It was supposed to be the grand coming-out party. Drinks, speeches, celebrations. The much-touted Mindful Business Charter formally unveiled to the unforgiving trade of law. A group of clean-cut law firms lined up on one side of the room, eager to make an impression. Yet, on the other, GC suitors were few and far between.
For an initiative addressing mental health and wellbeing in the profession, it was hard to not feel deflated as the second round of signatories put their names on a social media-friendly placard in early May. With a further nine law firms putting their hand up, but no additional clients, the charter was now heavily outweighed 17 to three.
Granted, those three in-house teams are some of the most influential in the UK market: Barclays, Lloyds and Natwest. But the question many were asking at Eversheds Sutherland’s London offices on that grey spring day was: ‘Why aren’t more in-house legal teams signing up?’
Those in the know had hinted as many as 40 companies and firms could commit in the second intake – including a number of brand-name businesses – and yet no clients followed through. One of the architects of the charter admitted frustration that in-house teams were so slow to come forward, noting mounting concerns over stress and poor mental health in the profession.
For unfamiliar readers, the charter’s premise is simple in theory, if not in practice: a set of broad guidelines and principles outlining how counsel on the buy and sell side should interact with regard to individual lawyers’ working conditions and well-being. Respect my annual leave. Let me know if that New Year’s Eve email (something Barclays was guilty of) needs to be handled right away.
The charter – conceived by Barclays, Pinsent Masons and Addleshaw Goddard – is in its infancy and undoubtedly remains a work in progress, but it is far from controversial (see page 40 of this issue for a full report). Yet Lloyds does not even require firms on its panel to sign up.
Such reluctance is baffling. GCs are more than happy to talk the talk when it comes to diversity, wellbeing and good corporate citizenship, and resist criticism that this goes out the window when it comes to their matter. Such assertions are, however, hard to square when GCs are unable to commit to even such vague guidelines. It’s even more baffling when you consider that one of the charter’s principles is for every signatory to introduce a new member every year.
While only a starting point, the charter is one of the few notable attempts to address long-standing mental health issues in the profession. But real progress will require far wider support. Some law firms are worried that if they sign up they’ll be seen as slackers, while others have likely only joined for some easy goodwill with high-spending clients. What is clear is that more willingness from clients to support the charter would hugely improve its chances of driving real change.
At the bottom of each page of the charter it reads ‘be brave’: it shouldn’t be that hard. Time for GCs to take the lead they keep talking about.