In response to increasing rates of depression, anxiety, addiction and suicide among attorneys, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld has taken great strides in making the emotional and mental well-being of their lawyers a priority. Beginning in June, the Akin Gump Washington D.C. office will have on-site counselors available for appointments one day each week. This is terrific news. Culture starts at the top and this goes a long way at de-stigmatizing mental health in the workplace. It also lowers common barriers to service for those in the legal profession, specifically, time. Akin Gump attorneys will not need to take time to leave a busy office to travel to a private practice and sit in a waiting room, all the while mentally calculating the billable hours they are losing. We will hopefully see more firms following a model of promoting and fostering positive mental health. Counseling services is one important piece of mental health well-being; it is not the only piece.
Counseling and resiliency building fit together hand-in-glove. Most people seek counseling once they have experienced some kind of distress or disturbance in their ability to cope. It is curative care. Resiliency building, however, is preventative care. While there is no way to eliminate all the demands of a stressful profession or avoid the unforeseen challenge, change or crisis in our lives, we can work to build our immunity to survive and thrive through those times. Much like healthy individuals are able to bounce back more quickly from an illness than those who have poor overall health, individuals who have built a healthy resilience are able to bounce back from crisis than those with low resilience.
Creating a Culture of Resilience
Culture–for better or worse–comes from the top. Managing partners and firm leadership have an enormous power to create a resilient culture through their leadership style. The core characteristics of resilient leaders are optimism, integrity, transparency and purposefulness. While these characteristics are sometimes considered fixed personality traits, we know now that these qualities can be taught. Considering Malcolm Gladwell’s “Law of the Few,” even developing resiliency skills in 20% of an organization’s workforce (inclusive of leadership) it will tip an entire organization toward a culture of resilience.
Law firms and organizations who embody a culture of resilience:
- Develop a sense of purpose and belonging. Simon Sinek’s Start With Why is founded in the understanding that when people feel connected to the purpose and mission of their work, they are inspired, are more creative and are more resilient. Why more resilient? When people trust that there is a reason and a purpose behind whatever challenge, change or stress is occurring in their work, they process it in a way that fosters growth versus fear (“This is hard, but I believe in the process.” vs “Why is this happening to me?? This is awful!”). When two or more people are able to find connection through that mission and purpose, they find belonging. They are able to support one another along the way because they see each other as allies working toward a common goal, not competitors trying to vie for first place.
- Operate from a optimistic, growth mindset. Having a growth mindset is the belief that we have a continuing ability to learn from our experiences and thereby can adapt our behavior to improve outcomes in the future. A growth mindset builds a person self-efficacy, the belief in one’s ability to succeed. This, in turn, leads to optimism, a key trait of resilient people. By creating a culture where even a loss can be viewed as an opportunity for learning and growth, not only are attorneys more resilient they are also more likely to increase their success. They show grit and perseverance because they understand it will contribute to their future growth and development as an attorney.
- Practice transparency and integrity. Integrity is when beliefs and values align with actions and behaviors. Transparency is the natural result of having integrity. There is no hidden agenda or dual meaning; there is what we say we believe and how we act upon it. Creating a vulnerability-based trust requires transparency and honesty. Vulnerability is a scary word to many–particularly those in professions that reward “toughness” (not to be confused with grit). Consider this, vulnerability, transparency and honesty is what you expect from your firm’s clients. You should be able to expect it from one another.
- Invest in Individual Resilience. Resilient law firms give their attorneys what they need to cope with the demands of their job. Firms invest mightily in their attorneys and it is an investment worth protecting. By some calculations, burnout costs a company upward of 25% percent of any employee’s compensation due to low productivity, illness, and turnover. Two other studies show that job stress cost U.S. businesses between $150 billion (Spielberger, Vagg, & Wasala, 2003, citing Wright and Smye) and $300 billion annually (American Institute of Stress). Resilient firms understand that bolstering the individual resilience of their attorneys through training and professional support, they are insuring their investment in their attorneys.
How does your firm promote resilience and well-being? I’d love to hear from you! Share your insight with me here.
American Institute of Stress. Workplace Stress. Retrieved from http://www.stress.org/workplace-stress/
Gladwell, M. (2002). The tipping point. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York, N.Y.: Portfolio.
Spielberger, C., Vagg, P., & Wasala, C. (2003). Occupational stress: Job pressures and lack of support. In J.C. Quick & L.E. Tetrick (Eds.), Handbook of occupational health psychology (pp. 185-200). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.