The cautionary tale of Sewon & Sewfourth

… or the case for supervision in family law

It’s late 2019 and Sewon & Sewfourth, a medium sized all-purpose firm somewhere in the Midlands is doing pretty well. The firm has eight partners, three in the family department. The senior partner is Seymour Sewfourth IV. He receives the vast majority of the profits as it was his great grandfather who founded the firm at the beginning of the 20th century. The firm has litigation, property and private client departments catering for the moderately wealthy landowners who live in the surrounding counties. The family department though is the biggest department both in terms of numbers of fee earners (eight in all) and revenue – there are a lot of people in the Midlands and the firm’s reach, because of its reputation, is countrywide as well as having a good number of international clients.

The family department, in addition to its three partners (two equity, one salaried), has four associate solicitors and one paralegal. The associates are respectively NQ, 18 months, 3 years, and 5 years PQE. Everyone is very busy as they have been for many years; the department has grown steadily and is making a name for itself in the legal directories. With their growing reputation so their work has grown. The team work long hours such that evenings and weekends become squeezed. But with a sense of “we’re all in this together” everyone gets on with their job. Opportunities to discuss cases become fewer but there is a pervading sense they are a good-natured bunch who get on well and are supportive of each other. There are not too many complaints.

The partners in the family team are:

  • Angela Archibald is 63 and head of the department. She is married and her husband, Anthony, a successful accountant in the Birmingham office of one of the Big 4 firms, is coming up to retirement. Their children are in their 20s and early 30s and now fully independent. Her eldest is expecting their first child, the first grandchild too, any day now.
  • Bill Best is 52 and very keen to keep up with the latest trends. He is in charge of the firm’s IT and is always on the lookout for making the systems smoother and faster. He sometimes comes up against Seymour’s notorious meanness but is usually able to persuade him to buy the newest hardware and software by showing him how much money it will either make or save. Bill’s wife, Bella, does not work. They have three boys with two preparing for public exams and the youngest for his SATS.
  • Clare Carter is the junior partner. She is 35 and joined from a City firm about five years ago and became a partner two years ago. She is very diligent and bright and is seen as a good future leader of the team. She lives with her partner, Chris, and they have two young children, now both at school, the younger in pre-school.

All seemed to be going well on the surface at least, and then the pandemic struck in March 2020. The family team were busier than ever but working from home and home schooling proved a bit of a nightmare for Bill and Clare. And Angela’s husband Anthony decided to retire a few months early.

Over the first few months of lockdown as court cases were adjourned, work piled up and the personal lives of the family law team intruded in ways previously unseen and cracks begin to show.

Angela made the decision that if Anthony was retiring she might as well retire too. She would be able to see more of her new grandchild and she and Anthony would be able to travel just as soon as lockdown rules allowed. She handed in her notice and told Bill and Clare the news via Zoom. They were both horrified, realising that all the managerial work that Angela did would fall to them and that all her work would need to be handled, at least at a supervisory level, by the two of them. They didn’t blame Angela, indeed she had always talked about retiring within a year or two of Anthony so in many ways it was no surprise.

The thought of recruiting again and introducing new team members on top of everything else was really too much.

Bill is feeling the strain the most. He feels the weight of expectation of being the sole breadwinner and although Bella is a brilliant mother the working at home routine got to them both. Frictions increased. The teenage sons were doing what teenage boys do. The increased working hours, the inability to get any peace and quiet, the extra pressure of starting to plan for life without Angela at the helm was beginning to take its toll.

Clare, an enthusiastic member of Resolution, had been to the National Conference in Manchester in 2019 where she had watched a demonstration of supervision which she had found very helpful, thought provoking and forward thinking. She had told Angela and Bill about it the following week and both thought that supervision would be a great thing to be able to offer the family law team at Sewon & Sewfourth. Angela and Bill agreed to raise it at the next partners meeting but Seymour could not see the benefit of it and also did not want to treat the family team more favourably than any other lawyer in the firm. Angela, Bill and Clare were a bit aggrieved but decided to leave things and instead agreed to meet up with the whole team more regularly and talk more about what was going on for them and any issues they had. This worked OK for a while until people started getting busier and more and more of the planned get togethers got cancelled.

Now they were in lockdown and Angela on her way out, Clare and Bill decided to broach the subject of supervision with Seymour again. They knew it was he who held the power over any decision made. He also held the purse strings. Their other partners were sympathetic but none were invested in the decision. Bill decided to have a private meeting, by Zoom, with Seymour. Seymour was delighted with the family team which was making more money than ever. This meant more money for him too. But he didn’t really understand how supervision would help anything and all it would achieve would be to take each member of the team away from their desks for an hour a month – which, he calculated, would amount to lost revenue of £2,525 plus the cost of providing supervision at £1,500 per month. That was over £48,000 a year largely out of his pocket – no thank you!!

Seymour made it clear that he would not support the request for supervision. He was unmoved when it was pointed out to him that the firms profits were over £4.5m and that for only 1% of that the whole family team could be supported to deal with the vicarious trauma coming their way on top of the added stress of more work and longer hours.

It was at this point that the wheels started coming off the family law team’s wagon. Angela retired, a month later Bill had a breakdown and signed off work through stress for six months. Clare started looking for other jobs in firms which put the wellbeing of their staff front and centre of their management strategy. When she found such a firm, which also agreed that she could work four days a week, she handed in her notice.

Within the space of eight months all three partners in the family team at Sewon & Sewfourth had gone. The firm’s revenue was down £1.5m at a stroke, not all of which would be recovered and certainly not quickly. Bill was not sure what would happen after he recovered from burnout, but he was sure he would not be working such long hours or under such pressure again.

The stuff of nightmares? Or maybe there are aspects of the story which sound familiar? Have you had problems persuading your managing partner to invest in wellbeing in general and supervision in particular? Have you had the finance partner say that supervision can’t be afforded?

In the rest of this article I hope to make the welfare and business case for supervision based on the reports and surveys conducted by a number of leading national and international bodies over the last 12 months or so.

The need for investment in wellbeing

In 2021 there were a number of reports into wellbeing in the legal profession. This started with Resolution’s own wellbeing survey published in May 2021.

The report confirmed what many of us knew already about the stress the job of being a family lawyer can bring. The pandemic had made the stress worse because we now had home working, home schooling, being away from colleagues and an increased workload to contend with. We shouldn’t have been surprised that 25% of the respondents to the survey said they were actively thinking of leaving the profession. But we should have been alarmed. If that rate of attrition continues who will be left to do the work in 20 years’ time? This is akin to climate change – if we do something, really do something about it now, we can reverse the trend. But will we?

In September 2021, LawCare published its Life in the Law survey. The report covered the whole legal sector in the UK. Its main findings were:

  • Law professionals are at high risk of burnout because of high workload, working long hours and unsafe working environments.
  • 69% experienced mental ill health in the previous 12 months (cf 89% family lawyers in the Resolution survey).
  • Over 60% suffered from anxiety often, very often or all the time (11.3%).
  • Nearly 32% said it put a strain on their personal relationships often, very often or all the time.
  • Nearly 29% reported physical symptoms.
  • 65% said they needed to check emails outside regular working hours just to keep on top of their work.
  • 28% said work required them to be available 24/7 – the “always on” culture.

In October, the International Bar Association published its report Mental wellbeing in the legal profession: A global study  In it they concluded that employers and regulators have a legal and ethical duty to properly provide for the wellbeing of lawyers. They described the profession as being in crisis – particularly amongst the under 30s. It is a long read but well worth it. The key message of the report was that there is an urgent need for culture change within the profession.

In looking at practical steps law firms can take, the IBA identified the following steps to address what they called “systemic problems” within the profession:

  • Management training. The survey showed that only 16% of people in management roles in law firms world-wide have had any or sufficient training in the role – staggering isn’t it? It’s worth reflecting for a moment on the implications of this. Successful management is largely about the maintenance of a motivated and productive workforce – in other words, about managing people. Given that the successful management of people, at a moment of extreme crisis in their lives, is at the core of what family lawyers are engaged in every day, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the gap between the support they are expected to provide and the support they receive becomes the breeding ground for discontent, disaffection and burnout.
  • Change to the culture of the profession to move away from practices which add to the burdens of employees – unsustainable working hours and high billing targets, particularly for junior members, was specifically mentioned as things that need to change.
  • Prioritisation of mental wellbeing. The report contains a template for a wellbeing survey which they suggest should be sent by all firms to all their staff. It will need adapting for each firm of course but it’s a good place to start.

The financial benefits of investment in wellbeing

Bookending those surveys were the reports from Deloitte published in January 2020 (before the pandemic was really on our radar) and March 2022, by which time we had experienced three or four lockdowns depending on where we lived in the country. Deloitte’s reports are not limited to the legal profession but cross all businesses and all sectors. Nevertheless, the principal findings of the reports apply as much to family law as any other sector.

The reports, called Mental health and employers: refreshing the case for investment, offer some hope that employers will realise the benefits to be gained from investing in the wellbeing of their employees, not simply by having a happier workforce but by having higher profits.

The first report was issued before lockdowns began, before home working, before home schooling, before not being able to visit our elderly relatives etc. The updated March 2022 report shows that 65% of all employees across all sectors feel that their mental health is worse than before the pandemic and 25% of all employees said they had suffered from mental health issues for the first time during the lockdowns.

Both reports talk about “presenteeism”, defined in this context as people being at work but not working at their most productive because of stress, mental health or other issues. It is estimated that presenteeism costs UK businesses £29bn a year in reduced productivity. Which is 4.5 times higher than the cost of absenteeism.

The March 2022 report talks about the Great Resignation – nearly 30% of all UK employees across all sectors either intentionally left their jobs since the end of lockdown restrictions or are planning to in the next year – of those 61% have expressed a wish for better mental health as a determining factor.

Deloitte recommend that all jobs should include as part of the job description time and space for employees to take care of their mental health.

As Jackie Henry, the managing partner at Deloitte in charge of People and Purpose says, “we know that the case for investment in employee mental health is not just a business imperative… it is also, simply, the right thing to do”.

And the good news?

Well, the good news is that Deloitte demonstrated in their reports the potential return on investment possible when employers invest in the wellbeing of their employees. The report found that for every £1 invested in the mental wellbeing of staff resulted in a £5 return. In fact, the March 2022 report said the return could be £5.30 and as high as £7.30 return for “early intervention investment directed at the whole work force”. So do not tell me that the provision of interventions such as supervision are unaffordable. It follows that as investment in wellbeing goes up, so the cost of presenteeism will go down.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that I commend everyone to read these reports. We need to know this. And we need to show it to our senior/managing/finance partners and heads of chambers, particularly the ones like Seymour Sewfourth! If he spent £48,000 on wellbeing for his family law team, he could, according to Deloitte, make as much as £240,000 in return.

What does this investment and culture change look like?

  1. Think about your business models: dispense with billing and time targets for junior lawyers (or at least don’t tell your junior employees what the targets are). Of course, you need to have them if you are running the business but the monthly (in some firms weekly) reminder to fee earners about whether they have or have not hit their time and billing targets adds another layer of pressure to a job which already carries with it the risk of vicarious trauma and burnout. There are firms out there – eg Hall Brown – who have adopted the policy of dispensing with published targets for their fee earners, and their profits have risen year on year. (If you missed the workshop “Proceed until apprehended” at this year’s Resolution conference in May, James Brown of Hall Brown was one of the contributors and explained the model and its success. It can be found on the members website.) If lockdown has taught us anything it is that people do actually work when they work from home unsupervised. There is perhaps a wider lesson to be learned from this – one already familiar in many corporate settings. The more trusted and valued a workforce feels, the more trustworthy and valuable it becomes. It is only in stressed and somewhat dysfunctional environments that sticks come to be seen as more effective motivators than carrots.

If, as Deloitte recommend, you include as part of the job description time for the employee to make space for attending to their mental health, you have to at least reduce their targets by that amount of time, otherwise you are just heaping the pressure on them. And by “space” I mean more than giving fee earners their birthday off and one wellbeing day off a year – that really does not even begin to scratch the surface.

  1. Commit to investment in the mental wellbeing of all employees – flood prevention rather than flood mop up. We all know that it is cheaper to provide flood defences (even if they are expensive) than to pay the costs of cleaning up after a flood – not just the cost of the physical damage but the loss of income/profits, replacement cost of what’s been damaged, uninsured losses, increased insurance premiums etc. The figures mentioned in the Sewon & Sewfourth story make the point in the family law world.
  2. Start at the top – this is not just for juniors, though juniors suffer more. One of the reasons they suffer more is that the seniors, as a rule, don’t know how to help because no one ever told then how to cope. The juniors are often aware that the seniors aren’t coping, so compensating for the seniors’ failure to admit this and do something about it becomes another strain the juniors carry.
  3. Provision of ongoing, independent, individual, confidential reflective space for those dealing day to day with the stress of others – that’s all of us. In my firm, all fee earners – from top to bottom – are offered the chance of regular (monthly or bimonthly) 1-1 supervision with an independent person paid for by the firm. It works. There are other ways of helping of course – group supervision, help lines, counselling when required etc – but I think that ongoing 1-1 supervision is the gold standard of this sort of support. The people having supervision can talk about anything work related in complete confidence, which opens them up to say more than they would in group supervision or supervision from someone in their firm. For details of how to access supervisors please check out the Association of Family Law Supervisors (AFLS) website where a growing group of people from a variety of backgrounds are available across the country to provide this service.

The benefits of supervision

The AFLS recently commissioned a survey of about 50 people who currently have supervision. The results showed that:

  • 88% said supervision had improved their confidence. (One respondent said Immeasurably – both in my ability as a practitioner and also in myself as a person.”)
  • 77% said supervision had improved their ability to have difficult conversations with clients. (“Learning how to ask questions in a non-defensive way has been invaluable.”)
  • 79% said supervision had improved their ability to handle difficult clients. (“I feel more robust and confident in myself because I have gained space and perspective.”)
  • 80% said supervision had helped them to manage better their work/life balance (“Learning new boundaries and valuing my time more has been so helpful.”)
  • 86% said supervision had helped reduce their stress levels.
  • 82% said supervision had helped improve communication with work colleagues.
  • 55% said supervision had improved their interactions with bosses/line managers/work supervisors.
  • 78% said supervision had helped them switch off more when on holiday/away from work. (“Within a few sessions I stopped feeling guilty and allowing myself to be de facto on call every day.”)

And some general comments about supervision made by people who undertook the survey:

“Brilliant resource – very grateful indeed!”

“Supervision has been exceptional. I truly believe that it has helped me become a better solicitor, and a stronger person mentally (inside and outside the workplace.)”

“Very good, it is invaluable and helped me address historical issues within my professional practice.”

“Very positive. I doubt I would still be practicing as a solicitor if I hadn’t had supervision.”

“I would not move to a firm that does not offer it as a benefit as I cannot imagine doing the job without it now.” Employers take note!

“I cannot describe how amazing supervision has been for me. When I first started supervision I was feeling the lowest I had felt during my time as a solicitor and was on the verge of walking away from it all… Supervision should be available for all lawyers whatever your experience and PQE.”

“Couldn’t manage without it!” 

And saving perhaps the best until last:

“Family law supervision reaches and supports the parts of me as a solicitor, a partner, an employer and a colleague, which no other form of supervision or professional support had reached in over 25 years of practice. The reliable, confidential space it provides has challenged and supported me to recognise and reflect on values, boundaries, dynamics and communications styles which as lawyers and clients we all bring, with or without awareness. My supervisor has enabled me to develop the self-awareness I require to stay alongside my clients through their often-traumatic family changes.”

So for all you Clare Carter’s out there, show this to your friends and colleagues, your managing partners and your heads of chambers, especially the Seymour Sewfourths, and start the supervision revolution!

If you want to know more about supervision, please have a look at the AFLS website which contains supervision-related resources, articles and podcasts.

Any resemblance of Sewon & Sewfourth to an actual firm is entirely coincidental.

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