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How law firm leaders can prevent employee burnout

6 minute read

REUTERS/Toby Melville

The new future of work is upon us, and legal leaders and their teams face many uncertainties and unanswered questions going forward into this new future. In this time of unprecedented change and rapid growth for many law firms, leaders in legal organizations must begin to proactively design workplace environments to prevent employee burnout and increase motivation.

What we know about burnout in legal

Only a handful of studies address burnout in the legal profession. One of them found that almost 40% of public defenders in Wisconsin meet the criteria for burnout, and the other, more than 30 years old, found that burned out lawyers are less committed to their organizations and report lower identification with organizational goals.

Obviously, there is quite a bit of unexplored territory here. In an effort to start to bridge this research gap, here are some noteworthy points I have discovered in my work with lawyers and legal teams:

      • Many lawyers report very high professional efficacy scores
      • — Generally, many lawyers say they feel like they’re making an impact, they’re getting things done, and they’re good at what they do.
      • Having an unmanageable workload is by far the biggest driver of burnout
      • — Among the teams I have measured, I have found that the lack of recognition is also a key driver of burnout. The lawyers I have coached report not hearing ‘Thank you’ enough, not being recognized for the extra effort they put in, not having a seat at the table in key meetings, and working at a level that doesn’t match their title. All of these factors promote exhaustion and cynicism, two key dimensions of burnout.
      • Burnout and high engagement can co-occur
      • — While researching my book, I was drawn to a study explaining this interesting intersection between high engagement and burnout. I have since noticed the same finding elsewhere and in my own work. For example, a separate survey of lawyers indicated that 29% of respondents said they were currently experiencing burnout while also reporting a satisfaction score of 7 or higher (out of 10). It’s not uncommon for the corporate teams with which I work to report elevated rates of burnout while also earning top scores in organizational engagement surveys.
      • a study explaining this interesting intersection
      • between high engagement and burnout. I have since noticed the same finding elsewhere and in my own work. For example, a separate survey of lawyers indicated that 29% of respondents said they were currently experiencing burnout while also reporting a satisfaction score of 7 or higher (out of 10). It’s not uncommon for the corporate teams with which I work to report elevated rates of burnout while also earning top scores in organizational engagement surveys.

Prevention ideas for leaders

There are a few ways that law firm leaders, team leaders and teams themselves can work to prevent burnout among employees, including:

Understand what burnout really is (and what it isn’t) — Burnout is not an interchangeable word with general stress. There are six core causes of burnout that legal organizations, firm leaders, and teams need to address in order to decrease the likelihood of it happening. These core causes can be measured, and include:

      1. Lack of autonomy
      2. — having some choice as to how and when you perform the tasks related to your work.
      3. High workload and work pressure
      4. — particularly problematic in combination with too few resources.
      5. Lack of leader or colleague support
      6. — not feeling a sense of belonging at work; no community.
      7. Unfairness
      8. — favoritism; arbitrary decision-making; lack of transparency.
      9. Values disconnect
      10. — what you find important about work doesn’t match the environment in which you work.
      11. Lack of recognition
      12. — little to no feedback; you rarely, if ever, hear thank you.

These are organizational issues that can’t be fixed with simple self-care and well-being programs. In fact, three of these causes — workload, having low autonomy, and lack of leader or colleague support — are among the top 10 most prominent workplace issues that impact employees’ health and longevity.

Create psychological safetyPsychological safety is trust at the team level, and it’s extremely difficult to design a team environment that slows burnout and promotes well-being without it. Psychological safety is the belief that you can respectfully disagree, raise concerns, ask questions, and be yourself without the fear or worry that you will be embarrassed, singled out, or somehow penalized or marginalized for doing so. Leaders can increase trust on their teams — both in-person and virtual teams — by fostering psychological safety in several ways, including:

      • Being both accessible and approachable;
      • Modeling firm or corporate values and addressing violations of them consistently;
      • Seeking out contributions and ideas from all team members;
      • Prioritizing small attentive courtesies (I call them “you matter cues”) by acknowledging someone’s presence in your physical space or on a Zoom meeting, calling people by name, pronouncing names correctly, and asking about team needs and challenges;
      • Being as transparent as possible — at a minimum, providing updates on any major changes to policies, goals, or processes;
      • Listening to understand, which involves asking lots of questions and displaying “humble curiosity.” Some good conversation starters include, “I’m curious about…” “Help me understand…” and “Tell me more about….”;
      • Celebrating progress by reminding the team of the very small wins and successes that are experienced on a regular basis; and
      • Sharing stories of a personal nature, such as a time when you overcame a tough work challenge, then encourage others to do so as well.

Address the root causes & drivers of high workload — The workload puzzle is a difficult one to solve and involves a broad mix of factors, such as not enough personnel, too many meetings, too few resources, unknown resources not being leveraged, too much email, insufficient ways of teaming, and more. Determine which of these factors are high-workload drivers in your firm and be clear when giving assignments in order to minimize conflicting requests and ambiguity (themselves, two known accelerants of burnout). Recognize when associates need more training, skills development, or mentoring, and check in regularly — but don’t micromanage.

Prioritize conversations about meaning & impact — Purpose and meaning are both key job resources that slow burnout, yet they are rarely talked about enough in the legal profession. A new survey from Thomas Reuters suggests this may be changing, finding that “purpose is high on the agenda of many law firms this year.”

Legal leaders should take time to consider how they frame their professional motivations and share what this means with other lawyers on their teams and within their organizations. Leaders should ask themselves and others such questions as: What gives you meaning in your work? How does having a keen sense of meaning and impact contribute to your well-being? How can you capture these stories and promote them internally and externally?

It’s time to reframe the conversation about burnout and to address this problem as a systemic issue that everyone is responsible for reducing. Legal leaders have the ability to proactively design the right environment to decrease burnout and increase well-being — they should start now.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Thomson Reuters Institute is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Paula Davis is the CEO of the Stress and Resilience Institute, and her book, Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being & Resilience, published by the Wharton School Press, is on sale now.

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