Proctor : July 2017
32 PROCTOR | July 2017 24-7 accessibility – servant or master? by Angela Metri and Bianca Fernandez, The Legal Forecast The Legal Forecast recently held a Brisbane event at which a panel of experienced legal industry personnel discussed technological advance in the legal sector. A focus of the discussion was the ever- increasing accessibility of lawyers through advances in communications technology, with the associated desire for lawyers to be able to work flexibly and remotely. The Law Council of Australia has acknowledged that the pressures associated with legal work can have a negative effect on a practitioner’s well-being.1 It follows that, with the increases in pressure on a lawyer as a consequence of always being contactable by clients and colleagues, this could impact on a lawyer’s mental health and work-life balance. The problem with advancement No one is asking why. It’s not as though there is a guard watching over each step forward and asking whether each technological advance is necessary. The question is, if we can change something in technology, then why wouldn’t we? The problem with this action-over-purpose route means that technology becomes the master rather than the tool we use to do our tasks. It is so easy to take advantage of the technologies in the work environment – after all, they are provided to make our work more streamlined and efficient. The benefits The accessibility offered by technology means that working arrangements can be fixed to suit different lifestyles and responsibilities. The most prominent advantage is the ability of legal practitioners to work remotely. In the hours spent on travel, waiting in airports or in various modes of transport, or at home for the day, practitioners can use the time to work, in effect often lengthening their workday. In addition, flexible work arrangements open the talent pool to applicants who might not otherwise consider the position as a viable option. The ability to work remotely means practitioners can contact their clients without having to wait for a physical meeting, and the convenience means they can structure their day more productively because there is more control of the start and finishing times. There’s also transparency – both to clients and within the firm. The benefits are usually only fully realised when the tool is used for the intended purpose, but when there’s full use and minimal strategy, some significant issues can come into play. The dilemma Previous research done by the Brain and Mind Research Institute Monograph attests that the legal profession suffers from competitiveness, a fear of failure, pessimism, disillusionment and perfectionism.2 Logically it follows that, an increase in accessibility enables the question ‘could I be doing more?’, which serves to exacerbate these traits. Every day, a practitioner can always be doing more, and the industry suggests that we do. Increased isolation due to more screen time doesn’t ease these traits either. Increased mobility and accessibility mean there is nearly no reason why client wishes and billables can’t be fulfilled. Queensland Law Society has said that “solicitors are natural perfectionists”, and while this often ensures high quality work, it can also mean a lawyer is unlikely or unwilling to delegate tasks that increase the practitioner’s workload.3 On a personal level, perfectionism can manifest as a form of anxiety and lead to depression. It has been widely publicised that lawyers experience higher incidents of depressive symptoms compared to other professions.4 Knowing that lawyers are more likely to be perfectionists and at a higher risk of developing depression than other professionals, how can we safeguard the profession to ensure that the increased accessibility to lawyers through technology does not diminish the importance of maintaining a work-life balance? Implications If accessibility for lawyers continues to increase as it has, what will this mean for the future of the legal industry, both for law students still completing their studies and practitioners? As the number of law graduates has increased in recent years, competition may encourage 24-7 work habits to continue. This is particularly perilous if graduates believe that working longer hours will help them achieve a desired position. To change the perception of work-life balance and increase awareness of good mental health in the legal industry, more experienced practitioners should consider how technology can be made to work for us, and not the other way around. It is important for firms to acknowledge the negative implications associated with unlimited accessibility. For example, multinational corporation BP has stopped making it mandatory for senior managers to be supplied with smart devices, because constantly staying connected to work goes against the company’s work-life balance philosophy.5 Work-life balance policies will have a better chance of success if implementation is led by senior management. If significant players in the industry start questioning the norm and advocate a need for change, it will certainly penetrate the ranks. As for the other end of the spectrum, students have a choice. Most students were born into the age of technology and have the ability to use it to their advantage – to ensure that it is a useful servant but remembering it as an equally dangerous master. Notes 1 Mental health and wellbeing in the profession, Law Council of Australia, lawcouncil.asn.au/policy- agenda/advancing-the-profession/mental-health- and-wellbeing-in-the-legal-profession. 2 Lawyers, law students and depression (March 2014) Legal Services Commission, lsc.qld.gov. au/headline-issues/lawyers,-law-students-and- depression. 3 Beware of being a perfectionist, Queensland Law Society, qls.com.au/For_the_profession/Practice_ support/Resources/Practice_support_tips/Beware_ of_being_a_perfectionist. 4 Mental health and wellbeing in the profession, Law Council of Australia, lawcouncil.asn.au/policy- agenda/advancing-the-profession/mental-health- and-wellbeing-in-the-legal-profession. 5 Susan Fenton, ‘Firms say work-life balance boosts productivity’ (June 2007), Reuters, reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-employment- idUSHKG13052720070606. Technology Angela Metri is an executive member of The Legal Forecast NSW team and Bianca Fernandez is a student executive member of The Legal Forecast. Special thanks to Michael Bidwell of The Legal Forecast for technical advice and editing. The Legal Forecast (thelegalforecast.com) aims to advance legal practice through technology and innovation. It is a not-for-profit run by early career professionals passionate about disruptive thinking and access to justice.