Diary of a private client practitioner: 20th June 2023

Sarah Bolt, Managing Associate (Private Client Dispute Resolution – Wills, Trusts, and Estates) at Freeths LLP, pens the latest entry to her “Diary of a private client lawyer”

Over the last few weeks, I have had the benefit of catching up with a lot of people in the “probate world”, many of whom I am very lucky to call friends outside of work. What has struck me when catching up is the sheer level of chaos that the pandemic (and post-pandemic life) has had on each of us, and hearing of the levels that people have been stretched to, both personally and professionally.

I feel very privileged that those I have met with have felt so comfortable sharing with me. However, it did get me thinking a lot about how our world has changed because of the pandemic, and whether that is for good and bad.

For the first time in history, the world was quite literally brought to a standstill during the pandemic. Things that we took for granted – such as leaving our homes, being able to meet up with family and friends, and exercise – were taken away from us.

When we tell future generations that we had restrictions imposed for nearly two years (well, for those of us that chose to obey the rules), will they believe us or even appreciate how much this changed our day-to-day lives?

Even when the restrictions were lifted in stages, I remember thinking how funny it was watching how people chose their bubbles or how friendship groups were split down the middle as everyone had to limit their interaction to six friends at any one time. It is odd to think that some cities, like Bristol where I am based, were quite literally split down the middle in the restrictions imposed, as different local authorities chose to include different levels of outside activity permitted at any one time.

During this time, has the focus of your firms been on your wellbeing? Has it been supportive? How could it have been better?

For me, I have had the benefit of working for two different law firms during this period and (without being forced) have felt confident that my wellbeing has been front and centre to them.

When I think about this, I do feel quite privileged, especially when I have caught up with my friends in the sector, as it doesn’t always seem that this has happened, or can be expected. What I thought of as being a bare minimum is being missed because firms have been focused on targets, bringing in work and finances, increasing workloads (and management responsibilities), lack of staff to help with increasing workloads, lack of support, and in (some cases) a toxic culture. I have heard horror stories of:

  • Micromanagement (to the extreme);
  • Bullying and harassment, including being screamed at on a regular basis by supervisors;
  • Separation and divorce;
  • Childcare responsibilities taking over, particularly during the pandemic when parents were having to help teach their own children versus work;
  • Themselves (or their partners) being diagnosed with terminal illness or a serious medical condition;
  • Dealing with the grief associated with losing a baby; and
  • Long-term care responsibilities for elderly parents or family members.

Unfortunately, the list goes on and on and on…

As a profession, study after study seems to show that working in the legal sector means we are more prone to stress and burnout than others. This trend seems to have got worse as a result of the pandemic, as people were, and are (quite frankly) being pushed past breaking point.

In the past, stress and burnout seemed to almost have been an acceptable consequence of working in the law. However, I hope that it is one of the consequences of the pandemic that has pushed law firms to change towards having a more proactive approach in looking after their staff, as people, and placing a growing importance on their mental health and wellbeing.

Looking back, I think about (for me, and I am sure many others) how my firm has dealt with me during a time when I have had personal issues (and we all have had to go through something from time to time) has helped influence my loyalty towards them.

It is also key to bear in mind that in our world of probate – particularly disputed trusts and estates – it is increasingly important to ensure your staff stay with you. There is a shortage of candidates with relevant experience and expertise available to assist with the increase in work in our sector.

As this increase in work is expected to continue in the foreseeable future for many different reasons, it has become apparent that unless you are able to train people up within your own firm (whether from trainee or junior level), or retrain someone with general litigation experience, you are only left with convincing someone else from another firm to jump ship.

This puts us front and centre to having more of a say in how law firms should approach what is considered important to us as legal professionals.

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