Seeing Things Differently in Law

What does Bath Christmas market, Shakespeare and football have in common with legal services? They are all part of the government’s ‘GREAT’ campaign to promote the best of the U.K. from a range of sectors such as sport, music and business to the rest of the world.

I have just come across what I expect is the little known ‘GREAT Legal Services’, an initiative led by the Ministry of Justice and part of the GREAT campaign, to support and promote one of the U.K.’s greatest exports, you’ve guessed it — legal services.

Digging a little deeper into the GREAT campaign on social media, I discovered it’s hashtag, which I thought was so apt for our time, as we navigate the post covid world of work — #SeeThingsDifferently.

We have seen just in the last week the consequences of not quite seeing things differently enough. The Stephenson Harwood story (paying staff working permanently from home 20% less than their hybrid equivalents) went legal, national and global — even a colleague in Australia messaged me and said ‘have you seen this’?

Although this approach may have been in line with accepted firm policy, the long-term reputational fallout is probably going to be hard to fix.  Prospective trainees and new staff may be asking more questions about the culture in the firm and clients may want to know if those working from home permanently will be charged out at 20% less than their hybrid counterparts. Stephenson Harwood for the time being at least will be synonymous with an approach that is out of kilter for many. They didn’t see things differently.

Unlike Bath Christmas market, Shakespeare and football there are no enticing vlogs or videos about legal services on the GREAT website; information about the GREAT legal services campaign is relegated to black and white printed words only on the functional Gov.UK website, the one you use to renew your passport or check COVID rules.

If you want to see engaging story telling about legal services and the people who deliver them, just scroll your way through some of the key legal influencers on Instagram for a steady diet of memes about life in the law, that jest about the daily grind of working as a lawyer.

I googled ‘meme’ as I wasn’t sure what it really meant and was staggered to discover there is an entire scientific theory behind them, the word was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Memes are seen as mirroring current cultural events and become part of how a time is defined. They act as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols and practices.

The vast majority of  memes about law are negative and poke fun at the long hours, lack of support, being treated unfairly, no life outside work, billable hours, sleepless nights, or regret at becoming a lawyer. Not a narrative that is going to encourage people to come into the law or give clients comfort. I am yet to see a meme that speaks to the value and sense of purpose in resolving a client’s problem or in enforcing a responsibility or what motivated someone to become a lawyer.

We are living in a time of accelerating change — digital, climate, social and political and for some who are fortunate, a time of choice. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for many to reflect on their lives — where they want to live, where they want to work, how they find purpose, meaning and fulfillment.

In a knowledge-based sector such as law, some have the choice to move to where they want to live rather than where their job is and some are choosing to move out of law altogether and into roles they feel are more aligned with their personal values.

And let’s not overlook client expectations. Many businesses are looking at sustainable ways of operating that respect both people and the planet, embedding environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals into their strategies. ESG is big business; firms are developing practice areas to advise clients on the legal aspects and risks around ESG but alongside this , clients are increasingly looking at the ESG credentials of law firms. The days of ‘greed is good’ are being left behind.

It’s not going to be enough to sign a diversity charter or make a statement about your commitment to the UN sustainability goals. Clients want to see data and evidence of the talk being walked. Firms are also easy to out, in a hyperconnected world, an unhappy member of staff can just email that memo about less pay for remote based staff to a friendly legal news desk, and bang goes the carefully crafted values statements on your website.

So how can we see things differently? Maybe the starting point is what not to see; not to see law as a commodity we can export to swell the coffers of the treasury or put our firm higher up a league table.  It’s time to see what the law is for, a profession that is here to serve the needs of society, see its purpose. See that the law is a people business and see that the people in it, both staff and clients are the profession’s greatest asset; if we don’t meet their needs they will go elsewhere.

In these changing times see that there are big, bright new doors ahead and the old ways aren’t going to open them.

Elizabeth Rimmer is CEO at LawCare, the mental wellbeing charity for the legal profession. It offers free, confidential, emotional support, peer support, and resources to those working in the law in the UK.