Moving Lawyer Well-Being to the Bottom Line

Topics: Client Relations, Leadership & Retention, Legal Executive Events, Legal Workforce, Mentors & Sponsors, Networking, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts


According to an article from earlier this year, between 21% and 36% of practice lawyers are problem drinkers. Further, 28% suffer from depression; 19% struggle with anxiety; and 23% are impaired by stress.

Law students fare little better — 17% are depressed, 14% suffer severe anxiety, 6% reported suicidal thoughts within the past year, and 22% engaged in binge-drinking during the past year.

Given the high-stress environment facing most lawyers, such disturbing findings seem par for the course.

Well-Being as a Business Strategy

These numbers should lead those in leadership roles at legal organizations to consider how much productivity — and, by extension, profitability — could be gained if lawyers were to proactively take care of their health.

Angie Hickey, CEO of midsize law firm Levenfeld Pearlstein, focuses her firm’s strategy around the client experience. “When our employees have a positive experience, which includes attention to their well-being, then they, in turn, are in a better place to create a positive client experience,” Hickey says.

In addition, Diane Costigan, Director of Coaching & Well-Being at Winston & Strawn, elaborates on why well-being is essential to the firm’s business development execution. “Developing business is one of the most common stressors for attorneys — from knowing how, finding the time, feeling comfortable managing the pressure, etc.,” Costigan says. “Offering customized support based on each attorney’s needs can help alleviate the stress of business development.”

The critical nature of holistic well-being activities to handle stress and deepen resiliency serve as important foundations for client service as well. “Lawyers who can effectively manage stress and know how to increase resilience are healthier and better able to perform in many facets of their lives,” explains Robin Belleau, Director of Well-Being at Kirkland & Ellis. “Lawyers must comply with standards of professional conduct, and studies show increased resiliency has benefits in terms of advocacy, communication, competence, and even ethical behavior — all of which is good for the individual lawyer, the clients they serve, and their law firms.”

Three Ways to Install Well-Being into Core Business

The long-term impact of any strategy is strengthened when it can consistently be framed as central to the firm’s core business and operations. Here are three tactics to ensure the viability of your organization’s well-being strategy over the long haul:

  1. Using well-being activities to deepen client relationships — Client collaboration helps to embed the fact that a well-being strategy is key to the firm’s bottom line. “We have partnered with some clients on well-being-related themes, like mindfulness CLEs,” says Winston & Strawn’s Costigan. “Leveraging well-being as a shared objective with a client or target can be an impactful way to deepen the relationship.

  2. Measuring the ROI — Embedding a well-being strategy into the firm’s culture takes time, and for those who are left-brained, determining the return on investment (ROI) is an important mechanism for gaining enterprise-wide buy-in. To make the case for well-being, Hickey of Levenfeld Pearlstein describes how she uses the decreasing rate of turnover as a key metric to demonstrate the ROI. Indeed, a small investment in well-being offers law firms a tremendous savings opportunity on turnover, with estimated cost savings among large law firms of $25 million per year, according to research from legal talent consultants JD Match and The Right Profile.

Another key research metric that is useful in consistently making the business case for holistic well-being at a firm is the error rate and the risk of malpractice. Attempts to quantify the cost of mistakes of impaired lawyers are rudimentary at best, but some estimates have been made of the impact by looking at the large portion of lawyer disciplinary actions that involve substance abuse issues, which sits between 25% and 30% of all disciplinary cases.

  1. Leading by example — A key component for implementing an organization’s well-being initiatives and melding them into the firm’s business strategy is a sharp focus on the talent managers and leaders. An organization’s efforts could be wasted if partners don’t take their own personal well-being seriously. “If a leader is always working at a frenetic pace and demands so much of themselves and everyone around them, and doesn’t give themselves a break, then they are sending an unhealthy message to the next generation of lawyers at the firm,” Hickey explains.

In fact, Winston & Strawn set the expectation that the firm’s leaders proactively make sure they are visibly seen as leaders in leveraging the firm’s well-being activities for their own individual holistic health, Costigan says, describing how the firm’s Chicago Office Managing Partner led efforts during walking meditation at the firm’s most recent Mindfulness Pop-Up. “She is committed to walking her talk by showing up to well-being-related programs, being a role model, and actively sending out emails and reminders to boost participation,” Costigan adds. “It’s made a big difference at our firm.”

For more on this subject, Thomson Reuters Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law initiative will host a fireside chat that will explore the role of attorney well-being on legal employers’ performance, productivity, and profitability on November 20 in New York City.