It’s hardly surprising that the legal profession – by the very nature of its business – is rife with stress and that much of that stress falls on the lawyers themselves.
Today, the levels of lawyer stress within law firms have reached epidemic proportions, with tragic headlines involving suicides, alcohol and drug abuse, and mental duress – all with stress cited as a root cause. Indeed, in a 2018 survey of 200 leaders at US law firms, almost 80% cited stress as the primary cause of substance abuse and mental health problems within their firms.
Law firms are struggling to understand this problem and find ways to combat it, while being careful not to completely disrupt the way the firm does business. It’s a delicate balancing act that is proving difficult.
“Too many law firms operate based on the idea that lawyers have to grind it out, push through stress, and that asking for help is a sign of weakness,” says Nate Klemp, cofounder of Life Cross Training (Life XT), a human performance program that trains your brain for wellness. “These are pretty ingrained and widely accepted presumptions within the legal industry and other industries as well.”
Despite this hard-wired mindset, law firms are starting to understand that stress-free well-being and mental resiliency among lawyers have become an increasingly important part of the firm’s own long-term success. Many firms now acknowledge that lawyers and their staff produce best when they are relatively stress-free, less fearful and are less inclined toward addictive abuse of drugs or alcohol.
But in a legal profession that rewards long hours, heightened focus on work, ambition, grit and dogged determination in the face of adversity, what can law firms do to make their workplaces more conducive to lawyer well-being?
Dr. Larry Richard, founder and principal consultant at LawyerBrain, is an expert in the lawyer personality and has advised numerous law firms on how best to manage change and build up lawyers’ resilience to today’s legal environment.
Much of the problem today, Richard says, is due to how firms operate, how lawyers work and the type of person that enters the legal field. Making things worse, however, is the systemic change the legal industry continues to experience. “Unfortunately, we’ve been going in the direction of increasing lawyer stress, primarily because of all this change within the industry,” Richard says. “The speed of change, increased uncertainty, the vast amount of information being readily available which threatens lawyers, and growing client push-back against traditional relationships have all taken their toll on lawyers and increased their stress levels.”
Lawyers are trained to think about negativity and to find and assign blame, Richard explains, adding that it is people with those characteristics – negativity, skepticism, cynicism, low resiliency – that flock to the legal profession. “This behavior, unfortunately, is then reinforced in how we practice law, and as a result, these things amplify each other.”
The Well-Being Report
Two years ago, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being published its report detailing concerning levels of addiction and mental health disorders within the legal profession, due in no small part to the daily stress that lawyers endure. It was the US legal system’s first attempt to document and report on this problem.
The report made several recommendations for how the legal profession can address these concerns in a meaningful way, focusing particularly on recognition of these problems within legal organizations, work to de-stigmatize treatment and incremental steps to improve lawyers’ mental situation.
Richard praised the report and says that helping lawyers to understand the stress they’re experiencing is an important part of solving the problem. “To many lawyers, ‘stress’ can be an abstract concept,” he explains. “They’re not psychologically minded and tend to dismiss this thinking as non-actionable. But now, there are neuroscience and other data that strongly show the need to address this.”
Richard outlined several small steps – “low-hanging fruit,” as he describes them – that law firms could take now to change the way their lawyers work, and are supervised and trained that would vastly ease the levels of stress within their firms.
- Adopt a strengths-based approach to lawyer feedback – The feedback that lawyers, especially younger lawyers, receive throughout the year and at performance reviews is crucial, Richard says, but unfortunately, it’s almost always focused on the negatives or weaknesses in performance that need to be improved. Hearing this constant negativity can be massively stress-inducing and can dramatically affect productivity and job loyalty among lawyers. Richard says that ideally, about 80% of feedback lawyers receive should instead focus on the positives, the ways the lawyer is excelling or other areas of high performance.
Admittedly, this is a tough sell to law firms – Firm managers may wonder how they will motivate improvement if they’re always praising their employees. But Richard says the reverse is even more true – lawyers who are constantly told of their faults almost always fail to improve.
- Develop leaders first and teach positivity – Law firms need to make sure their leaders are not negative, low-resiliency people themselves. Firms need to teach them the skills to offset negativity and work to make them more well-rounded as leaders and trainers. “Firms need to employ leaders who will develop a capacity to find positives since that will most impact associates’ training and development,” Richard notes. “They should turn their leaders into coaches, rather than lecturers.”
- Shift the mindset – Firms have to make a concerted effort to change their lawyers’ way of thinking about their work and about the stress that’s a part of it. One method, Richard suggests, is to make sure you infuse meaning in what lawyers do and give them a certain amount of autonomy to build their confidence. “It’s important, especially for younger lawyers’ development, to show them the impact of what they do, of their role in the overall outcome,” he notes.
“If a lawyer can see how their efforts are making a difference, it can have an enormous positive effect.”
- Build relationships in the workplace – It’s no secret that friends make better colleagues and collaborators, and firms that help foster collegial relationships, through mentoring programs and informal and off-work networking opportunities, can really see the benefits in lawyer well-being. “People need restoration and renewal, and work-based friendships can increase productivity, engagement, trust and loyalty,” he adds.
Finding ways to combat growing levels of stress in the legal workplace is not just a “feel-good” solution for law firms and their lawyers, Richard says. Rather, it has become an economic issue that impacts recruitment, retention and collaboration – one that can greatly influence a firm’s profitability and sustainability. And, he says, the latest science shows strong links between these “softer” steps and bottom-line profitability.
Fortunately, he adds, there are signs that the legal industry may be waking up to this reality. “Firms are trying different tactics, and it’s on the radar screen for many more firms now than it has been in the past, but we can’t stop there,” he says, adding that transforming your firm into a workplace where lawyer well-being matters will be increasingly important in the future.
“Simply put, law firms need to work on creating a climate where people want to come to work,” Richard notes. “Or else, your best lawyers will simply stop coming.”