A study published last month in the journal Healthcare concluded that attorneys are twice as likely as other working adults in the US to have suicidal thoughts. Other reports confirm that lawyers suffer significant mental health struggles as well as burnout. Law students report similarly sobering statistics.
There are steps individuals can take to reclaim their mental health in a hard-driving “law warrior” culture—including being intentional with time and use of technology, taking breaks, and incorporating movement into the day.
But some lawyers will inevitably crash into law practice culture—one where an attorney’s value may be calculated in tenths of an hour or number of clients or cases managed. And it’s not just a Big Law problem. Solo practitioners, attorneys in small firms, and public interest organizations report similar struggles. Self-care is quickly out the window if the systems around the individual directly interfere with or encourage unhealthy practices.
Many legal employers say they want to create a culture of well-being in the workplace, but then turn to “check-the-box” programs, like a stress-management video seminar, a series of yoga sessions, or distributing wellness articles. These approaches only skim the surface, and they never address contradictory messaging from firm leaders.
The culture of law practice must change. It won’t be easy, but there are concrete steps organizations can take to improve lawyer well-being.
Role-Model Well-Being Practices
If partners, managers, and supervisors are always working, don’t use their vacation time, don’t have interests outside of the law, and never talk about their family or hobbies, then junior-level folks won’t value their own free time either. Lawyers have been wearing overwork like it is a badge of honor for too long.
We’ve all heard it: “I worked till midnight” or “I billed 200 hours last month” as if attorneys were competing in the stress Olympics. Unfortunately, winning that gold medal means there’s a greater chance of having the kinds of problems recent studies identify, like depression, anxiety, addiction, suicidal ideation, or burnout.
Mandate Non-Tech Hours
Many young lawyers feel they are expected to work, or be connected to work 24/7. Technology has blurred—if not erased—the line between work and non-work.
Distraction addiction—that feeling that you can’t be away from your phone or laptop—is a recipe for excess stress, which leads to burnout and mistakes. While partners, supervisors, and managers may tell their employees they don’t have to immediately respond to a late-night or weekend email, a young lawyer will always feel they should reply.
But having official non-tech hours, except in the case of a real emergency, makes shutting off easier. And that makes time for doing things without a phone in hand that help alleviate stress—like dinner with friends or family, reading, or an exercise class.
Treating every situation like it’s an emergency makes it impossible to distinguish problems that actually require immediate attention. Getting something off your plate and onto the plate of someone junior to you in the wee hours of the night makes it clear you haven’t thought about the person receiving the email.
Schedule non-emergency emails to send later, or at the very least, make it abundantly and explicitly clear that you don’t expect a response outside typical working hours.
Rethink the Billable Hour in Performance
Billable hours are the elephant in the room in any conversation about well-being. Organizations can’t offer well-being perks that only cause more stress for the timed-to-the-tenth-of-an-hour associate and expect a positive impact. But organizations don’t have to ditch the billable hour completely to change the overwork dynamic.
Start developing novel approaches to complement the billable hour so that there are other significant, practical, and meaningful measurements of an employee’s value. For example, give attorneys credit towards their overall productivity for innovative approaches that win cases and new clients.
Firms that figure out how to reward innovation and excellence beyond the billable hour will thrive in an increasingly AI-centric, fixed-engagement fee landscape. Those organizations will start peeling off the best talent—and retaining it.
It’s Not Okay
Pretending that everything is okay in legal practice—or offering simplistic, shallow solutions that only skim the surface of the issue—can lead to unfortunate mistakes and ethically questionable behavior.
Sticking with the status quo means your organization is inflexible and incapable of competing with firms that bring more nuance to their definition of an employee’s value.
Changing an organization’s approach to well-being is not only more humane, but will also have financial benefits through less illness and turnover, fewer mistakes, and increased innovation.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Shailini Jandial George is a professor at Suffolk University Law School. She serves on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being and Board of Directors for the Institute for Well-Being in Law.