Friday, December 18, 2015
My co-blogger Marcia Narine shared an article on social media this week entitled Lawyers have lowest health and wellbeing of all professionals, study finds. Sadly, this is not new news.
Those results, I am afraid, would be even worse if only members of the nation’s largest law firms (a/k/a “BigLaw”) were surveyed. Deborah Rhode (Stanford) talks about some of the problems in BigLaw, described in her book the Trouble with Lawyers.
Let’s assume, for the sake of this post, that the executive committee of a large law firm wants to improve employee welfare. What could the committee realistically do to improve employee wellbeing? Part of the low score for lawyers, I imagine, is just the nature of BigLaw, but under the break I make a few suggestions for consideration.
To address the problem of low health and wellbeing, I think you have to find the root causes.
Limited Growth. BigLaw takes the top law graduates in the country and puts them into a system that usually has no chance for promotion for at least seven years, engages, mostly, in lock-step compensation, and provides a fair amount of menial work. I don’t think most BigLaw associates “burn out;” I think they get bored and/or feel under-appreciated and under-utilized. To provide more growth opportunities, I suggest:
- Tie More of Associate Compensation to Merit. This might be difficult, as lawyers may be prone to excessively argue their case (or even litigate) if they receive below average compensation, but it may be worth the risks if it the compensation upside keeps your best associates at the firm.
- Involve and Coach Associates. Associates who are involved in all stages of the legal work, and are taught as they progress, are much more likely to feel invested than those who are treated like assembly workers.
- Create a Meaningful “Senior Associate” Title. At many BigLaw firms, making partner takes 7, 8, 9….12 years and is increasingly rare. The “senior associate” title would give junior associates something realistic to shoot for earlier in their career. The senior associate title would have to be substantive to be meaningful – review process, competency checklist, salary increase. I know some firms that have the title and simply reward it without any review or benefit after four or five years; this is not what I am talking about. The process I suggest is closer to the making partner decision and would be more focused on work done rather than years served.
Limited Purpose. Junior associates at large law firms sometimes have a difficult time understanding how their work is meaningful. A few suggestions to improve the sense of purpose include:
- Serious Encouragement of Pro Bono Work. Large law firms vary in how seriously they take pro bono work. For some, pro bono work is something you only do when and if you have time. For others, it is a more important part of the firm’s work. Because pro bono work gives junior associates a chance to work face to face with clients (often with significant, personal needs), the pro bono work can improve an associate’s sense of purpose. Pro bono work can also be excellent associate training and is often useful service to the community.
- Engagement with Clients. The more associates interact with clients, the easier it is for them to see the purpose of their work.
- Mentors/Mentees. Many BigLaw firms have mentorship programs, but it is important to encourage serious mentorship, not just of associates by partners, but also of junior associates by senior associates. This relationship building and guidance of others can add meaning to the work at all levels.
Limited Time. Maybe the toughest part of working in BigLaw is the demands on your time. Below are a few suggestions:
- Provide Improved Predictability. Many BigLaw associates complain more about the lack of predictability than the long hours. Firms could cut against this unpredictability by giving associates certain weekends and certain weeknights off each month. Admittedly, this might be difficult to do; litigation and deals are not particularly predictable, but to the extent associates could cover for one another, the knowledge that – for example – "I can have a guilt-free weekend off three weeks from now" would be priceless.
- On-site Childcare, Dining, Etc. Convenient services on-site could help save time. On-site (or nearly on-site) childcare was something one of my former law firms offered, and I am sure that saved working parents a great deal of time, and I know they valued being able to stop in and see their children during slower day.
- Sabbaticals. At least one large firm provided for lawyer sabbaticals, but I have not heard of this being a widespread practice. That said, I think awarding lawyer sabbaticals is an excellent idea. A sabbatical would be something to look forward to, even if you loved your job. It would provide a change of pace; it would allow you to explore new interests. I imagine you would return to practice recharged and with new perspective.
I know a number of law firms do some of the above, but I think BigLaw would be a better place to work if more firms adopted more of these practices.