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Are lawyers corporate canaries in the mine?

Careers in the legal industry are popular and lucrative, but depression, anxiety and burnout are endemic among law firm professionals, write Audrey McGibbon (pictured) and Karen Gillespie.

When work-life balance has become more highly prioritised than ever by both graduates and senior leaders, law firms must now make wellbeing an economic imperative. How can firms write wellbeing back into the business model to continue to thrive and grow?

Three questions for leaders in law

It’s no secret that leading law firms are tough places to work. Educated bystanders know that late nights, early mornings, high-pressure projects and mounting responsibilities are part and parcel with climbing the legal career ladder in a large firm.

The ugly downside is less well-known: the staggeringly high incidences of anxiety, depression and mood disorders brought on by prolonged stress, fatigue and poor physical health reported in recent wellbeing surveys of the industry.

From a wellbeing perspective, the factors behind this concerning statistic are clear: the industry’s reputation for creating one of the world’s least well workforces point to wellbeing historically sitting low on the priority list.

But the proliferation of struggling lawyers has reached such alarming levels that those inside of law have been forced to concede there’s a burning platform, fuelled by a toxic cocktail of moral, legal and commercial concerns.

If I had the boards and executive teams of the larger law firms in a room together and the opportunity to put them on a collective hot seat, here’s what I would dare to suggest they address:

1. Is it ethically right for your firms to demand, explicitly or implicitly, so much from their people, including its leaders?

The growth in demand for legal services has reached fever pitch, with Australia’s big eight reporting a surge in demand of 11.3 per cent year-on-year in FY18. With an average headcount increase of only 5 per cent, the typical (already overworked?) fee-earner’s workload has undoubtedly become significantly heavier, with the gains landing directly in the partnership’s pockets.

This is not to suggest partners have it easy: senior leaders have enormous pressure arising from management duties, often with little or no fee relief. How will this play out long-term?

2. Are your workplace practices defensible from a legal, risk, compliance and HR perspective?

With their strenuous workloads, overtime and high-pressure projects, lawyers have the lowest psychological and psychosomatic health and wellbeing of all professionals. The rate of chronic stress in the legal profession has been rising alarmingly over the last few years. Many, many studies have shown that this stress is a prime cause of depression.

Fatigue is just as commonplace in legal circles, with working days known to expand to 30 hours by working all day, all night and through the next day. Regulators are becoming increasingly alert to exploitative work cultures and firms are on high alert.

Regulators aren’t the only ones becoming aware. This wellbeing epidemic has triggered a backlash in the all-important talent pipeline. Millennials are viewing the partnership path as less appealing than their predecessors, and senior lawyers are leaving big firms in droves.

3. Economically, how does your business model need to evolve to ensure you are still in the game in five years?

Why this question? The whole concept of being a lawyer – someone there primarily to offer legal advice – has recently come into question. Many members of the profession are profoundly worried about these developments.

The profession must adapt to selling its legal services in a changing world where the growing power and presence of a global economy, digitalisation and AI necessitates not only that the laws themselves change (NewLaw), but also the transformation of how services are viably delivered (LegalTech).

After smouldering for decades, that the burning platform has finally taken hold is something that many on the inside of law are relieved about. It’s long overdue.
So, what can we learn from a profession that’s long been regarded by executive coaches, psychologists, evidence-based mental health researchers and therapists as a wellbeing wasteland?

4. Fatigue is bad for people – and business

Staying awake for longer than 17 hours has the same effect on behaviour as a blood alcohol level of 0.05 per cent. After 21 hours, it's like a person has a blood alcohol level of 0.1 per cent, twice the legal limit.

Over the last 12 months, regulators have been more likely to issue fatigue improvement notices, not just to law firms but across a wide array of professional service firms, from merchant banking to accountants.

5. It IS possible to change ‘unwell’ cultures and practices

While it’s too late to save those whose experiences and sometimes lives have shaped the tragic backdrop to this story, the human and economic cost of bad wellbeing is slowly helping to bring about positive systemic, leadership and individual changes.

In the firms where we work, stopping the wellbeing crisis and creating a more sustainable business and human model is treated not as an optional nice to have, but as a leadership imperative demanding a complete rethink of a centuries old business models and embedded systemic practices.

6. Leaders who view wellbeing and performance as two sides of the same coin (not polarities that come at one another’s expense) will lead businesses that thrive

High levels of wellbeing mean your people will:

● bring more energy to work – because they eat, sleep and exercise well;
● bring a more positive energy to work – because they feel happier and more satisfied;
● have a stronger force of energy at work – because they are clear about their purpose and meaning;
● show more focused energy – because their engagement and flow at work will be higher and they will be more innovative and productive;
● be more authentic – and able to bring their whole selves to work, being more open, direct and trusting of one another; and
● be more mentally, emotionally and socially agile and adaptive.

It stands to reason – and is backed by evidence – if your people have high levels of wellbeing it enables you and your organisation to stay in the game, to remain relevant and to flourish.

7. For far too long, ‘success’ in corporate life has required an image of strength and invulnerability, especially from its senior leaders

Great strides have been made in addressing mental health more openly in the workplace but the pressure to ‘fit the image’ and concerns over being perceived as weak or expendable are still rife.

Mental toughness, grit, stamina, resilience – are all variations on being an alpha (fe)male corporate warrior. An era of which we’re hopeful the end is nigh. We’re not there yet, but the rise in the number of leaders prepared to be vulnerable by conveying their uncertainty, by being open to risk and emotional exposure is brilliant, bold and truly inspiring leadership. (Thank you Brene Brown ?)

8. Competition, work intensification and requirements for ‘cost-out’ efficiencies are key hallmarks of most workplace cultures today and these are wellbeing detractors

Pressure in such settings can result in stress caused by long work hours, a lack of work-life balance and interpersonal conflict. Where there’s a prevailing culture of a win/produce-at-all-cost mentality it brings negative repercussions for the security and standing of individuals in the business.

Those with position and power push others to perform at extraordinary levels, in turn adversely affecting their wellbeing, quality of work-life and tenure in the organisation or profession.

9. Understand how your people cope and how they relax

Thirty-three per cent of lawyers and 20 per cent of barristers suffer disability and distress due to clinical depression; they do not seek help and self-medicate with alcohol and drugs to reduce or manage their symptomatology. Alcohol abuse in legal profession is extremely concerning.

Rates of suicide and suicidal ideation among lawyers are disturbing. One in three contemplates suicide at least once a year.

How does your organisation’s employee group compare to the one in five lawyers who screen positive for hazardous, harmful and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking?

10. When you have the right people around you and feel supported, you can face your challenges

It’s not by accident that ‘Authentic Relationships’ is the first domain to appear in our GLWS wellbeing framework, defined as the sense of wellbeing that comes from:

● feeling you belong (to a team, family, social group and/or community);
● trusting others and feeling able to talk honestly and openly with them, solving problems and making decisions collaboratively;
● feeling close and connected to others, supporting them and showing kindness;
● feeling secure, respected and loved by people who are important to you; and
● investing your time and giving your attention to those you are close to.

The absence of trust, respect and belonging in the workplace and the absence (or loss) of warm, loving and affectionate relationships outside of work are a prime cause of depression. Depression can lead to an inability to form lasting and satisfying relationships and so we may fall into the grip of a vicious cycle.

11. Wellbeing is contagious

It’s well known and substantiated that lawyers tend to be pessimistic. Partly because of their training – they are trained to see what is wrong – and partly, as several recent studies have shown, because they are genetically prone to pessimism. Pessimism and depression are genetically closely linked.

Depression shares with pessimism one salient characteristic: it is catching! The more you hang out with pessimistic or depressed people the more likely you are to be pessimistic or depressed. Lawyers working with other lawyers – or socialising with other lawyers, or pessimistic and depressed clients – are perhaps bound to become more of both.

If you’re not a lawyer, what can you take-away from these findings?

Well, one of our newest GLWS accredited community members Lana Johnson sums it up brilliantly, using positive reframing in her TedX Talk when she says “just as stress and negative emotions are contagious, positive emotions are also contagious… enthusiasm and joy are catchy. It’s worth knowing that person’s happiness is related to the happiness of their friends (colleagues). It’s not just our emotions that are contagious. Wellbeing contagion is the spread of wellbeing ideas, attitudes, or behaviours in a group”.

For all those employees whose working conditions are characterised by demanding clients and staff; for all those who feel under pressure to make budget, to drive major change and run multiple initiatives (often in addition to their day jobs); for all those who struggle to fulfil responsibilities beyond their work roles, those who are juggling constantly and feel each day is a race, those whose ‘inner critic’ ignites the fear of failure, and those who struggle to switch off or prioritise self-care: what can you and your leadership team do to change the culture, practices, conversations, choices and habits, and what role can you play in embedding these changes and making them stick?

The way forward requires a multi-pronged approach and cooperation and collaboration by all relevant stakeholders: leadership at the top, regulators, professional associations, institutions and of course each individual themselves.

Audrey McGibbon and Karen Gillespie are the co-founders of GWLS Wellbeing and EEK & SENSE.

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