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Legal Leaders, Embrace Your Role to Improve Legal Workplaces

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Legal managers, administrators and leaders have a vested interest in remaking systems to improve legal professionals’ well-being

This article was written by Laura L. Keeler, practice management advisor at LCL Mass LOMAP, and originally appeared in The Management Issue (May/June 2023) of the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine. 

Chronic stress is rampant in the legal profession. Being continually subjected to excessive levels of strain has negative and long-lasting consequences. Lawyers often struggle with depression, anxiety, alcoholism, substance use, suicidal thoughts and other ills. For too long, implementing self-care has been an individual effort. Yet, individual efforts are bound to falter when workplace pressures of deadlines and competing priorities continually move health to the back burner.

Persistent stressors have been largely ignored and even exacerbated by legal workplaces. Everyone is impacted, even those pretending they are unaffected and OK. Managers and leaders must step up and assume some of the burden when workplace environments are part of the issue.

Legal managers, administrators and leaders have a vested interest in remaking systems to improve legal professionals’ well-being. Managers should note that taking actionable measures matters; promoting well-being can prevent burnout, promote retention, increase productivity, help the bottom line and lead to a healthier, more sustainable workforce. Conversely, if leaders keep ignoring the problems that cause people to neglect their well-being, the result is inevitably burnout, higher turnover, lower productivity and worse.

Given the pressures of legal practice, promoting well-being may be difficult, but not impossible. How? Here are some ideas.

Systemic Solutions: North Carolina’s ‘Secure-Leave Periods’

North Carolina recently amended Court Rule 26, General Rules of Practice for the Superior and District Courts, to provide “Secure-Leave Periods for Attorneys.” Secure-leave requests are advance court filings to reserve scheduled time off from cases.
Overview of the Secured-Leave Rule

The North Carolina court rule defines a “secure-leave period” as one complete calendar week designated by an attorney during which the superior and district courts may not hold a proceeding in any case in which that attorney is the attorney of record. An attorney may designate three different secure-leave periods within a calendar year for any purpose. Additionally, within the 24 weeks after the birth or adoption of a child, an attorney is entitled to request 12 additional secure-leave periods for the purpose of caring for the child.

A secure-leave period functions optimally when attorneys don’t feel that they must return early from vacation. In addition to not having hearings or trials scheduled during these set secured-leave periods, parties may not notice a deposition for a time that conflicts with a secure-leave period designated by opposing counsel.

Taking a Closer Look

When creating the report that led to this amendment, North Carolina State Bar Council noted their interest in this policy arose from the nexus between the availability of secure leave, attorney well-being and the competency of practicing trial attorneys.

The rule sets forth pragmatic logistics. There are requirements, including that the requests must be in writing and appropriately filed. This streamlines the process for courts and practicing trial attorneys regardless of case type.

This rule is both practical and inspiring in its intent, acknowledging that lawyers are people who have lives apart from their cases. Realistically, there are times when attorneys will not be able to be in court. Administrative time and disruption are minimized by the ability to schedule proceedings in advance.

Work-Life Integration

Acknowledging that lawyers too frequently work late nights, on weekends and during vacations, some law firms are also trying to carve out time when legal professionals can protect personal time. It makes sense that there should be less guilt about being away and more emphasis on actual rest and rejuvenation over vacations. It will take firm management and legal system leaders to encourage taking earned vacation time. Firm policy, meaningfully backed by firm leaders, is vital.

The law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe sets a noteworthy example with their unplugged policy.

Orrick’s Unplugged Policy

Orrick aims to battle burnout with their “unplug time” policy. They set a formal expectation, and created a policy, that all members of their team (regardless of title) take one week each year to truly unplug. Recognizing that too many legal professionals don’t take vacation because they worry about meeting billable hour targets, the unplugged week’s 40 hours of vacation time counts toward billable hours.

People on unplugged vacations designate a buddy to cover for them. This teamwork approach reminds people that colleagues can step in for each other and know that they will likewise have time off coming. It reduces burnout, as the workers returning from the unplugged week will have had time for rest rather than checking their messages and being called into virtual meetings on days off.

Changes Are Afoot

Though legal is often slow to embrace change, change is coming. The importance of taking care of people’s mental health has increasingly gained recognition. Firms, courts and thought leaders have acknowledged that it’s better to stem burnout than to deal with full-blown crises, especially as so many lawyers cope with stress by engaging in self-destructive behaviors.

The U.S. government recently created a national 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which is a dedicated 24/7 national mental health hotline to parallel the 911 emergency number. There are also mental health “warmline” numbers for nonemergencies.

Several top-tier law schools have opted out of U.S. News & World Report’s rankings. The thinking is that this will discourage the extreme competitiveness in law schools that harms young lawyers.

The World Health Organization (WHO) came out with the WHO Guidelines on Mental Health at Work. These guidelines identify how workplaces often harm workers’ mental health and how this can be improved. Organizations, managers and individuals all have responsibilities and roles to play to improve workplace environments. The guidelines recommend tackling the challenges with a multipronged approach using evidence-based interventions.

Resources

Several organizations have ideas and resources for how managers and leaders can promote well-being, including:
Institute for Well-Being in Law and Well-Being Committees

The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being evolved into the Institute for Well-Being in Law (lawyerwellbeing.net), which has resources available, including information about Well-Being Week in Law.

Many states have well-being committees exploring policies to promote well-being in the profession. These committees have issued reports with detailed recommendations for improving the well-being of lawyers, judges and law students.

Lawyer Assistance Programs
State and local lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) throughout the country provide confidential services and support to judges, lawyers and law students who are facing mental health or substance use issues. While LAP services and setups vary by jurisdiction, they often provide free and confidential mental health, substance abuse and well-being support.
Ideas For Immediate Implementation

The legal environments that drain and harm legal professionals are large-scale challenges, and the worst afflictions require the most work to course correct.

Still, there are some actionable steps that may be implemented quickly:

  • Encourage employees to check email only a few times per day rather than being subjected to continuous interruptions. Establish an acceptable response time (such as 24 hours); if something will require more time, acknowledge that with a brief circle-back. Some highly productive firms have standard automated messages responding to senders (clients or otherwise) to let them know that messages will only be checked a couple of times a day; this allows for greater productivity on all matters.
  • Block out time for substantive work (such as drafting pleadings for upcoming deadlines) on shared electronic calendars to prevent your day from filling up with just meetings.
  • Shorten internal meetings to allow at least five minutes between appointments. Microsoft studies show that back-to-back virtual meetings lead to decreased focus and ability to retain information.
  • High stress often expresses itself in physical symptoms: When people exhibit signs of tension, encourage them to reset with a few minutes of meditation or movement. Having frequent microbreaks throughout the day helps decrease both computer eye strain and release tension building in the neck, shoulders, back and other parts of the body.
While there are sizeable challenges to improving well-being in the legal profession, it is possible to make improvements. Managers must lead these efforts, not only by creating policies but also by putting muscle behind them.

 

 

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©2023. Published in The Management Issue, Vol. 49, No. 3, May 2023, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.
CATEGORIES: Flourishing | Law Office Management & Operations | Leadership | Resilience

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