribute to your organisation. He stresses the importance of understanding the value you deliver and that your company should appreciate how lucky they are to have you. Understanding this can give you the confidence to say ‘no’ to unacceptable behaviours, and to call it out for what it is. 

For example, in a sales organisation, it is not unusual for legal input to be sought at the last minute of a deal, putting intense pressure on the in-house team.

“So if they say ‘we’re going to lose this deal because of you’, have the confidence to say ‘no, that’s not right – this is the situation you’ve walked us into,’” Field said. It’s okay to push back and explain: “I understand and want you to win this deal. But you cannot keep dropping these deadlines on us and expect us to turn them around.”

Call out the behaviour, set expectations, and recognise that you have earned the right to stick to them.

Key Takeaways

It’s a positive trait to be a great critical thinker and problem solver, but you won’t be doing anyone a favour – least of all yourself – if you burn out. A new decade is a new opportunity to change the way you work, supporting your mental and physical wellbeing and that of your in-house legal team. This means: 

  • finding the time to optimise your legal function, using technology and third-party resources to reduce the impact of high-volume, low complexity tasks; 
  • talking to your team about what flexible work practices look like, both to them and the business (and not forgetting to ‘walk the talk’ yourself by setting an example); and  
  • remembering just how much value you bring to your organisation; have the confidence to take a stand against unacceptable work practices and stick to your guns. 
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