Maximising law firm profits can be as much about lawyer well being as it is about billable hours.
So often we hear about “successful” individuals linking their success to how little sleep they need and the fact that they eat stress for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a little more thrown in for dessert or a late-night snack. And, for many high-flying professionals it’s a given that stress comes with the role, supposedly balanced out by the healthy pay that comes with it.
Lawyers are no exception, with caseloads being so extreme at times that some may feel they’re doing the work of three people, grinding themselves relentlessly because expectations around billable hours and fulfilling client needs are bordering on unreasonable.
This isn’t to say this is always the case, of course, but it’s definitely a thing, and leads to a discussion of how lawyer well being can often be sacrificed on the altar of productivity.
The unfortunate downside of this is the impact such has on the lawyer’s physical and mental health, leading to poor lifestyles choices around diet and exercise, the creation or exacerbation of pre-existing mental health issues, and, in extreme cases even more dire outcomes.
Lawyers averaged 53 work hours per week, with 20% of billable hours more than 80 hours per week
Around 60% of lawyers were satisfied with their job, but 35% were neutral and 6% were unsatisfied
Disrupted sleep, anxiety, issues with personal relationships and depression were the most pressing mental health issues identified in the survey
The counterpoint to this is an increasing number of studies that correlate employee well being with greater productivity.
In a 2019 meta-analysis study by Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Christian Krekel and George Ward – “Employee wellbeing, productivity and firm performance,” 339 independent research studies were collated, covering the wellbeing of nearly two million employees from 230 independent organisations across 49 industries.
It’s main findings won’t come as a surprise to many:
“…a significant, strong positive correlation between employees’ satisfaction with their company and employee productivity and customer loyalty, and a strong negative correlation with staff turnover. Ultimately, higher wellbeing at work is positively correlated with more business-unit level profitability.”
Throwing us all a major curve-ball was the global pandemic, which led to a massive shift in the way we lived and worked throughout much of 2020 and 2021, which in turn led to a rethink on working from home, increased workplace flexibility, and more broadly, work-life balance and well-being.
Shifting attitudes in the legal profession about lawyer well-being were clearly reflected in a 2022 study out of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Minnesota.
What studies like these – and our professional and personal experience of life during a global pandemic – all point to is the obvious: That while billable hours may see the dollars roll in, being attentive to lawyer well-being may prove even more critical to overall profitability.
How to improve lawyer well being
Finding the balance between meeting client needs, managing caseloads and ensuring lawyer well being requires nuanced management by law firms.
But rather than put it in the too-hard basket, implementing policies and procedures that address this need, and importantly incorporate more attention towards lawyer well being, will improve retention, cohesion and, ultimately, more sustainable long-term profitability and growth of a firm.
Some simple solutions, particularly now that the hybrid work life appears set to stay for many, include:
Resourcing appropriately on cases or projects to ensure lead lawyers are not overworked
Putting in place a formal flexible or work-from-home policy that is clear, fair and a strong nod to lawyer well being
Where dispersed teams and hybrid working is permanent, the creation of situations where engagement is emphasised, encouraged and fostered either through enhanced tech or via face-to-face professional and social gatherings
Keeping lines of communication open and encouraging feedback so as to be able to constantly improve these supporting policies and procedures
And, of course, the most obvious solution to improving lawyer well being is to set up a health and well being program that formalises a firm’s commitment to this as part of the overall package of working with the firm.
The bottom line? Lawyer well being is good for practice and the sooner firms embrace the need to acknowledge how important it is, the sooner they are on the path to retaining and attracting the best lawyers out there and in doing so build a strong and profitable business.
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