It’s not news that lawyers across the country struggle with stress and work-life balance issues. Firms lament that the urgencies of client needs make it impossible for a lawyer to live a more balanced life. While clients can be demanding, firm culture has significant influence on the stressful imbalance in lawyers’ lives. When leaders ignore the issue, they subject their firms to costly attrition as well undue risk of malpractice, and the cost to their lawyers can be even more grave.
Destructive Impact of Stress and Long Hours
Efforts by attorneys to cope with the stress often result in destructive behaviors with disastrous results. As early as 1990, studies indicated that lawyers had higher rates of depression and alcoholism than the general population. The trend has not improved. In February 2016, the Journal of Addiction Medicine published the results of a study showing that lawyers still have a significantly higher rate of problematic drinking than the general population and even other professional populations.
Recent books and articles have chronicled in detail the dirty little secrets of lawyer stress, depression and substance abuse. In March 2016, the Washington Post ran an article by a former New York BigLaw attorney about her substance addiction while working at the firm. In June 2017, Brian Cuban, a lawyer and brother of the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, published tales of his substance abuse and road to recovery in his book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales of the Bar, Booze, Blow, and Redemption. In July 2017, the New York Times ran a chilling article about the decline and ultimate death from substance abuse by a Silicon Valley BigLaw partner who worked 60 hours a week for 20 years. He apparently was still endeavoring to participate in a conference call in his dying moments.
What Leaders Can Do
What can the leadership of a law firm do to help lawyers preserve their mental health and enjoy some work-life balance? The available solutions may depend on the size and resources of the firm. Here are some options that have been implemented.
- Examine your beliefs and firm culture. In some firms, the culture suggests that a lawyer who values having a life beyond the firm must not be serious about his or her work. Associates may be expected to pay their dues by working long hours and sacrificing weekends, evenings and family vacations to demonstrate their dedication to the firm and its clients. In his 1994 book, The Betrayed Profession, high-profile lawyer Sol M. Linowitz lamented the passing of the era in which lawyers focused on service and scholarship more than profits. While profits are important, when billable hours seem to be the foremost goal, lawyers lose their sense of meaning and purpose in their work. That leads to burnout. Acknowledge the importance of family or community commitments. Openly support and perhaps mandate that lawyers take their vacation time. Encourage people to refresh themselves after a closing or trial settlement by taking some time off or working shorter days.
- Implement legal project management principles. Although emergencies are unavoidable in a law practice, many “fire drills” requiring overtime hours result from poor planning and lack of coordination with others by the partner in charge. As an associate in BigLaw decades ago, I frequently received urgent Friday afternoon assignments from a partner who admitted to having the project on his desk since Tuesday. I still hear similar stories today. Among other benefits, legal project management improves communication by clarifying client goals and expectations up front. The planning stage anticipates predictable timing and staffing needs. The process enhances coordination and accountability and helps identify bottlenecks.
- Examine the firm’s billing and compensation system. Does the firm focus only on originations, billable hours and collections? Using data-based flat rate billing can attract clients seeking more certainty about fees, while providing the flexibility to reward lawyers for achieving client results more efficiently. Companies like Microsoft and Cisco are starting to require such alternative fee arrangements. Beyond fee structures, does your system recognize and reward other behaviors in alignment with what you say are the firm values and which contribute to the sustainability of the firm? Bonuses or other compensation for behaviors such as efficiency, innovation, problem-solving, collaboration, mentoring, management skills, professionalism, pro bono service or community involvement can actually reduce stress by acknowledging and valuing other contributions lawyers make to the firm. Lawyers tend to be competitive over-achievers who will direct their energy toward the activities that garner status and other indices of success.
- Make sure lawyers have the tools and resources to do their work effectively and efficiently. Software that seamlessly coordinates timekeeping, billing, invoicing, accounting, contacts, emails and document management can reduce errors and the necessity of redundant entries. It also simplifies collaboration among people working from different locations. Further efficiencies can be created with desktop scanners, video conferencing tools, trial presentation programs, voice recognition and transcription tools, smartphones, tablets and powerful computer processors. Those lawyers who embrace such technology can produce results for clients cheaper, faster and more accurately. That can translate to premium rates and loyal clients, while enabling lawyers to enjoy more time off.
- Permit remote working at least part of the time. Working from home gives back to the lawyer his or her commute time, as well as time required to make oneself “office presentable.” For many lawyers, working from home improves productivity, because they have more precious uninterrupted blocks of time in which to focus on complex work. In addition, various studies have correlated numerous detrimental factors with long commutes, including lower sleep quality, higher risk of depression, anxiety and social isolation, lower cardiovascular fitness, higher levels of blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure.
- Offer flex time options. Firms can retain their top-quality talent by offering part-time or flex-time options and family leave. Recognizing that their lawyers are responsible professionals, they allow them to set their own hours. Some allow lawyers to take as much vacation as they wish, if they meet productivity measures and client needs.
- Provide convenience services. Many aspects of everyday life amount to another job to do after getting off work. Some law firms help their lawyers stay fresh by relieving them of some of those responsibilities. They provide discounts or subscriptions to services such as pick-up and drop-off dry cleaning, on premises cafeteria, concierge/errand-running, back-up childcare and on-site or nearby childcare.
- Model and mentor a balanced life. I’ve coached many high-potential senior associates at their firm’s request. A shockingly high number express ambivalence about becoming a partner. They don’t want the life that partners in their firm appear to have. While you may enjoy your image as a heroic hard worker, that can have negative consequences for the culture and sustainability of the firm. Leaders must model and encourage behavior that promotes a healthy and sustainable lifestyle despite the challenges of the legal profession. Share your tips and techniques for maintaining a quality life. By way of a small example, if you tend to send emails late at night because you first enjoyed a family dinner or a date night with your spouse, let that be known. Also let associates know that they don’t need to respond until morning if you are just getting something off your mind while it’s convenient for you. Even better, use the “send later” option in Outlook to time your email to arrive a reasonable hour of the morning.
- Incorporate wellness programs. Some law firms offer satisfaction and wellness programs with benefits like health club memberships, on-site health screenings and flu shots, concierge doctors, health management coaches, career coaches, employee assistance programs, on-site massage therapy, on-site psychologists for counseling, nap rooms and breast-pumping facilities for nursing moms. They may have fitness classes, meditation and mindfulness classes, a company softball team, cycling group or other sponsored group recreation. These benefits contribute to the physical and emotional well-being that is essential to life balance. Firm leaders can encourage participation by staying actively and visibly involved in such programs and encouraging other lawyers to experience the personal benefits of them.
Most importantly, leaders must pay attention to their impact on others. They can learn from this shepherd’s advice: “Shepherds… learn quickly that the path to success depends on tending to the flock, but caring for the individual… The more concern the shepherd has for the individuals who are in need of health care, supplemental food assistance or individual attention, the healthier the flock and the more profitable the whole operation is.”
About the Author
Debra L. Bruce is president of Lawyer-Coach LLC, which provides executive coaching and training for lawyers. She is a member of the board of ABA’s Law Practice magazine, and the Law Practice Division’s Lawyer Leadership & Management Committee. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.