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Asking for help is a strength rather than a weakness—embedding a well-being culture in law firms

REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

How can law firms best embed well-being into the culture of their firms?

At a recent fireside chat sponsored by Thomson Reuters’ Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law programme, in the United States (US) leaders from three firms—Kirkland & Ellis, Morgan Lewis & Bockius, and Winston & Strawn discussed how their firms have approached well-being programs. And while each firm’s path was unique, at the end of the day, all three were united in committing to a culture to destigmatising asking for help as a weakness and reframing it as the ‘capacity to rebuild’ and as a signature of strength and indicator of success.

The lawyer brain reinforces negative thinking

Jami McKeon, Chair of Morgan Lewis (ML), kicked off the discussion, noting that loneliness is an epidemic in the US. A recent study published by the global health service company Cigna “found that 46 percent of adults, in the US, report sometimes or always feeling lonely, and 47 percent report feeling left out”. What is more unsettling is that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to the US Health Research & Services Administration. The firm’s ML well programme recognises the importance of community to well-being and connects lawyers and professional staff to each other and local communities through mentoring, affinity groups, service and pro bono.

Check out our new series of four videos on lawyer well-being, featuring Krista Larson, Director of Employee Well-Being at the law firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius, speaking with Nita Cumello, Global Client Director at Thomson Reuters.

Dr. Larry Richard, CEO of LawyerBrain, highlighted the fact that the way lawyers are trained makes them more likely to experience negativity. “In law school, lawyers learning to spot the problems for clients has the side effect of ‘looking for the bad’”, Richard said, adding that because our brains are looking for operating efficiencies for repeating thought processes, the neural pathways form to make ‘looking for the bad‘ more efficient. As a result, focusing on the negative leads to negative thinking, increasing the chances of clinical depression, substance abuse, and other disorders, Richard explains.

It is no secret many lawyers are actually introverts, and given the busy pace of life, social isolation, and negative thinking, lawyers must be vigilant and proactive in maintaining a healthier outlook. Both McKeon and Richard said they believe the onus should be on legal employers to help lawyers achieve this healthy outlook by training people to think differently, changing how the profession responds to stressors, giving people tools, and de-stigmatising asking for help.

Panellists also suggested more that employers could do, including:

Industry focus on downstream interventions—The legal industry, notably, is emphasising the current state of the profession’s terrible mental health outcomes, which include addiction, suicide, and clinical depression. Both McKeon and Richard noted that these are the downstream interventions of the well-being spectrum, and the industry’s focus on them has resulted in several positive results in building awareness of the problem and creating potential solutions that legal employers can use to respond.

Proactive tactics prevent downstream impacts—Taking charge to reinforce preventative tactics, such as mindfulness, meditation, and breathing exercises to reduce stress, are also noteworthy of equal investment. Richard also emphasised the importance of paying equal attention to ‘upstream’ interventions such as culture change, role-modelling by leaders and changing reward systems. These aim at preventing lawyer stress and loneliness, while downstream interventions aim at repair.

Analysing three law firms’ approach to well-being

As the three law firm leaders discussed what their firms had done in this area, what was noteworthy was the differences in the backgrounds of each director as an indicator of the firms’ different journeys in establishing a well-being strategy. Robin Belleau, Director of Well-being at Kirkland & Ellis and a former practicing lawyer, earned her master’s degree in counselling.

The associated shame on the topic of well-being and of seeking help shows up in several different ways, including the societal and industry idea that well-being is soft, asking for help is a weakness and an indicator of failure, that mindfulness is for the weak, and that the need for self-care is a personal flaw, especially for a lawyer.

Diane Costigan, Director of Coaching and Well-Being at Winston & Strawn, who has a master’s degree in organisational psychology was initially hired as the director of coaching before her role was expanded to include lawyer well-being earlier in 2019. Krista Larson, Director of Employee Well-Being at Morgan Lewis, earned her master’s in positive psychology with a background in management consulting as a previous career.

The group described how each firm’s path to creating a full-time position on well-being was also indicative of its overall strategy. Winston & Strawn’s, for example, invested first in coaching to provide support across many topics including business development, which can be a stressor for lawyers, and then included the well-being component to reflect their holistic approach.

Morgan Lewis made its decision to invest in a full-time position based on its view that its professionals and clients are its most important assets. The positive effects of enhanced well-being and engagement benefit them as well as the clients they represent. More specifically, more engaged people, who are feeling good have increased energy and cognitive capacity for exceptional client service. Morgan Lewis intentionally took an expanded approach to well-being that focused on five dimensions: intellectual, communal, occupational, physical, and emotional.

Kirkland, for its part, initially invested in external market solutions, but when the anticipated impact was less than expected, the firm brought the function in-house and created in house clinical services.

The challenge of de-stigmatising well-being

The firms differing approaches to implementation is also worth highlighting, but all have the common challenge of building awareness among the lawyers. Kirkland & Ellis, in addition to providing counselling services, worked with the state of New York to create a CLE accreditation to build resilience. Morgan Lewis launched an online portal and developed an action-impact series to spotlight topics, such as gratitude. Winston & Strawn focused on stress management and relaxation education and tools, for example, by providing all its employees’ access to the ‘Calm app’.

Firm leaders said that a major challenge they faced was the unfortunate perspective that these proactive safeguards on well-being carry a stigma within the legal profession and within society at large. Indeed, all three firms cited it as the major challenge to ensuring the future success of the firms’ investments in wellness.

The associated shame on the topic of well-being and of seeking help shows up in several different ways, including the societal and industry idea that well-being is soft, asking for help is a weakness and an indicator of failure, that mindfulness is for the weak, and that the need for self-care is a personal flaw, especially for a lawyer.

Despite these challenges, all the panellists were emphatic about their organisations’ commitments to well-being for the long-term. When asked how they will overcome these challenges, their response was largely to keep at it—continue the conversations, normalise the chats about addiction, stress, and depression—and lead bottom-up and top-down communication until success is achieved.

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