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Asking the right questions is vital to improve wellbeing in law firms. But even then, are we really listening to the answers?


How are you?

That’s a question I was rarely asked when I worked as a lawyer on a day-to-day basis. And to be fair, it’s one I rarely asked others. I was too busy worrying about deadlines, targets and whether I might get out the door before 8pm.

Today, as the co-CEO of Setfords, it’s a question I ask all the time. I quickly realised the lawyers I worked with were only as good as their mental health would allow. It’s why myself and my cousin, Chris Setford, set up our disruptor firm 14 years ago. We wanted a better way of working for lawyers, and the consultant model provided it.

Thankfully, the rest of the industry has been catching up when it comes to appreciating the importance of wellbeing, and today there is ample evidence firms are asking questions about the mental health of their staff. Many are now embracing initiatives aimed at improving wellbeing, or setting up their own. These are encouraging moves and it is great to see.

But how many firms have really got to grip with this aspect of the profession? How many really understand how to support those doing legal work? In my view, it’s still not near enough. Decisions being taken on a structural level, especially during this moment in history, suggests many firms are still blind to what’s really required to create a working environment where lawyers can thrive.

Going through the motions

As the impact of the pandemic is now being felt more deeply across the industry, talk has turned from furloughing to redundancies. Indications are that it will be support and administration staff who will bear the brunt of initial cuts. Irwin Mitchell and Ashfords are just two examples. From a financial perspective, this might seem like a good idea. Keep the fee-earners, lose the back-room staff, if you have to. But to me this makes no sense at all. Our lawyers are only as good as the people that support them. If someone is being asked to take on more of the administrative side of their legal work, this will only add to what is already a highly pressurised role. What’s the point of asking ‘how are you?’, if you don’t really care about the answer?

Asking the wrong questions

I appreciate there is no easy answer to the question of where a firm makes cutbacks. But perhaps the question itself is the problem. Whatever is happening with the economy, the focus should be first and foremost on how we can help our lawyers to perform better. Before we talk about cuts, we should talk about how we can help our lawyers deliver a better service to their clients, one that encourages more repeat business and even stronger word of mouth. Those who do need legal support, and there are still plenty, are going to be drawn to those that offer the best service. So how do we achieve that?

Happier lawyers mean happier clients

Let me give you Setfords as an example. We have 300-plus lawyers working as consultants. They set their own billing targets and hours, they decide where they work, and they take home a much bigger portion of their earnings. They are supported by a 70-plus team of admin, secretarial, business development, marketing, digital and web specialists. We’ve built the entire firm around the idea that a better way of working for lawyers, means a better legal service for clients. Or put more simply: happier lawyers means happier clients.

I’m not suggesting traditional firms should pick this moment to start a ground-up rethink on structure. But the theory behind how we operate is transferable to all firms, whatever their size and however steeped in age-old traditions.

We must put lawyers first. During the pandemic we’ve actually hired MORE support staff. We don’t always get support right, but we try our hardest, because ours is a profession filled with some of the most intelligent, ethical and diligent humans on the planet. Lawyers want to do the best job possible. But we understand they can’t without the proper help. I’ve stated previously, the business case for investing in our lawyers’ wellbeing is obvious. A lawyer able to perform better means a law firm able to perform better. Everybody wins. It’s smart business.

Why emotional intelligence is key

But with business nouse, must come something more. Interpreting how our teams are coping, and deciphering sometimes vague or guarded statements, is vital. This requires emotional intelligence.

At the Wellbeing Republic, the brilliant founder Nick Bloy says this type of intellect is a skill that can be developed. I agree wholeheartedly. We should not only invest in the resources our lawyers need to perform, we must, if necessary, invest in our own development to ensure we can offer the support they need.

The future of wellbeing

Today ‘how are you?’ is a common question at Setfords. And I’m proud to say, we all care deeply about the answer. Circumstances have required us all to get to know each other better. We’ve supported colleagues through health, childcare, and other challenges brought about by the pandemic.

But for me, looking out for the wellbeing of our lawyers, and our support teams, goes far beyond simply the questions we ask. It’s about listening to the answers, and then taking action to ensure we have a genuinely supportive working environment where everyone can flourish. It’s better for people. It’s better for business. It’s a better way of working.

Thinking about consultancy?

Lawyers who join Setfords can earn more money, enjoy a better-work life balance, and the next consultant could be you. So, get in touch today and take the next step towards a happier life.

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        This allows us to send you the information you need to know about consultancy

        This enables us to get in touch and discuss life as a Setfords consultant

        Currently, we can only work with lawyers qualified under one of these regulatory bodies