What would you do if you had one year to move the needle on creating healthy working environments in BigLaw? I think about this question often as I am regularly contacted by BigLaw leaders considering implementing firm-wide wellness programs, but who are unsure where to start. Most firm leaders with whom I speak prefer a “let’s dip our toes in the well-being waters and see what works” versus a “let’s go at this full throttle” approach. This “toe-in” method is reasonable, as well-being programs may still feel like a cutting edge concept for law firms big and small. Without years of financials that clearly point to wellness programs providing a solid return on the firm’s investment, conservative moves toward well-being make sense.
That said, I—along with other thought leaders in the well-being in law movement—can’t help but dream of what BigLaw would look like if it approached wellness full bore. Within the context of the inherently stressful billable hour paradigm—and with client needs accounted for—what would a fully resourced well-being model program look like? What would it take to implement it over a year’s time? What challenges would need to be overcome for its successful implementation?
This article culls a few of my Dream Year musings. While my dream lists are expansive and may seem daunting, my intention is that they inspire, not overwhelm. My hope is that these ideas spark new ideas and inspire others to join in the conversation and dream a little dream with me.
If done well, a well-being Dream Year supports wellness equity and fosters a richly healthy working environment while simultaneously producing quality work, satisfying clients, and attracting and retaining top talent. To be successful, a Dream Year plan will likely need to start small, align with values already held by the firm, and be right-paced, allowing for the firm’s well-being culture to transform while holding the bottom line and addressing concerns as they arise. Realistically, firms may need to grow well-being programs over several years. It may be advisable to implement well-being Dream Year ideas within a few willing practice groups that are open to experimenting with a handful of ideas at a time.
Dream One: Dream Team of Experts Creates and Conducts Needs Assessment
Dream One of the Dream Year I imagine involves assembling a team of experts: The Dream Team. Members of The Dream Team include:
● researchers and leaders in organizational development, organizational psychology, and social change
● experts in fostering healthy workplace culture grounded in diversity equity and inclusion (DEI)
● leaders in workplace wellness and well-being from within and outside the law
● representatives from each level of stakeholder at the firm (stakeholders will likely include business staff, administrative staff, junior and senior associates, attorneys of counsel, firm partners, and shareholders).
The Dream Team’s first task is to create and conduct a model needs assessment that helps the firm uncover two important things:
1. What are the primary stressors and well-being pain points for each category of stakeholder at the firm?
2. What does a healthy working environment look like for the firm’s workforce?
The needs assessment is conducted with all stakeholders using effective information gathering approaches such as 1:1 conversations, small focus groups, and large group surveys.
Dream Two: Dream Team Defines Healthy Working Environment and Drafts Plan
From the information gathered in the needs assessments, the Dream Team defines what I call a “Healthy Working Environment” (HWE) for the firm. A HWE is a place where the greatest number of employees can feel satisfaction and accomplishment with their work product while also feeling physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually supported and well.
The plan addresses:
● the starting place (i.e., the current state of the firm’s working environment)
● key factors that are causing chronic workplace stress and challenging healthy workplace culture
● the firm’s short-term and long-term goals determined by the information gathered in the needs assessments (i.e., ways the firm will move the dial to create a HWE)
● how to implement the firm’s HWE plan in manageable steps (create a strategic plan)
● known and likely challenges to implementing the HWE plan
● possible solutions to overcoming the challenges
● intended outcomes
● ways to measure success.
Once the HWE plan is established, I envision bringing a group of expert data analysts onto the Dream Team to track and advise regarding:
● financials and bottom line profitability (to show if/why/how the model HWE plan is working)
● statistics regarding hiring and retention of new associates and attorneys (e.g., does creating a HWE at the firm impact the firm’s ability to attract and retain top talent from diverse backgrounds?)
In addition to creating the firm’s HWE plan, the Dream Team also creates a strategic plan that lays out how to implement the HWE plan over the next one to three years.
Dream Three: Individual Work Well Plans
My number one well-being dream I had when I was lawyering and will discuss here is what I call an Individual Work Well Plan (IWWP). The core concept behind the IWWP is to give each attorney at the firm enough autonomy to be a leader in their own professional wellness. The IWWP model allows for employees to individualize their work and professional development based on the factors that motivate them to do good work and feel good doing it. The main goal behind the IWWP is to off-set the stressors and challenges of the billable hour model and to make working in BigLaw less overwhelming and more manageable. An additional benefit of IWWPs is that associates and partners have a clear expectation for associates’ availability.
The core research behind the IWWP indicates that people are the most motivated when they have more autonomy and control over their schedules and working environments. Autonomy helps to create “flow state” work, in which a person is physically comfortable, emotionally regulated, mentally alert, motivated, creative, productive, and pleasant to be around. To use a mundane example, think about tackling your to-do list at home. How does it feel to take on the projects on the list when you can put on your own music or podcast, do it at a time of day/week when you feel most alert and interested, access the right help when you need it, and get to decide when to take your breaks? To-doing becomes a lot more fun.
The expectation behind the IWWP model is that attorneys and staff will work more efficiently and meet client expectations more effectively because they are working when feeling optimally motivated, comfortable, and supported. The IWWP creates the structure for each attorney to build a daily schedule and yearly work plan that incorporates their personal needs and preferences and allows them, when possible, to make requests related to:
● percentage of full-time employment (including the option to be on a “partner track” even if working part-time)
● location of work (home/office/hybrid)
● office type (e.g., private space; hotel style; group workspace; shared office)
● working hours and days
● “off hours” (hours during which they are not expected to be checking email but are available for emergencies)
● ideal sleep hours/blackout times (a set number of hours that they are not expected to be available so that they can unplug, rest, and restore)
● holidays and vacation days
● pro bono projects
● work travel (frequency and length per trip)
● on-boarding and subsequent training and support
● resources for mental/emotional support (e.g., time management, burnout prevention, resilience building)
● resources for effective work performance (e.g., mentorship, DEI support, ADHD coaching, ADA accommodations, working parent coaching, mindfulness training).
Dream Four: Robust Project Management for Integrating Individual Work Well Plans
I can imagine law firm administrators reading the above section and thinking, “Are you sure this is a dream, Laura? Because it sounds like a logistical nightmare!” Fair enough. I recognize that providing IWWPs for large legal teams sounds daunting. In order to integrate the wider scope of variables included in the IWWPs, it will likely be necessary to upsize current project management staff, such as workflow coordinators, and improve project management software. In my BigLaw dream, the hearty project management team tracks IWWP implementation along with project staffing, casework flow, client satisfaction, and helps associates prioritize assignments when overwhelmed. Project management teams help associates navigate how to organize and deliver assignments coming in from numerous partners all with a “due now” directive. I can imagine the stress relieving benefits for both associates and partners in having assistance with calibrating competing client needs and deadlines.
Dream Five: Substitute Lawyers
In order to backfill the personnel hole when associates are on vacation or using sick leave, I dream about the possibility of having a cadre of BigLaw contract lawyers from which the project management team can pull. Like a substitute teacher who carries out the lesson plan until the teacher returns, contract lawyers keep casework moving along while the associate is out so that client services stay top notch. While the substitute lawyers may not be able to handle certain aspects of the case, they are capable of checking email, and creating and organizing lists of items that need to be addressed upon the associate’s return. The substitute lawyer can also alert other team members to pressing emails, take notes at meetings, review documents, and conduct legal research in order to “babysit” a case so that the attorney “parent” can go on vacation. This substitute lawyer model allows the attorney who is out to glean the benefits of unplugging, allowing them to restore and come back ready to tackle their cases with fresh perspectives and renewed energy.
Dream Six: Mindset Shift
An integral part of my Dream Year includes having ample time and resources to help stakeholders better understand the connection between well-being, productivity, and profitability. There are many in BigLaw who already grasp that attorneys who work reduced hours or have flexible schedules are equally capable and valuable as full-time attorneys and staff. Others, however, may need to understand the research and see it in action before shifting their mindset. Change on this level can feel like a big investment of time, energy, and money. It makes sense that some stakeholders may be hesitant to try on any of these Dream Year concepts without more information.
I imagine Dream Team members creating a curriculum that safely guides stakeholders through a mindset shift. This may be accomplished by demonstrating that it is both financially and emotionally compelling to have people working in their “flow state.” The training may include existing research on the correlative between overworking, burnout, decreased productivity, diminished capacity to deliver high-caliber work product, and either quitting or termination.
It will likely be challenging for firm leaders and associates alike to feel entirely comfortable implementing the Dream Year plan, as our lawyer brains are wired to avoid unknown risks. I imagine the Dream Team’s training curriculum and attendant individualized coaching support will include how to navigate change without feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed by risk.
Dream a Little Dream with Me
If you’d like to imagine what it would be like to put the dreams discussed in this article to work at your firm, start here:
1. If your firm is already carrying out well-being programming, bring this article to your team to kickstart new conversations about what else is possible.
2. If your firm has yet to begin well-being programming, bring this article to your team as a jumping off point for brainstorming ideas for your firm.
3. If reading this article reminds you of a well-being success story, share your experiences with me and others so that we can celebrate with you and learn from your success.
I recognize that it is impossible to include in this article all the possibilities and challenges inherent in shifting the well-being paradigm in BigLaw, or to address the challenges of the billable hour. That said, hopefully by reading my Dream Year musings, stakeholders will recognize and feel good about steps they are already taking to make a difference, and everyone—regardless of their position at a firm—may be inspired to try a few new things to move the needle forward.
Many thanks to Roz Pitts, director of professional development and well-being at Katten Muchin Rosenman, LLP, for discussing my BigLaw dreams and for sharing her BigLaw insights and experiences. Her ideas and edits were integral in the writing of this article.
Laura Mahr is a North Carolina and Oregon lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing well-being consulting, training, and resilience coaching for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Through the lens of neurobiology, Laura helps build strong leaders, happy lawyers, and effective teams. Her work is informed by 13 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, 25 years as a teacher and student of mindfulness and yoga, and six years studying neurobiology and neuropsychology with clinical pioneers. She can be reached through consciouslegalminds. com.