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Mental wellness. The unknown priority for law firms and legal professionals

By Marco Imperiale


Introduction

As head of innovation for law firms, I am frequently asked about the most important trend in the field. Legal Innovation? Legal tech? Artificial intelligence? Well, I believe that it is mental wellness. And I believe it will significantly impact our profession in the future.

Speaking about mental wellness in our world seems unusual, but the more I delve on it, whether through research, seminars, or simple conversations with practitioners, the more I understand its impact in our daily work.


And this not only for the rising rates of alcoholism and substance abuse, but also considering its impact on key-issues like burnout, talent retention, and quite quitting.


In this article, I will focus on the risks of underestimating mental wellness, also introducing some measures that can be taken by law firms and professionals to limit the damages.


Data

When we look at data related to mental wellness in the legal profession, the numbers are mesmerizing.

According to a recent study provided by Axiom on inhouse counsels, 78% of the participants reported that they were feeling stressed on burnout, 70% experienced mental issues during the pandemic, and 47% mentioned that they were “extremely” or “very” stressed or burned out [1]. Moreover, in the United States lawyers report almost three times the rate of depression and almost twice the rate of substance abuse as other Americans [2][3].


That said, burnout, stress, and constant pressure seem just the tip of the iceberg. If we analyze trends like great resignation, great reshuffling, or quiet quitting, for example, it is difficult not to find an instant connection with mental health. The latest Future Ready Lawyer Survey provided by Wolters Kluwer, for examples, shows that 70% of corporate lawyers and 58% of law firm lawyers say they are very to somewhat likely to leave their current position in the next year [4]. Bloomberg Law Analysis regarding the future of legal industry, on the same wave, stresses the relevance of quiet quitting and the perceived worsening of legal professionals’ wellbeing [5].

Behavioral Factors

Most of the negative consequences of professional-related stress are connected to our behavior and our role as lawyers. While mindfulness lunch-talks, evening yoga sessions, and early morning corporate runs can represent a good starting point to address the issue, the problem is way more structured. It seems, indeed, that suffering, struggling, and the ubiquitous stress are a core part of our profession - more than an issue that needs to be addressed. While there are multiple factors which are related to this kind of behavior, I believe that the following ones are the most important.

Firstly, we like to consider ourselves available 24/7, and we deal on a daily basis with tight deadlines, constant pressure, and a never-ending state of alert. This is complicated by three elements: our expanding range of action (whether as lawyers or in-house counsels), the huge amount of legal updates we face on a monthly – sometimes weekly - basis, and the necessity to provide quick answers to complex challenges.


Secondly, we tend to avoid delegating, asking for help, or simply saying no. For an associate, it could be the risk of disappointing a senior professional; for a partner, the risk of losing an important client. In any case, research shows that an indefinite and always evolving number of tasks in our bucket-list leads to procrastination, sense of inadequacy, and anxiety.


Lastly, we tend to manage multiple priorities at the same time. And this not only because of reasons related to the corporate structure of our firm, but also because of clients’ requests. It is very interesting that most of the associates I know consider staffing, work organization, and internal communication as key-factors on their positivity and serenity.


Post-pandemic scenario

The post-pandemic scenario, unfortunately, complicated the situation, and this for many reasons. Firstly, most of us have not been able to proper recovery from the great and unique form of stress that the pandemic induced us. Among the most impactful effects, we can notice information overload and mental fatigue. We are surrounded by numbers, words, data, information, inbound emails, WhatsApp notifications, alert, etc. This rises our levels of exhaustion and impacts our attention span and ability to focus.


Secondly, the constant state of uncertainty we are facing both at personal and professional level, is a “brainkiller” on itself, especially in a profession that is by definition risk averse and not inclined to flexibility. Even simple changes in our daily routine, like working from home or using a new tech tool, are significantly challenging our balance, affecting our mood and requiring new skills and a constant sense of adaptation. Needless to say, the less the resources that we have, the harder the task.


I would also stress the unusual relationships that we started developing with news. Waking up and watching articles and videos regarding pandemic, war, nuclear crisis, inflation rising, social inequality etc. affects both are conscious and subconscious systems in a relevant matter.


What can we do?

Assuming that mental wellness, and – I would add – a proper emotional balance are core issues that need to be addressed, the key question is how to face them. The good side of the coin is that we can intervene on that. The bad side is that it takes time, effort, and consistency, Moreover, it is difficult to re-wire our brains and put our hopes on neuroplasticity while dealing with hectic agendas and constant pressure. Personally, I would start limiting the damages. Neither of us are expecting law firms to be healing centers (in that case, I would go to a yoga center or book a vacation in Bali), but it is certainly possible to manage our wellbeing and the ones of the professionals working with/for us. The following ones are some quick and simple strategies that we can start implementing.


A) Being aware of our status

Bruce Lee was used to say that every form of knowledge starts with a knowledge of ourselves. The meaning of these words is that our behaviors and experiences are shaping the way we relate to information and people. For this reason, a basic reflection – whether at a personal or corporate level - in terms of serenity, levels of stress, sleeping patterns etc., can represent a good starting point. Luckily for us, we can also rely on external assessments. We can ask a physiotherapist to look at our muscular tensions, go to our personal doctor to make a professional cardiovascular check, or take a test to look at our cortisol level (this could be also done in our company or law firm). We can take a look at our daily diet or water consumption, monitor the time we spend at the desk and look at our levels of physical shape. This can seem trivial, but it is impressive to notice how much the awareness/acknowledgement of certain issues could represent a boost factor for our personal improvement. Putting the rug under the carpet not only won’t solve the problem, but in most of the cases it will complicate the scenario.


B) Redefining our relationship with technologies

Even if we live in the 21st century and experience daily the positive aspects of exponential innovation, we cannot forget that our brain – primitive as it is – is not programmed to technology. This means that it is not used to constant exposure to information, data, alert etc, which are proven to rise anxiety, damage our focus, and affect negatively our performances. Furthermore, the constant dopamine release caused by social media scrolls, email messages, and push notifications, has a direct relation to our motivation and willpower. Considering a total detachment from smartphones, tablets, and laptops an impossible solution, I would suggest including in our agendas deep work sessions. Another strategy could be pre-select email and/or social media chunks in our daily schedule to avoid watching compulsively our phone and scrolling pages like slot-machines in a casino. The core is being proactive and not reactive. In a world were everybody is proud of being busy, the real value is being focused.


C) Asking for help and being ready to share our experience.

The profession – brutal as it is – can be way more welcoming than we think, and sharing our own experiences and struggles with colleagues, friends, or seniors could have a positive impact not only on us, but on the profession as well. I would also stress that associations like IBA, UIA, or ABA, started focusing on mental health and wellbeing, whether with events, local chapters, or reports. If you are interested in the theme, you can attend the conferences dedicated to mental health, read the dedicated papers, or participate in a working group. If the local chapter of your bar, company, or organization has not done anything yet, it can be a great opportunity to start being involved actively. The more I speak about this topic, the more I notice how much it resonates. I am quite confident you could find a lot of support and collaboration in your colleagues.


D) Redefining our purpose and potential impact

One of the most interesting research outcomes I found is that purpose and impact are directly associated to productivity, retention, and sense of belonging. Moreover, reports provided by several consulting firms[6] or companies such as Snapchat[7] are showing how much new generations are attracted by impact and purpose. . I am aware of the fact that in several countries the salaries are still the best way to incentive associates or in-house counsels working for a company and the strongest retention tool, and I am also aware that the rising inflation is a strong argument for this thesis, but in the long term, the sole focus on money without taking into account dynamics like ESG, diversity, and inclusion won’t be a successful strategy - especially considering that our professional side and our personal one are not two separate entities.


E) Thinking about mental health as a competitive advantage

Sometimes we forget that our competitors and counterparties are facing our own challenges. They struggle with client pressures, endless bucket-lists, and demanding schedules. They face multiple deadlines, mental fatigue, and priorities to be managed. This is why it is necessary to consider mental wellness and emotional balance as an asset. If we are able to do 10 or 20% better than our competitors in terms of wellbeing, support and work-life integration, it will be good for the profession, for ourselves, and for our resources as well. Moreover, it will represent a strong element of talent attraction.


Conclusions

Innovation is teaching us that the paradigms of yesterday are not valid for the world of tomorrow. If some years ago the driving factors of the profession were billable hours, money, and the race to become partnership/GCs, we are starting to notice that the system is not sustainable in the long-term. Moreover, despite our tendency to overestimate our physical capabilities, we are slowly realizing that mental wellness and emotional balance are directly related to our professional results and the way we relate with clients and colleagues.

How about considering personal wellbeing as a new years’ resolution?

 

Notes

[1] The report is available at the following website https://www.axiomlaw.com/blog/decrease-lawyer-burnout

[2] Sue Shellenbarger, Even Lawyers Get the Blues: Opening Up About Depression, available at https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB119751245108525653

[3] For further information on the topic, I would suggest to look at the following article: Deborah L. Rhode, Managing Stress, Grief, and Mental Health Challenges in the Legal Profession; Not Your Usual Law Review Article, 89 Fordham L. Rev. 2565 (2021)

 

About the Author

Marco is Head of Innovation at LCA, a leading Italian law firm, and visiting researcher at Harvard Law School. He has extensive experience in legal design, legal tech, and in the interplay of copyright law and the entertainment industry. Whenever he finds time, he also works as mediator, teaching fellow, and mindfulness trainer. He is a frequent public speaker and the author, together with Barbara de Muro, of the first Italian book on legal design.


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