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Embroker Team September 2, 2022 8 min read

Preventing Lawyer Burnout: How to Create a Healthy Workplace Culture

Group photo of attorneys suffering from lawyer burnout next to cup or coffee and pen on office desk

For many years, it was generally accepted that the toxic aspects of the legal industry were simply what young attorneys “signed up for” when they chose to practice law. That same reasoning was (and still is) used to silence staffers who might try to shed light on firm issues like discrimination, harassment, and burnout. 

But changes like shifting societal priorities, increased remote flexibility, and the COVID-19 pandemic have given legal workers more options and, in turn, more leverage to hold employers accountable for toxic behavior. As workers gain power to negotiate for better treatment, law firms must be able to promise a healthy company culture in order to attract high-quality employee candidates.

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So how can you improve the cultural environment at your law firm? Read on for a full breakdown of the best practices and culture investments to implement in your workplace.

Why Prioritize Law Firm Culture & Avoid Lawyer Burnout?

Many owners and partners believe that creating a healthy workplace is just the right thing to do. However, there are business arguments to be made for the benefits of investing in workplace culture, too.

Attract Better Employee Candidates

In the first half of 2020, large law firms in the U.S. lost 52% more associates to other firms than in that same period of time three years prior. This is a strong indicator that attorneys are beginning to prioritize more than just money and a good name. 

Company benefits like flexible hours, work-from-home opportunities, work-life balance policies, and an emphasis on mental and physical health have become increasingly powerful attractors in the law firm hiring process. Not only that, but research also shows that employees in healthy workplaces are more productive and profitable than their less-satisfied counterparts.

Attorney Depression Statistic: In a study of 13,000 working lawyers, 28% said they suffered from depression. (Source: American Bar Association)

Improve Employee Retention

For the same reasons that workplace culture brings in talent, it also keeps that talent at the firm for longer. A low attrition rate is attractive to employee candidates since it indicates that your workers are happy, well-treated, and well-paid. What’s more, employee retention directly affects a firm’s bottom line: experts estimate that replacing a second- or third-year associate costs approximately $200,000. 

Fostering an attractive workplace culture will be increasingly important as law firms have to work much harder to retain employees. Research shows that 75% of employees plan to stay with their current employer for less than five years, while 53% of Gen Z employees plan to switch employers within just 24 months.

Prevent Burnout

Attrition isn’t always caused by workers leaving their companies by choice: 40% of employees who left jobs in the “Great Resignation” of 2021 said their top motivator was burnout. Lawyers are particularly susceptible to burnout: lawyers who report low job satisfaction also report feeling burned out 54% of the time, and even those with higher job satisfaction spend 29% of their time feeling burned out.

Individual symptoms of burnout are also prevalent among legal professionals. Studies show that nearly three-quarters of American lawyers suffer from anxiety, 37% suffer from depression, and nearly 40% of lawyers are problem drinkers. 

Prolonged periods of high stress can also contribute to health issues like fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and heart disease, many of which can require disability leave or a full departure from the workforce.

Avoid Potential Lawsuits

A healthy workplace facilitates open communication, which helps prevent and address problems like harassment and discrimination early on. Just 30% of employees who experience workplace harassment report it. Victims often fear professional and personal repercussions, and those fears are not unfounded: 68% of sexual harassment cases and 42% of LGBTQ+ discrimination cases reported to the EEOC included reports of retaliation for complaints made.

Establishing a culture of trust and transparency among staff, partners, and owners can encourage employees to speak openly about inappropriate behavior and policy violations, giving leadership an opportunity to stop harassment and discrimination before it escalates. Not only does this protect employees from harm, but it also lowers the likelihood of an EPLI lawsuit.

Attorney Alcoholism Statistic: Nearly 40% of practicing attorneys in the U.S. are "problem drinkers." (Source: American Bar Association)

Elements of a Healthy Workplace

It’s clear that a healthy work environment brings benefits for all involved. So how do you go about maintaining a positive culture at your firm?

Most firms can’t realistically overhaul their employee benefits programs overnight, so when you’re deciding where to start, it’s best to solicit opinions directly from your staff. Different people value different things, and you want to make sure you’re investing in the things that matter most to them. 

That said, there are a few key basics that are essential to fostering a positive workplace culture. If you’re looking to improve your firm’s environment, these are a great place to start:

Defined Company Values

Every team needs a common purpose that bonds them—and that purpose needs to be something more than just “doing our job.” What does your firm stand for? What guiding principles govern your business decisions? What morals and values do you want your team to recognize in you?

An established set of company values gives leaders an opportunity to earn their employees’ trust. When firm leaders uphold the values of the company, it encourages other employees to make the same personal investment.

Accountability and Trust

In a healthy work environment, employees can trust that they will be credited for their contributions and held accountable for their mistakes. They take their bosses at their word and don’t carry the anger or resentment of shouldering the blame for someone else’s actions. 

According to Fortune Magazine, 83% of employees at the 100 Best Companies to Work For say their managers’ actions match their words, compared to just 42% of those at the average workplace. Furthermore, employees with honest and ethical managers are five times more likely to want to remain at their company long-term.

Good Communication

Nearly three-quarters of employees feel that they’re missing company information and news due to poor internal communications. By taking the time to send regular firm updates, leaders send the message that they value their employees enough to keep them informed.

Top-level communications also set the tone for the rest of the organization, which is especially beneficial since well-connected employees are 20-25% more productive. Setting an example of regular proactive communication encourages managers to facilitate similar relationships with their direct reports and colleagues.

Graphic: Warning Sights of Poor Employee Mental Health

Opportunities for Growth and Development

Another change brought by new generations is an increased demand for workplace learning. While just 55% of Baby Boomer and Gen X workers view learning as a key to career success, 61% of Millennials and 76% of Gen Z employees feel the same.

Learning and development opportunities can take many different forms. You might offer a modest stipend for employees to attend courses and conferences, or bring in a speaker to spend a half-day with your team. Consider implementing scheduled training sessions on key skills like management, communications, and technology.

Support for Employees

Only 30% of people feel comfortable discussing their mental health at work, so it’s up to employers to offer proactive support. Establish an Employee Assistance Program, provide affordable healthcare, make it easy for employees to take time off when needed, and regularly remind your team to take advantage of these resources. 

Perks like in-office yoga or meditation app memberships can be excellent additions, too. However, employees’ greatest stressors are money, work/life balance, and work pressure, so the most effective way to support employees’ mental health is with generous pay, affordable care, and manageable job demands.

Graphic: Toxic Firm Culture Red Flags

Is Your Law Firm Toxic?

You may not see toxicity in your workplace, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Usually, workplace dysfunction most strongly impacts the people who have the least power to change it.

Even though owners and leaders might not be able to see workplace problems firsthand, there are plenty of ways to find out if your law firm has a culture problem.

Pay Attention

Most people are able to tell when someone they know seems disturbed or upset. Spend time getting to know your employees as individuals, and you’ll be able to notice signs of burnout or other ways they’re not their usual selves.

Encourage managers to pay similar attention to their own direct reports. Key signs to look for include mood swings, a sudden inability to focus, excessive tiredness, or unusually antisocial behavior. These can all be signs of a larger problem at work or at home.

Solicit Feedback

Many employees won’t report problems for fear of negative consequences. Implementing annual or semi-annual feedback surveys gives your team an opportunity to open up about issues with less risk of retaliation.

Ask employees about stress levels, work hours, and opinions on things like company policies and problems. This feedback will provide valuable data that can help inform future culture investments.

Check External Reviews

Though internal surveys offer employees an opportunity to report problems, people in toxic workplaces may still feel that speaking up is too much of a risk.

Take a look at reviews on sites like Glassdoor, Avvo, and Yelp and look for disparities between what’s reported anonymously and what’s reported internally. If anonymous feedback is significantly more negative than internal feedback, it may indicate that your employees feel unsafe speaking truthfully about their concerns.

Look for Patterns

Keep an eye out for patterns that can clue you in to unspoken issues. Do you have a hard time retaining younger employees? Do female employees quit more often than males? Do lawyers work unreasonable hours, or is a particular lawyer suddenly filing more billable hours than before?

Patterns can help you identify hidden issues like sexual harassment, abuses of power, and mental health red flags. Once you notice a pattern, you can start figuring out what’s causing it and what you can do to make a change.

Investing in your firm’s culture will lead to healthy employees, better productivity, greater profits, and lower risk. You’ll also find your own job more enjoyable when you’re surrounded by people who are happy, kind, and genuinely care about the rest of your team. Especially at a time when uncertainty is high, a strong community culture can help your employees and your firm weather any storm.

Of course, even the healthiest workplace can’t completely eliminate the chance of an employee lawsuit. Though the goal is to avoid major employee problems completely, EPLi insurance is the only way to ensure you’re covered either way. You can even bundle your EPLi with your legal professional liability policy to get the right coverage at the best price.

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