Laying down the law on wellbeing

Laying down the law on wellbeing

by | Jun 6, 2019 | Wellbeing

The legal profession is a popular and lucrative career pathway, but it’s become famous for many of the wrong reasons. Reputable studies have long reported depression, anxiety and stress-related disorders in law firm employees running at rates of between 1 in 3 to 1 in 5 professionals.

The factors behind this concerning statistic are clear: wellbeing has historically sat very low on the priority list.

But wellbeing has become an economic and moral imperative for law firms. The industry’s reputation for creating one of the world’s least well workforces is behind the downturn in interest from young talent and an exodus of senior leaders seeking better work/life balance.

So, there’s a problem, but what can all leaders learn from the legal industry’s struggle to change new processes and principles in order to cultivate better workplace wellbeing?


Three questions for leaders

For educated bystanders, the proliferation of struggling lawyers has reached alarming levels. So alarming, that even those on the inside of law have conceded there’s a burning platform.

Globally, various governing bodies have been upping the ante on trying to douse out the fierce flames. But the fire is still raging, being fuelled by an explosive cocktail of moral, legal and commercial of concerns.

If I had the boards and executive teams of the larger law firms in a room together and dared to put them on a collective hot seat, here’s what my best self would have the courage to suggest they work through:


  1. Is it ethically right for your firms to demand, explicitly or implicitly, so much from your people, including its leaders?

Why this question? Because the growth in demand for legal services has ascended to astronomic levels, with the Big8 in Australia reporting a surge in demand of 11.3% year on year in FY18 (a whopping 19.1% in Dispute Resolution). With an average headcount increase of only 5%, the typical (already overworked?) fee-earner has been leaned on much more heavily with resulting significant profitability gains for partners.

Not that the partners are having it easy: those in senior leadership roles are carrying significant management responsibilities, often with little to no fee relief.

How’s this going to play out?


  1. Are your workplace practices defensible from a legal, risk, compliance and HR perspective?

Why this question? With their strenuous workloads, overtime and high-pressure projects, lawyers have the lowest psychological and psychosomatic health and wellbeing of all professionals. The rate of chronic stress in the legal profession has been rising alarmingly over the last few years. Many, many studies have shown that stress is a prime cause of depression. Part of this stress is that partners and others in law firms are being asked to do ever more with less support. 80% of disciplinary matters involving lawyers have an underlying mental health issue.

The epidemic of low wellbeing is bringing with it a growing backlash in the talent pipeline. Millennials are viewing the partnership path as less appealing than their predecessors, and senior lawyers are leaving big firms in droves. In 2016, there were 15,539 law firms in Australia, 46% more than in 2011. This translates to over 4,907 new firms – that’s a lot of senior people leaving in the pursuit of a better life.

The increased demand and deluge of work, the shortage of talent at the four to seven-year post-qualified level, the scourge of the billable hour, and partners with a paucity of time, people leadership and EQ skills can be terrible for a lawyer’s health (and performance).

Fatigue is commonplace in legal circles. Days can expand to be 30 hours long by working all day, all night and all through the next day. Regulators are becoming increasingly alert to exploitative work cultures and firms are on high alert.  Sensible clients would prefer their work is performed by fresh eyes and brains, where judgement, quality of advice, solutions and error rates are vastly improved.


  1. Economically, how does your business model need to evolve to ensure you are still in the game in 5 years?  

Why this question? The whole concept of being a lawyer – someone there primarily to offer legal advice – has recently come into question. Many members of the profession are profoundly worried about these existential developments.

Like so many other sectors, the profession must adapt. Adapt to selling its legal services in a changing world where the growing power and presence of a global economy, digitalisation and AI necessitates not only that the laws themselves change (‘NewLaw’), but also the transformation of how services are viably delivered (“LegalTech”).

There’s been significant movement in the leadership echelons and senior C-Suite positions within the larger law firms. Many of the appointments are bringing a more strategic and innovative focus, incorporating expertise from adjacent professional services industries already disrupted and largely transformed.


After smouldering for decades, that the burning platform has finally taken hold is something that many on the inside of law are relieved about. It’s long overdue.


Eight lessons from a wellbeing wasteland

So, what can we learn from a profession that’s long been regarded by executive coaches, psychologists, evidence-based mental health researchers and therapists as a wellbeing wasteland?


  1. Fatigue is bad for people and bad for business.

Staying awake for longer than 17 hours has the same effect on behaviour as a blood alcohol level of 0.05 per cent. After 21 hours, it’s like a person has a blood alcohol level of 0.1 per cent, twice the legal limit.

Over the last 12 months regulators have been more likely to issue fatigue improvement notices, not just to law firms abut across a wide array of professional service firms, from merchant banking to accountants.

At one merchant bank, the regulator intervened after staff worked 106-hour weeks, or about 15 hours a day, seven days a week. At an accounting firm, a tax accountant died after driving back home after working long hours.


  1. It IS possible to change ‘unwell’ cultures and practices.

Whilst it’s too late to save those whose lives have shaped the tragic backdrop to this story, the growing movement of those concerned about the statistics and what they mean in both human and economic cost is slowly helping to bring about positive systemic, leadership and individual changes.

In the firms where we work, stopping the wellbeing crisis and creating a more sustainable business and human model is regarded as more than an optional ‘nice to have’. It’s regarded as a leadership imperative demanding a complete rethink of centuries-old business models and embedded systematic practices.

Many positive shifts are occurring – book your place at the Future of Work Wellbeing at Work Event on 27 September in Sydney, where I’ll be chairing a breakfast and leadership panel with senior executives from organisations (including law firms!) who are championing wellbeing change.


  1. Leaders who view wellbeing and performance as two sides of the same coin (not polarities that come at one another’s expense) will lead businesses that thrive.

High levels of wellbeing mean your people will:

    • bring more energy – because they eat, sleep and exercise well (did you know – 27% of law students suffer from eating disorders, with a diagnosis rate of only 3% – how is that likely to play out for their performance and energy?),
    • bring a better, more positive energy – because they feel happier and more satisfied, more at ease and content,
    • have a stronger force of energy – because they are clear about their purpose and meaning,
    • show more focussed energy – because their engagement and flow at work will be higher and they will be more innovative and productive,
    • be more authentic – and able to bring their whole selves to work, being more open, direct and trusting of one another,
    • be more mentally, emotionally and socially agile and adaptive.

It stands to reason – and is backed by evidence – if your people have high levels of wellbeing it will enable you and your organisation to stay in the game, to remain relevant and to flourish.


  1. For far too long, ‘success’ in corporate life has required an image of strength and invulnerability, especially from its senior leaders.

Great strides have been made in addressing mental health more openly in the workplace but the pressure to ‘fit the image’ and concerns over being perceived as weak or expendable are still rife.

Once more, I return to my poor friends in the law – perhaps there’s nowhere this phenomenon is more prevalent. In the 2018 ‘State of Law Firm Leadership Report’ I found it depressing to see its authors still call out that “being a law firm leader today, is not for the faint of heart or for the sensitive!

The reality is that most professionals experience periods of sustained elevated stress and insecurities at some stage in their career, if not throughout. And this is true even or especially of those in leadership roles. Whilst common, it doesn’t mean it’s right or easy – it can wreak havoc if left unattended; and it’s something we should address because systemic change to work practices and individual coaching or therapy have proven efficacy.

Mental toughness, grit, stamina, resilience – are all variations on being an alpha (fe)male corporate warrior. An era for which we’re hopeful the end is nigh. We’re not there yet, but the rise in the number of leaders prepared to be vulnerable by conveying their uncertainty, by being open to risk and emotional exposure is brilliant, bold and truly inspiring. (Thank you Brene Brown ?)

Being well is NOT about showing toughness on your outside, it IS being tough enough to share what’s going on for you on the inside.


  1. Fiercely competitive environments, work intensification and extreme ‘cost-out’ efficiencies are key hallmarks of most workplace cultures today and these are wellbeing liabilities.

Pressure in such settings can result in stress caused by long work hours, a lack of work-life balance and interpersonal conflict. Once more, the legal profession is more prone than most to such negative impacts due to its highly competitive environment.

But it’s not being a law firm per se that’s the issue, it’s the intensely competitive dynamic.

If you’re a leader in any business that’s characterised by being competitive, cut-throat or a numbers-driven organisation, especially if there are established hierarchical structures and power imbalances, or where there’s pressure to measure work input rather than output – you need to understand that these factors are ripe for creating a toxic wellbeing environment which will backfire on your long-term business performance and viability.

Many of these issues come about and are perpetuated by flawed work practices, inadequate processes and ill-defined accountabilities. Leadership matters.

Where there’s a prevailing culture of a win/produce-at-all-cost mentality it brings negative repercussions for the security and standing of individuals in the business.

Those with position and power push others to perform at extraordinary levels, in turn adversely affecting their wellbeing, quality of work-life and tenure in the organisation or profession.

We’ve written previously on the importance of dignity, respect, inclusivity, workplace bullying and psychological safety in relation to wellbeing and success.


  1. Understand how your people cope and how they relax.

33% of lawyers suffer distress due to clinical depression; they do not seek help and self-medicate with alcohol and drugs to reduce or manage their symptomatology. Alcohol abuse in legal profession is extremely concerning.

Rates of suicide and suicidal ideation among lawyers are disturbing. One in three contemplates suicide at least once a year.

How does your organisation’s employee group compare to the 1 in 5 lawyers who screen positive for hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking?

If your organisation is male dominated, bear in mind there’s likely to be an even higher proportion of positive screens.

I have worked with many lawyers over the years who have positive and constructive coping and relaxation strategies, who have learned how to relax and look after themselves without self-medicating through drugs and alcohol. The most effective happy high achievers prioritise self-care and have strong boundaries in place to ensure their important needs are met.


  1. When you have the right people around you and feel supported, facing your challenges is much more bearable 

My fellow panellist at the Law Summit last week, the extraordinary and inspiring Mitch Wallis (Mental health advocate & founder of the ‘Heart on My Sleeve’ movement for living with mental illness) says feeling connected to others, being authentic and real about what you’re experiencing and having trusted family, friends and advisors is what matters most to our wellbeing.

It’s not by accident that ‘Authentic Relationships’ is the first domain to appear in our GLWS wellbeing framework, defined as the sense of wellbeing that comes from:

    • feeling you belong (to a team, family, social group and/or community)
    • trusting others and feeling able to talk honestly and openly with them, solving problems and making decisions collaboratively
    • feeling close and connected to others, supporting them and showing kindness
    • feeling secure, respected and loved by people who are important to you
    • investing your time and giving your attention to those with whom you are closest.

The absence of trust, respect and belonging in the workplace and the absence (or loss) of warm, loving and affectionate relationships outside of work are a prime cause of depression. Depression can lead to an inability to form lasting and satisfying relationships and so we may fall into the grip of a vicious circle.


  1. Wellbeing is contagious

It’s well known and substantiated that lawyers tend to be pessimistic. Partly because of their training – they are trained to see what is wrong – and partly, as several recent studies have shown, because they are genetically prone to pessimism as a personality trait. Pessimism and depression are genetically closely linked.

Depression shares with pessimism one salient characteristic: it is catching! The more you hang out with pessimistic or depressed people the more likely you are to be pessimistic or depressed. Lawyers working with other lawyers – or socializing with other lawyers, or pessimistic and depressed clients – are perhaps bound to become more of both.


Whether you’re a lawyer or not, what can you take-away from these findings?

Well, one of our newest GLWS accredited community members Lana Johnson sums it up brilliantly, using positive reframing in her TedX Talk when she says:

Just as stress and negative emotions are contagious, positive emotions are also contagious… enthusiasm and joy are catchy.

It’s worth knowing that person’s happiness is related to the happiness of their friends (colleagues).

It’s not just our emotions that are contagious.

Wellbeing contagion is the spread of wellbeing ideas, attitudes, or behaviours in a group”.


Don’t be a wellbeing bystander.

Stealing more of Lana’s wise words:

“Imagine what our world would be like if we could elevate the wellbeing of humanity, even just a little?

Small shifts have a big impact.

Small shifts of many people can have a generational impact.

It starts with you.”

Don’t wait for anyone else. Help your organisation take a stand by influencing its leaders to throw their combined weight and passion behind the wellbeing movement.

A firm’s leaders can start by taking their own wellbeing seriously, reflecting on how they are leading their lives at home and at work, and what their wellbeing assets and liabilities are at this moment. After all, as we are fond of saying with the GLWS, accurate diagnosis precedes effective treatment.

When they have understood, educated and engaged with their own wellbeing, encourage your executives to reflect on their role in enabling and influencing others – i.e. ask them to be “positive wellbeing contagions”!

For all those employees whose working conditions are characterised by demanding clients and staff; for all those who feel under pressure to make budget, to drive major change and run multiple initiatives (often in addition to their day jobs); for all those who struggle to fulfil responsibilities beyond their work roles, those who are juggling constantly and feel each day is a race, those whose ‘inner critic’ ignites the fear of failure, and those who struggle to switch off or prioritise self-care, ask: what can you and your leadership team do to change the culture, practices, conversations, choices and habits, and what role can you play in embedding these changes and making them stick?

The way forward requires a multi-pronged approach and cooperation and collaboration by all relevant stakeholders: leadership at the top, regulators, professional associations, institutions and of course each individual themselves.



References: – Why are lawyers, and other professionals, depressed? 06 SEPTEMBER 2018 – The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys – Patrick R. Krill, JD, LLM, Ryan Johnson, MA, and Linda Albert, MSSW –  2013 ‘Shut up and bill’: Workplace bullying challenges for the legal profession Maryam Omari Edith Cowan University, Megan Paull—resilience@law.pdf?sfvrsn=2&sfvrsn=2 – Resilience @ Law  – Legal Profession Mental Health Toolkit–wood-mallesons-worksafe-investigation-lifts-lid-on-a-can-of-worms-20181025-h172ud

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