Three Things Law Firms Can Do to Build (and Keep) Resilient Teams

Interested in learning more about lawyer resilience? Please sign up for a free ABA-sponsored webinar, Fierce & Gritty: Resilience Training for Lawyers on December 19.

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Each year, a new batch of law school graduates arrives at the doors of law firms, eager to start their jobs as associates. They are greeted by what has been named the “unhappiest job in America” and, within three years, 50% head for the exits. This high turnover rate is expensive—estimated to cost larger firms about $25 million every year. Many factors contribute to high turnover, including intense job demands that can result in psychological distress. For example, a recent study found that about 20% of lawyers abuse alcohol, 30% report symptoms of depression, and many report elevated levels of stress and anxiety. Workplace stress significantly increases the risk of depression, anxiety, burnout, alcohol abuse, and cognitive impairment—all of which can affect lawyers’ well-being and quality of work. Given these challenges, firms could benefit from efforts aimed at enhancing lawyers’ resilience.

When most people think of “resilience,” they think of an individual’s character, strengths, and abilities that form a kind of mental toughness. This is partially true. Individual capacities that foster resilience include things like confidence, coping style, whether one approaches stress as a positive challenge or depleting obstacle, constructive self-talk, optimism, goal-pursuit, and more. To learn more about these individual capacities, and how they can improve your well-being and effectiveness as a lawyer, please sign up for a free ABA-sponsored webinar called Fierce & Gritty: Resilience Training for Lawyers.

Often left out of the conversation about resilience are all of the outside factors that make a big difference. Think about it this way: If a goldfish is living in a bowl of polluted water, it doesn’t matter how tough it is. Eventually, it’ll float to the top, belly-up, after slowly suffocating in the murk. It’s not realistic to focus only on building up individual psychological toughness without also trying to clean up the “pollution” and enrich the environment.

It’s not realistic to focus on building individual toughness without enriching the environment. | Click to Tweet

Law firms can do many things to start detoxing their environments and cultivating resilience—three are described below. The overall goal is to remove obstacles and to build a structural support system that enables growth and pathways to success. This effort to cultivate resilience can start on day one of lawyers’ jobs and proceed throughout their careers.

1. Enrich Onboarding Programs

Onboarding programs can botch firms’ first opportunity to build lawyers’ resilience. Firms often conscientiously inundate newcomers with forms, policies and basic IT training—which tends to communicate that newcomers are just cogs in the machine. There’s nothing wrong with conveying firm values and introducing new lawyers to their jobs. These are important aspects of onboarding. Where firms may be missing the boat, though, is by being so one-sided—focusing solely on the substance of the job and the firm’s expectations. Research suggests that firms could benefit from a more personally tailored approach that also focuses on new lawyers’ unique talents and potential.

This advice is based on a significant body of research showing that authentic self-expression is very important to optimal functioning at work. When we try to hide who we really are to fit in to the firm culture, we can experience a depleting sense of alienation, depression, anxiety, and emotional exhaustion. Research has shown that an effective way for firms to welcome newcomers’ authentic selves is by giving them opportunities to identify and use their signature strengths from the outset, and to be seen as the people they are at their best.

To take advantage of this research, firms can underscore the unique potential it sees in newcomers by having supervising lawyers share all the positive things that contributed to the decision to hire them. Newcomers also can be asked personalized questions such as “What leads to your best performance and happiest times at work?”. Alternatively, they can be asked to write about three specific times when they were at their best, and how these strengths can be applied in their new jobs, after which they can share their examples with supervising lawyers or coworkers. These activities can help newcomers frame their new jobs as giving them a chance to use their strengths and to integrate their own purpose and motivation into their jobs. Research shows that activities like this are linked to engagement and retention.

2. Expand Control and Autonomy

Another structural support for resilience is a sense of control. Feeling in control of one’s own work and schedule (also called decision latitude) is a well-established factor contributing to psychological health. The concept of control includes two factors: opportunities to use one’s skills and decision-making authority. “High strain” occurs when workers experience high demands and low control, which can lead to depression.

Lack of control is not only a robust predictor of depression, it also predicts alcohol abuse. A 1995 study found that men in jobs with high demands and low autonomy were at a significantly higher risk for alcohol abuse. While women were just as distressed by jobs with those job characteristics, they did not have a heightened risk for alcohol abuse. The researchers hypothesized that women might respond differently by, for example, becoming depressed. The study also suggested job design activities to lower the experience of demands and raise a sense of control, such as providing greater exposure to learning opportunities, development of skills, and input into tasks and policies that affect them. In a recent review of existing strategies to prevent workplace depression, strategies designed to improve the perception of control were among the most effective.

These findings are consistent with self-determination theory (SDT), a well-established motivational theory that studies how social surroundings affect motivation, functioning, and well-being. SDT has identified “autonomy” (a sense of acting volitionally) as a basic psychological need that must be satisfied for people to function at their best. In a recent large-scale study of 6,000 lawyers working in a wide variety of legal jobs, researchers found that, of all factors studied, autonomy had the most significant association with lawyer well-being. By social science standards, the positive link between autonomy and well-being was large—and three time larger than the association between income and well-being.

Luckily, research shows that supervisors can learn to be more supportive of followers’ autonomy. Autonomy-supportive managers try to understand followers’ interests and goals and to use those as motivational resources. The opposite of an autonomy-supportive manager is a controlling one. Controlling managers don’t really care what internally motivates their followers. They use external pressure, like guilt, fear and imposed deadlines. They’re bossy and rely on their positional power to motivate.

Research has identified five manager behaviors as most effective at cultivating followers’ sense of autonomy (in order of importance): (1) avoid controlling (bossy) language, (2) take the perspective of others and acknowledge their feelings, (3) give rationales for work requests, (4) tailor motivation strategies by relying on individual’s interests, preferences, perceived competence, and a sense of valuing their work, and (5) maximize opportunities for choice and a sense of self-initiation.

For example, a controlling manager might say curtly: “Have this to me by tomorrow.” An autonomy-supportive manager might say: “I could really use the help of your excellent research and writing skills on an urgent project. The client just called and said she really needed this research by tomorrow. I know you’ve been very busy and it stinks to get a last-minute request, and I’m sorry for that. But this is really important to our client and you are the best person for the job. Can you help get this done by tomorrow morning? It’s fine if you work on it from home.” The few minutes more it takes to support autonomy conveys respect and understanding. The extra time and effort is worth the potential payoff in motivation and well-being.

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3. Cultivate the Experience of Meaningful Work

Meaning and purpose are big drivers of resilience. As Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankly said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’” Experiencing our work as meaningful means that we believe that our work matters and is valuable. It significantly impacts motivation and well-being. For example, a 2003 study of how 25 top companies attract and retain top performers found that, above all, their practices conveyed that the company’s work was significant, and each individual employee’s work was important and valuable. Other research has found that meaningfulness is positively associated with employee engagement, job performance, and job satisfaction and is negatively tied to feelings of alienation at work, turnover, and stress. Opportunities arise every day to cultivate the experience of meaningful work for lawyers at the firm. A few ideas are below.

Frame work as meaningful. Take every opportunity to reinforce the significance of lawyers’ daily work. Explicitly tell lawyers why their contribution is important, tell them how their work fits into the larger framework for the matter, and ensure that they know the results of their work. When followers feel that their work is unimportant or futile, productivity and motivation plummet. In the bigger picture, leaders should seek to articulate a mission for the firm that is not solely focused on revenue-generation. Research shows that people are much more motivated in the long-term when they also feel that their work has intrinsic value—that it is helps people or makes the world a better place. Accordingly, a greater focus on client care is likely to be more motivating than simply harping on revenue-generation.

Connect to people who benefit from work. A related way to enhance meaningfulness is to connect with the people who benefit from our work. By realizing the impact of our work on others, we become more likely to invest time and energy into the tasks that will help them. For example, in one study, college scholarship recipients were invited to speak about the value of their scholarships to those who worked to solicit scholarship donations. Researchers found that meeting even a single scholarship recipient motivated the average worker to spend 142% more time weekly on the phone, resulting in an average increase of 171% of scholarship funds raised.

This suggests that supervising lawyers should regularly orchestrate connections between lawyers and the clients for whom they work. People are lit up when they connect with people they’ve helped. Also, if you’re a partner or senior lawyer, remember that you are a beneficiary of junior staff’s work. Essentially, you’re their client. So take a minute to let them know how their work has made a difference to you and the client relationship.

Conclusion

Practicing law always has been challenging. But given the fast pace of change in the legal profession and the evolving needs of incoming lawyers, finding ways to shape firm cultures to cultivate resilience is more important than ever. Resilience is not a solo sport, and the expectation that lawyers will survive if they simply grow a thicker skin is not realistic. Firms wanting to build and keep high-performing teams should take seriously their responsibility for contributing to their lawyers’ resilience. Most of the ideas above require only a bit of time and cost little. So why not give them a try? In addition to developing a healthy, happier, high-performing talent pool, the suggested strategies could help slow the revolving door of associates and save firms a lot of money in recruiting costs.

About the Author

braffordAnne Brafford is the chair of the Law Practice Division’s Attorney Well-Being Committee. She is a co-founder of Aspire, an educational and consulting firm focused on lawyer thriving, is a former partner at Morgan Lewis, and is a doctoral student and teaching assistant in positive organizational psychology. Anne can be reached at abrafford@aspire.legal.

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