Research on the high degree of lawyer burnout, depression, substance abuse, divorce and suicide make for discouraging reading. Lawyers consistently score much higher than either the general population or other professions when it comes to managing the impact of stress on our lives. (Susan Daicoff “Lawyer Know Thyself: A Psychological Analysis of Personal Strengths and Weaknesses”.) It is one of the reasons that so many younger lawyers entering the profession are pushing back against what they experience as a highly stressful work environment that is dangerous to their health. It is not just the long hours that are crushing so many lawyers today but the increasing speed of business, the relentless demands of technology and the lack of a home based spouse to provide needed support for family and other responsibilities.
In my last two columns I wrote that there are three essential qualities to becoming a successful lawyer – strong legal skills, client service and business development. Law is not, however, a three legged stool. The fourth – and equally important leg – is resiliency – the ability to manage complex legal concepts, multiple demanding clients, and voluminous email all while meeting increasingly higher billable targets in a competitive world.
However, like business development skills, resiliency is not often taught at law school or in articling programs. Nor do many law firms see it as an issue that they should address with their partners or associates. The ability to remain healthy – physically, mentally or emotionally – is often viewed as a private matter and not something that the firm sees as a firm responsibility.
This organizational resistance is in stark contrast to what many corporate employers view as both their responsibility and crucial to maintaining a healthy financial bottom line. Corporations know they must put their people first – both their employees’ health and their morale – in order to maintain profitability. Employee wellness programs, whether they are flexible work arrangements to reduce stress, telecommuting, recognition programs, memberships in fitness centres – have all been shown to reduce absenteeism and turnover, lower sick leave costs and improve profitablilty.
The partnership model, however, is more individualistic. Partners are self-employed owners responsible for their own financial results and are often reluctant to spend money supporting what can be seen as their colleagues’ personal needs. Even some of the Top Employer Awards that some law firms receive recognize programs primarily put in place for support staff and not for the lawyers.
Catalyst Canada in their 2005 report: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Building the Business Case for Flexibility found that 50% of lawyers switching firms cite the search for better work life balance as their top reason for moving.
While women lawyers have higher demands on their time due to their family responsibilities, it is increasingly younger lawyers both male and female who are looking for ways to practice law without paying a price in burnout, marriage breakdown or illness. Law firm recognition and support for improved work life integration (a better term than “balance”) is quickly becoming a significant recruitment advantage.
The challenge for law firms is how to meet increasing client demands without burning out partners and associates. Many younger lawyers say that they would take less money for fewer hours. Others would telecommute more and share office space if it meant they could reduce commute times and have one day a week working in a less stressful environment. What many younger lawyers are saying is that they value flexibility around where (flex-place) and when (flex-time) they work as a way to manage long hours and meet their billable targets.
Employers are facing a demographic sea change in the next few years as the boomers retire and fewer younger workers enter the labour force. These younger workers want the workplace to be structured differently. Having grown up communicating through Facebook, Twitter, text messages, blogs and YouTube – the generation entering the workplace views office face time and standardized hours as anachronistic.
Increasing resiliency and work life integration is as crucial to becoming a successful lawyer as honing one’s legal skills and finding clients. Just as law firms offer professional development and marketing support, firms need to focus on supporting their lawyers to manage stress and burnout in order to better serve their clients. Increasingly, the answer will lie with law firms adapting to the new social and demographic realities by finding innovative ways to structure the firm that supports lawyer wellness, resiliency and better work life integration.