Industry News Legal Management Updates

Building a Kinder, Healthier Firm

As the son of an attorney, I grew up surrounded by lawyers, paralegals and legal administrators along with the stench of cigar smoke, scotch and stress. Perhaps these early experiences drew me to my current career in industrial/organizational psychology as a consultant and researcher focused on burnout and meaningful work.

David Shar, MPS-I/O Psych, SHRM-SCP

The truth is that burnout has become a worldwide epidemic, recently recognized by the World Health Organization as an “occupational phenomenon.” Additionally, voluntary turnover for American employees is at its highest levels in history — one of burnout’s many costly symptoms. Other byproducts of burnout include depression, addiction and even impaired physical health. Even those who are overworked, yet avoid clinical burnout because of their passion, often contend with what the research refers to as “the dark side of meaningful work.” This includes an inability to set boundaries between one’s work and family, which can often lead to extremely strained or failed relationships.

Law firms often pride themselves on tradition and structure, and perhaps that has made it more difficult to change. However, burnout and its symptoms are unfortunately common within law firms, where it does not seem to affect all groups equally. For instance, female attorneys, perhaps unable to find healthy balance within the established industry framework, have been found to exit the legal field at alarming rates between the ages of 40 and 50.

This all paints a gloomy picture of the legal industry and raises the question: How can you prevent this burned-out reality in your firm?

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First, individuals with greater resiliency tend to be less susceptible to burnout. This is why many experts will tell you to change your mindset, to practice mindfulness and to take time to care for yourself, both physically and emotionally. These practices seem to work at varying degrees in combatting burnout when it’s knocking at your door.

However, what if we could prevent burnout from ever surfacing in the first place?

In order to accomplish this, we must first define burnout. Burnout has three elements: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and feelings of a lack of personal accomplishment. The key to preventing these elements begins with the words “thank you.” Building a kinder kind of law firm with less burnout must have gratitude as its foundation.

Rather than merely training employees in resiliency to help them cope with what’s viewed as the natural toxicity of the workplace, strive to be a law firm that rejects toxicity in favor of gratitude, support, collaboration and kindness.

This gratitude should be shared by everyone, as both supervisory support and coworker support have been found to have significant effects on reducing burnout. When we feel that our boss and coworkers notice and appreciate the job we are doing, we feel accomplished and valued. Many law firms pay hefty salaries, yet their employees still feel undervalued. This gap can easily be filled (for free!) by showing gratitude.

Furthermore, there is strong evidence that our core work tasks, regardless of how taxing they are, do not cause emotional exhaustion. Rather, emotional exhaustion comes from bureaucracy, interpersonal conflict and other barriers that distract us from the work that we are there to do. Most of us started our careers wide-eyed, wanting to make a difference in our clients’ lives — until the paperwork and daily tasks got in our way. It is essential to consistently remind ourselves, our employees and our coworkers of our organizational mission and to recognize how the seemingly trivial tasks that make up our day help us accomplish that mission. Taking opportunities to celebrate individual, team and firm wins and to highlight client success stories goes a long way toward creating a kinder, more focused organization with less burnout.

While we need to celebrate one another’s wins, it is equally important to be there for one another when things are tough. In our first year of marriage, my wife and I would turn on each other every time life got difficult (and in a first year of marriage, things tend to get tough often). One day we came to the realization — when the world turns on us, we shouldn’t be turning on each other! Those tough times are the most important times to have each other’s backs.

This is true within organizations as well. It is important to resist the urge to point fingers and engage in conflict when challenges arise. Instead, make your organization a safe place to fail. Show support at those toughest moments; collaborate with one another; go to battle together for the benefit of your organization and your client.

If you hope to remain viable as an employer, if you hope to avoid high turnover, stress, psychological distress and even physical ailments, the time has come to build a kinder kind of law firm. Rather than merely training employees in resiliency to help them cope with what’s viewed as the natural toxicity of the workplace, strive to be a law firm that rejects toxicity in favor of gratitude, support, collaboration and kindness.