The practice of law is challenging for many lawyers and law firm leaders. Clients are demanding new billing arrangements and different methods for getting legal work done, and lawyers are demanding more flexible work arrangements. This has given rise to alternative business models, such as secondment firms and virtual law firms. Leaders are faced with managing an inter-generational workforce, and firms continue to find it difficult to retain lawyers, especially women. In addition, the unique combination of typical lawyer personality, typical law firm characteristics, and stress results in higher than average rates of depression, divorce, substance abuse, and unhappiness.
These and other challenges make burnout a real issue in the legal profession; however, there is a strong business case for reducing burnout and increasing engagement, and it’s easier and more cost effective than you might think. Burnout at work contributes to decreased well-being, lower retention rates, higher staff turnover, low morale, and a lack of cohesiveness in the organization as a whole.1 One study showed that for each one point increase in a person’s exhaustion score on the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), there was a commensurate 5 percent increase in the likelihood of that person reporting an error; for each one point increase in a person’s cynicism score on the MBI, there was a commensurate 11 percent increase in reporting an error; and for each one point increase in a person’s personal efficacy score on the MBI, there was a commensurate 3.6 percent decrease in likelihood of reporting an error.2
Leaders should focus on both organizational and individual factors; a recent meta-analysis suggests that the benefits derived from individual programs would get a boost by also adopting organizational-directed approaches.3 Six organizational-directed approaches that have been shown to build well-being and reduce burnout are discussed below.
1. Acknowledge the Problem and Measure It
I get mixed reactions from law firm professionals when I tell them I talk about burnout. Some want me to share all that I know on the spot, while others worry that bringing up the topic will somehow send the wrong message to lawyers and staff.
Paula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm focused on enhancing resilience, well-being, and engagement in the legal profession. She is the author of the e-book, Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention.
But guess what – burnout is happening in your organization whether or not you want to admit it, so not doing anything about it isn’t helping solve the problem. Acknowledging the problem and showing that the firm cares about lawyer well-being is a necessary first step toward making progress.4 Burnout is very easily measured with a short inventory called the Maslach Burnout Inventory. In addition, there are many good tools in organizational science to measure engagement and well-being and their constituent components.
2. Use the Power of Leadership
Leadership behaviors of supervisors play a critical role in the well-being of the people they lead. A recent study of more than 2,800 Mayo Clinic physicians who were asked to rate their immediate supervisor found that “each one-point increase in the leadership score of a physician’s immediate supervisor was associated with a 3.3% decrease in the likelihood of burnout and a 9.0% increase in satisfaction.”5 To be effective, law firm and organizational leaders must also recognize the unique talents and strengths of those they lead.
3. Focus on Providing Five Types of Job Resources
Job resources are the motivational aspects of a person’s job that are energy-giving. Leaders should focus in these five areas:6
Foster high-quality connections with colleagues.
Create opportunities for excellence (people want to be both challenged and part of something meaningful).
Offer FAST feedback (feedback that is frequent, accurate, specific,
Maximize leader support.
4. Minimize Engagement-killing Job Demands
Job demands are the aspects of your work that take sustained effort and energy. Not all job demands are created equal, and the research points to three specific ones to be minimized because they accelerate burnout and kill engagement:7
Role conflict (“I have received conflicting requests from two or more people”).
Role ambiguity (“My duties and work objectives are unclear to me”).
Organizational constraints or unfairness (“I had to go through many hassles to get projects and assignments done”).8
Respondents to a survey of more than 400 lawyers who have left at least one legal employer said that a company’s culture can make or break a firm’s ability to retain associates. After time demands, “toxic culture was the most common reason people cited for leaving their law job.”9 Popular themes from the survey were lack of collegiality, absence of transparency, bias, and lack of kindness and respect – all of which are known job demands that accelerate burnout.
Given the strong connection to
turnover, absenteeism, rates of
errors, and disengagement, it
makes good business sense for
law firms and organizations to
implement strategies to reduce
burnout and build well-being.
5. Promote Work-life Integration
One of the respondents in the survey referenced above said, “I was missing out on a lot of life to make my billable hours requirement. To retain me, the firm would have had to totally rethink its business model and do away with a culture of billable hours bravado.”10
Many firms have implemented reduced-hours policies, but the success has been mixed. The stigma attached to working part time is a real barrier – nearly 74 percent of lawyers who said they tried working part time felt stigmatized in some way.11 In addition, hours worked often exceeded agreed-upon thresholds. The survey responses also suggest that project-based work – being allowed to work on projects on an hourly basis – would have helped firms retain lawyers.
In my work with the military, one of my favorite programs was the resilience training provided to spouses. Firms could very easily open up new types of programs to significant others and other important people in their lawyers’ lives, signaling that they care about the person as a whole.
6. Provide Resources to Promote Resilience
Resilience has been identified as an important personal resource to help people prevent burnout and simply manage the day-to-day stress of working in a tough profession.12 Resilience can be taught; it is built through a set of core competencies that enable mental toughness and mental strength, optimal performance, strong leadership, and tenacity (resilient people give up less frequently when they experience setbacks).
Mayo Clinic implemented a number of these organizational strategies and measured their efficacy over a two-year period. They found that the burnout rate of their physicians decreased by 7 percent despite an 11 percent rise in the rate of burnout in physicians nationally.13 Given the strong connection to turnover, absenteeism, rates of errors, and disengagement, it makes good business sense for law firms and organizations to implement strategies to reduce burnout and build well-being – the time is now.
Meet Our Contributors
What are your favorite business-travel destinations?
My favorite business-travel destinations are those that allow me to spend time with colleagues and friends.
I’m mom to a soon-to-be one year old, and anytime I have to travel for work, I miss her terribly. Being around friends and people I know really helps to ease the separation. In the past year, I’ve presented with (or near) friends and colleagues in Bermuda, Naples, Fla., Austin, Texas, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Friends in these cities have taken me to wonderful restaurants and places known only to locals.
When I had to be away from my daughter for an extended business trip to San Francisco and Napa, my parents joined me. It takes a village.
Paula Davis-Laack, The Davis-Laack Stress & Resilience Institute, Elm Grove.
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1 Gail Gazelle, Jane M. Liebschutz & Helen Riess, Physician Burnout: Coaching a Way Out, 30(4) J. Gen Intern. Med. 508-13 (2015).
2 Tait D. Shanafelt et al., Burnout and Medical Errors among American Surgeons, Annals of Surgery (2009).
3 Maria Panagioti et al., Controlled Interventions to Reduce Burnout in Physicians: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, 177(2) JAMA Intern. Med. 195-205 (2017).
4 Tait D. Shanafelt & John H. Noseworthy, Executive Leadership and Physician Well-Being: Nine Organizational Strategies to Promote Engagement and Reduce Burnout, 92(1) Mayo Clinic Proc. 129-46 (2017).
5 Tait D. Shanafelt et al., Impact of Organizational Leadership on Physician Burnout and Satisfaction, 90(4) Mayo Clinic Proc. 432-40 (2015).
6 Jonathon R.B. Halesleben, A Meta-Analysis of Work Engagement: Relationships with Burnout, Demands, Resources and Consequences, in Arnold B. Bakker & Michael P. Leiter (Eds.), Work Engagement: A Handbook of Essential Theory and Research 102-17 (New York, NY: Psychology Press 2010). See also Arnold B. Bakker, Evangelia Demerouti & Ana Isabel Sanz-Vergel, Burnout and Work Engagement: The JD-RAapproach, Annual Rev. Org. Psych./Org. Behav. 389-411 (2014).
8 Monique F. Crane & Ben J. Searle, Building Resilience Through Exposure to Stressors: The Effects of Challenge Versus Hindrances, 21(4) J. of Occ.Health Psychol. 468-79 (2016).
9 Kate Mayer Mangan, Erin Giglia & Laurie Rowen, Why Lawyers Leave Law Firms and What Firms Can Do About It. Law Practice Today, American Bar Association (April 14, 2016).
12 Bakker, Demerouti & Sanz-Vergel, supra note 6, at 401. See also Shanafelt & Noseworthy, supra note 4, at 141.
13 Shanafelt & Noseworthy, supra note 4, at 142.