During my time working directly for international law firms (to say nothing of my time at publishing house Euromoney), I have been on numerous occasions the recipient of blisteringly rude and on occasions patently offensive emails. It was therefore a relief to be introduced to the Mindful Business Charter (MBC) during the IBA Annual Conference in Seoul in October. The MBC is not a panacea for all issues and all parties relating to email communications in the legal community, but when applied conscientiously the MBC will begin to take out at least some of the avoidable stress that misconceived email communication between in-house clients and private practice law firms can and often does cause.
It is worth noting that the MBC came about not via an email but through direct conversations between the Barclays in-house legal department in London and private practice partners at Pinsent Masons and Addleshaws around 18 months ago. As a consequence of its simple, grass-roots focus on, among other things, email communications between client and law firm urging new rules of civility, the MBC is gaining wide adoption in London and now being rolled out globally.
It may be surprising to learn, given the English reputation for good manners, that civility as a concept didn’t take hold in England until the 16th century, when, according to John Gallagher, “the national mood was a mixture of bravado and temerity”. English manners over the subsequent 300 years were improved initially through exposure to the French court and also as a consequence of thousands of published books on manners. The apotheosis of such civility has to be Winston Churchill: after the Japanese bombing of Singapore and Hong Kong in 1941, Churchill dispatched a letter to the Japanese ambassador announcing that a state of war existed between England and Japan. After noting the acts of aggression, Churchill’s letter ended with these words: “I have the honour to be, with high consideration, Sir, Your obedient servant, Winston S Churchill.”
Churchill commented in his memoirs: “Some people did not like this ceremonial style. But after all, when you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite.”
Clearly, the ability to maintain civility can be accomplished, even under the most adversarial situations. According to the French anthropologist René Girard, human behaviour is indelibly shaped by our tribal past. Over 200,000 years of conditioning help determine how we show off and seek recognition, prestige and pleasure from the tribe. It is this revelation that inspired Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist Peter Thiel to make his first US$1 million investment in Facebook. So, what is determined as ‘correct behaviour’ is not only created by the interaction and behaviour of our peers, but also this can change depending on what rules of conduct we decide to employ at any particular time. Our own behaviour can change radically when a new ‘normal’ is accepted across society. One of the early adopters of the MBC, Charles Penney, senior partner at Addleshaw Goddard, sums up the MBC succinctly:
“Change takes time. We are trying to shift ingrained behaviours that have become common practice over the years — like over- use of emails, sending unnecessary emails late at night and poor discipline around taking time off from work to rest. To change behaviours, we must shine a light on the early adopters of the Charter, and the benefits that they are seeing, to encourage others to follow.”
Email as a means of communication is both ubiquitous and actually relatively new: in the early 2000s I remember dialling up and downloading my handful of emails once a day. Now that our inboxes are constantly full and our mobile devices are forever pinging, new rules of civility regarding communication by email need to be adopted. And I am delighted to say that that is exactly what has happened with the creation and enthusiastic adoption of the MBC in the UK. It is my hope that this article, which charts the origin and principals of the MBC, will in some way prove a catalyst to its wider adoption, especially in Asia and the Middle East, and that a new code of civility will be adopted throughout the legal industry. It is my experience that what constitutes a law firm’s culture in the headquarters of London or New York does not always export wholesale to Asia, especially when the lawyers have been laterally hired. The adoption and adaption of the MBC by the local Asian and Middle Eastern offices of international and domestic law firms is therefore a priority — but, as the true impetus of change comes from clients, it is also essential that legal departments also adopt the MBC. This will require time and effort and hence the MBC, and wellness in the legal workplace more generally, will be a theme that we at the In-House Community will be consistently returning to through our various platforms, including the plenary sessions of our annual In-House Congress events throughout 2020 and beyond.
Colin Dunlop of Barclays’ legal department in Hong Kong articulates the challenge in Asia thus: “We face particularly unique challenges in Asia Pacific, for instance working across multiple time zones and with law firms in different geographies, which drive home the need to ensure we properly embed the principles of the Mindful Business Charter here. We have taken the time over the past 12 months to understand how our individual colleagues at all levels, and broader teams,work together in Asia Pacific, their personal priorities (or “non-negotiables”) and challenges and stresses they face in their roles. Through the MBC, we are giving our colleagues the resources they need to adopt ways of working which can tackle avoidable workplace stress and also the tools to help them better engage with external legal service providers. Only with a clear commitment on our side to tackling avoidable workplace stress can we hope to drive change in the broader legal profession.”
There now follows statements from other various early adopters of the MBC regarding its history and the positive way that its adoption has enhanced work- life experience for the lawyers involved. Hopefully we will see its adoption encompass all stake-holders in the legal industry — after all, it is quite often the ancillary staff that bear the brunt of bullying and unrealistic demands, often manifested through email. To find out more about the MBC please find the link below, and also read the following experiences of those who have been converted to its benefits.
“Working life is undoubtedly stressful, perhaps more so now than it has ever been. Technology advances have brought welcome improvements, but also expectations of quicker turnaround times and 24/7 availability. Common habits such as unrealistic deadlines and turnaround times, staying connected while on holiday, joining conference calls during family-time and working outside of core hours can increase workplace stress. We know that stress can be a challenge to wellbeing, and a significant contributor to mental health issues.
The MBC came about through conversations between Barclays, Pinsent Masons and Addleshaw Goddard in London about mental health and wellbeing. Together, we decided to try to look at what we could do collectively to seek to take away the unnecessary causes of stress and unhappiness.
This is the first time that banks and their legal service providers have come together to reach a shared agenda for mental health and wellbeing.
Why the MBC is needed?
We know that improving mental health and wellbeing will not happen overnight — it is a programme that will take sustained effort over a number of years. However, this initiative has already been impactful in getting teams to accept that we can do things differently and, when we do, service quality and delivery will improve. It has also sent a clear message that there is no taboo on the issue.
Responding to client and business needs is important and we recognise that there will be times when life outside work gets interrupted by an urgentmatter or request. However, the reality is that there are times when this is not necessary. The ability to have control over how and when we work, as well as dealing with continued interruptions, can have a significant impact on how we feel about jobs, and on our relationships, family life, etc. Taking action against avoidable working practices will result in people feeling happier, valued and positive about their work. Ultimately, we get the best out of our people when they’re at their best.
MBC journey in Pinsent Masons so far
By October 2018, when the MBC was launched, it had received widespread support from key organisations across the financial services and legal sectors. Nine law firms and three banks committed to the Charter.
One year on, a further 26 organisations have adopted the Charter pledge. Performances against the principles are being discussed between the banks and their law firm advisers during relationship review meetings, resulting in honest feedback on both sides about successes and areas for improvement. Those who have signed the Charter are embedding the principles and designing processes within their organisations, to monitor the impact of the MBC through methods such as staff engagement surveys and feedback gathered as part of the appraisal process. Regular calls between the signatories have become a forum to share ideas and successes in this regard.
The Charter has been developed in such a way that it is flexible enough to be deployed across a wide range of corporates, not just commercial banks and legal advisers. We are already seeing a diverse range of corporates adopt the Charter and our hope is that others will adopt it over time, leading to an altogether more healthy approach to working across the City and beyond.”
“All the evidence points to a stress epidemic in the legal profession. Depression, anxiety and poor mental health caused by work-related stress are a concern across the sector, a leading cause of sickness absence in many law firms and a growing reason for attrition. Our view is that, while a certain level of stress is to be expected in our profession, even embraced, some of the stress which our people experience is avoidable.
The aim of the Charter is not to eradicate workplace stress, but to reduce stresses caused by poor working practices, lack of planning and communication, and poor people management. It also aims to re-establish some of the boundaries between our personal and professional lives which may have been lost with the advent of technology, enabling us to be available 24/7, and the increasingly competitive and global marketplace in which we operate.
It is the bilateral nature of the Charter — bringing together client and legal services supplier — which makes it both unique and powerful. Whilst there are many examples of initiatives to raise awareness or make available support for those suffering from mental health issues at work, none that we have come across has a focus on the underlying working practices that can cause unnecessary stress and brings together all parties to find a joint solution.
Although conceived in the UK, initially as a collaboration between Barclays, Addleshaw Goddard and Pinsent Masons, we believe that the Charter has wider application and have had conversations with lawyers and clients across the globe who are battling with the same issues and looking for a solution (it was a topic of frequent conversation at the recent International Bar Association Annual Conference in Seoul, Korea). The Charter is a universal set of common-sense principles, and at AG we are applying the Charter in all our dealings with our people and our clients who have signed up to the Charter across all our offices, including in Asia.
The Charter is not a panacea. People in our business still work very hard, and the hours will sometimes unavoidably be long, but we believe there is a more efficient and effective way to work. As the name suggests, at the heart of the Charter is the call for people to be more mindful of their impact on others and to challenge some of the unhealthy practices that we have come to see as normal.”
“Asia is known for having long working hours; and my home town Hong Kong is crowned as one of the most hard-working cities. However, as a responsible employer it is not good enough to just accept that as the price we have to pay. Moreover, clients no longer see it is as a positive for lawyers in Asia to take pride in recording 2,500 hours a year. For sustainability and to attract and retain talent, we have a responsibility to make changes now.
Recognising the cultural differences we know we cannot just cut and paste the Charter in Hong Kong and expect it to work perfectly. We held a number of internal workshops and brainstorming sessions to get local buy-ins and dispel misconceptions. It was important that our people understood the charter is about providing direction on the type of behaviour we expect as a business. Itis about building team culture and the embedding of best practice working guidelines. It is about how we help our people and our clients to be the best version of themselves. We recognise that there will be times when longhours and tight deadlines cannot be avoided, and actually most people thrive in those environments. Where stress creeps in and wellness is impacted is where those hours are being demanded without good reasons.
I am very grateful to all my colleagues in Hong Kong for their endorsement and commitment to adopt the Charter in Hong Kong. On 29 October 2019 we held a panel discussion to mark the launch. On the panel we had Colin Dunlop, to give us, from a client’s perspective, the incentives and challenges in implementing MBC in Asia. We also had our senior partner (Richard Foley) and a colleague from our UK business (Becca Labib) shedding light on the positive impact (from both the management and junior perspectives) the Charter has already had on the behaviours and wellbeing of our employees.
We are at stage one where the Charter only has internal application but we are actively engaging with other law firms and clients to prepare for an external launch involving other signatories. If anyone reading this article is interested please get in touch with me!”