International concern continues to grow about well-being and mental health in the legal profession. Against the backdrop of alarming statistics across the globe, articles, reports, and accounts of acute levels of stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, and even suicide abound.
It is difficult to generalize about the multiple causes and potential consequences since these can vary from firm to firm, practice to practice, and lawyer to lawyer. This pervasive and systemic issue likely results from a complex interplay of numerous interacting internal and external pressures and challenges. External pressures such as increasing client demands, disruptive technologies, outsourcing of legal services, shrinking margins, and vicarious trauma may be compounded by internal challenges such as achieving billable hours, pressure to bring in business, managing work-life balance, poor management and communication, and navigating often competitive and perfectionist cultures that have historically worn “overwork” as a badge of honor.
Over the last few years, the legal profession has done much to attempt to understand and address these issues. For example, in the U.K., the Law Society of England and Wales provides guidance on managing workload, stress, and improving well-being. In Australia, leading law firms have worked with the Black Dog Institute to create a Mental Health Toolkit. In the U.S., a national study in 2016 led the American Bar Association to develop a Well-being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers.
Similarly, many law firms have responded by developing well-being programs and initiatives such as wellness rooms, mindfulness training, gym memberships, nutrition advice, and commitments to work-life balance. These are welcome and commendable responses, which in addition to supporting well-being, have the power to help lawyers reach their greatest potential. Looking out for the well-being of your people is a smart talent strategy. It is suggested that the efficacy of such efforts might be further enhanced through adopting a wider definition of well-being and a more systemic approach that targets multiple levers for change. Accordingly, this article explores the use of coaching, and importantly its impact through the “Coaching Ripple Effect,” to enhance well-being, performance, and law firm bottom line.
The Coaching Ripple Effect
The social context and environments in which we work have a profound impact on our well-being and performance. This includes the culture and climate in which we operate. It has been argued that the quality of daily interactions in an organization affects the well-being of individuals and the broader organization. This proposition was tested in a study that examined the systemic impact of one-on-one leadership coaching on the broader organization. The coaches in the study worked with individual leaders to set clear self-directed goals around improving the quality of their interactions in the workplace. In this ground-breaking research, Dr. Sean O’Connor found that coaching had a positive impact on the well-being of organizational members beyond those coached directly though the “Coaching Ripple Effect.” This has significant implications for the way we design, implement, and measure coaching engagements and change interventions in a law firm.
The Use and Impact of Coaching
The use of executive coaching in organizations has grown significantly over the past 10 years. It is now viewed as a mainstream change methodology by many law firms for the development of talent and leadership capabilities. This is perhaps not surprising given that research suggests that coaching, which provides customized and nuanced support that meets a lawyer where they are, is at least three times more effective than a typical training program. Growing evidence supports its efficacy, including increased goal striving, commitment, and attainment; enhanced performance and productivity; increased hope, optimism, resilience, and well-being; reduction of workplace stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, and turnover; improvements in transformational leadership and management skills; increased resilience, self-confidence, and self-efficacy, and a greater ability to deal with change and transition.
Coaching to Support Well-being
A number of studies have shown workplace well-being increases significantly following coaching. The implications of these findings are far-reaching, since they have resulted from coaching that was not intentionally targeting well-being. Rather, the coaching was aimed at the development of more general leadership or management capabilities and the attainment of organizational goals. Professor Anthony Grant has suggested that a number of mechanisms may explain these increases in well-being, including:
- A supportive relationship allowing people to confidentially discuss personal and professional issues has been shown to relieve stress and anxiety.
- Setting personally valued goals and purposefully working towards them can enhance well-being and build self-efficacy.
- Systematically engaging in this process while being supported in dealing with any setbacks can build resilience and enhance self-regulation.
- Social support and a sense of autonomy, both central to the coaching process, can buffer the impact of stressors on well-being.
A Wider Definition of Well-being
Alongside the many challenges faced by lawyers, it is important to recognize some of the upsides of practicing law, including the intrinsic motivation of intellectually stimulating work, the satisfaction in solving client’s problems, the collegiality of working together on complex challenges, and the sense of purpose derived from undertaking personally meaningful work. These, too, have an impact on well-being and performance. Indeed, well-being and good mental health is not the mere absence of mental illness and distress. The components of well-being are said to include PERMAH:
- Positive Emotions: the right balance of positivity to boost resilience.
- Engagement: regular development of strengths, those things we are good at and enjoy doing.
- Relationships: the creation of authentic, energizing connections.
- Meaning: a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves.
- Achievement: the belief and ability to do the things that matter most.
- Health: eating well, moving regularly, sleeping deeply.
While a number of law firms are undertaking innovative and important work in this space, the majority of well-being programs appear to be targeted at better lawyer health. Given coaching is an effective tool to support enhanced lawyer well-being and performance, the impacts may be further enhanced through approaches that specifically target the development of Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement. Indeed, coaching can be a powerful pillar of any overall well-being initiative.
A Focus on Individual Responsibility
Despite lawyer well-being being described as an issue facing the global legal community, responses, for the most part, appear to address the issue at the individual level, but that is only one part of the equation. The law is a stressful profession. It is a time-poor, stressful, and pressure-rich environment. Resilience and the ability to manage stress and pressure are important for lawyers to be successful. While many law firm initiatives and programs are an important step in the right direction and many have ripple effects of their own, we would do well to simultaneously look at the cultures, working practices, and structures that combine to create low levels of well-being in the first place and to adopt more systemic solutions at the firm level. Systemic change does not happen overnight, however. It requires a tremendous amount of energy, leadership, and commitment. Empowering and developing individuals, which cascades through teams, communities, and ultimately cultures, is an impactful albeit long-term strategy that needs to be part of the solution. For example, in a recent NALP panel discussion, it was acknowledged that wellness may be integrated into talent development strategies in many ways, including leadership development, delegation, and effective communication programs.
The Bottom Line
Despite the investment of time and resources by many law firms, some still see these issues as being “part and parcel” of the practice of law. In a competitive and ever-changing market place, law firms are understandably concerned about their financial performance and the ROI of well-being initiatives. A focus on short-term profits, bottom line, and client satisfaction, however, plays a significant part in creating the type of culture that allows low levels of well-being to emerge. Conversely, there is an increasing and compelling body of evidence that suggests that high levels of well-being, engagement, and positive workplace practices not only lead to higher levels of performance, productivity, and profitability, but also increased levels of revenue, client satisfaction, and customer loyalty. Creating a positive workplace climate and supporting lawyers to grow and develop is also critical to attracting and retaining the best talent.
The legal profession has come a long way in acknowledging the mental health issues associated with the practice of law, and in undertaking changes at the policy and practice level to support more resilient workforces. However, to rely on initiatives that put the onus solely on the individual and assume a linear cause and effect are limited at best. We need to build a systemic solution to a systemic problem.
The use of coaching to support leadership development and organizational goals may result in a positive unintended consequence—higher levels of well-being in the individual being coached. Coaching that also supports the development of Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement may provide a more holistic way to support lawyer well-being and help other wellness initiatives to really take root.
Explicitly designing coaching interventions that draw on the Coaching Ripple Effect may have a broader systemic impact on the well-being and performance of the whole firm. In a knowledge-driven industry characterized by disruption, on-going uncertainty, and change, reaching a tipping point that moves lawyers from languishing to flourishing, and law firms from surviving to thriving, will be the key to competitive edge and long-term sustainability.
About the Author
Angela Wright is an attorney and a partner in CEC Global, a consulting firm providing systemic coaching, leadership development, and peak performance programs for the legal profession utilizing the coaching ripple effect. The author thanks Diane Costigan for her thoughtful contribution to this article.