The agenda for the 2019 National Association for Law Placement (NALP) Annual Education Conference in San Diego offers nearly a dozen sessions centered around themes of managing stress, promoting mental health and maintaining work-life balance. Some days at the conference also begin with the opportunity to attend a wellness session, such as yoga, a barre class and a 5K fun run and walk.
With the title of “Lighting the Way,” the conference’s emphasis on lawyer wellness in such a challenging industry is not surprising. For better or worse, the practice of law is generally accepted as a tough profession in which attorneys often overwork and they are susceptible to the dreaded “burnout”.
Yet recent news headlines about leaders within major law firms stepping down or taking a leave of absence in the name of exhaustion, substance abuse or other mental health concerns have shined an even brighter light on these once-taboo issues. Now, organizations like NALP and the American Bar Association are leading the way by taking a proactive approach by discussing ways to address and prevent burnout, depression and other stress related health issues among attorneys.
Time is of the essence. According to Law.com, seven in 10 lawyers in California said they would change careers if the opportunity arose. Constant high levels of stress aren’t sustainable for attorneys within law firms and the legal recruiters at Lucas Group regularly witness the fallout first-hand. Our recruiters help employees who are experiencing all levels of stress and burnout, from those emotionally breaking down in a coffee shop or during a private consultation in Lucas Group’s offices—sadly, a more common occurrence than you might guess—to those recognizing the need for change and deliberately seeking our input on a plan to move firms or to a new company where they can thrive and improve their quality of life.
To make the switch to a less stressful, more positive environment, there are three strategies Lucas Group recommends for attorneys on the edge.
Address the Stress
For years at big, medium and small law firms alike, the demands from clients and the intense pressure and work required to make partner have come with the territory of a standard law firm associate’s career path. Today, those factors are exasperated by technology requiring a faster pace of work and the speed with which people expect responses and ultimately results. Not to mention the huge amount of debt many attorneys have accrued from expensive law school loans.
While the issues are widespread, the problems are not one-size-fits-all. The first step for any struggling attorney should be to try to fix what’s broken before exiting their existing firm. Sometimes, lawyers fear speaking up to their supervisor or managing partner, or even simply stating, “I can’t keep this up, but I want to stay with the firm.” However, identifying and communicating the pain is crucial to fixing the problem. One should not wait until the burnout has set in—at that point it’s too late. Believe it or not, leaders would much rather know that one of their associates is suffering and try to provide relief, especially if the alternative is the resignation of one of their valued attorneys. They are often unaware of the issue and are shocked when a member of their team leaves due to stress and being overworked.
At the same time, law firms are trying to figure out how to attract and retain top talent. The firms who are successful at this, particularly when recruiting and keeping millennials, are those who are paying attention to the stress and pressures that a typical law firm environment creates.
For instance, progressive firms are developing alternative paths that provide lower billable requirements and other non-traditional options for their talented attorneys in lieu of the standard partnership track. This sends the message to their attorneys that it is possible to enjoy a long, fulfilling career without exiting the firm. Small changes and increased flexibility show awareness by leadership and it demonstrates that they care about culture and pay attention to the health and welfare of their attorneys.
Firms are also taking measures to encourage wellness, whether by adopting health-focused programs and adding mental health perks or curbing the culture of heavy alcohol use at networking events and client dinners. Firms are also investing in technology that allows for flexible or remote work arrangements and more time at home with their families. These investments can pay off for a firm when compared to not only the significant cost of losing an associate—NALP has reported between $200,000 and $500,000, which translates to several billions of dollars per year for top U.S. law firms—but also to the hidden costs of interruptions in client continuity, impact on morale and culture, and institutional knowledge (and sometimes clients) leaving with the departing attorney.
Regardless of the specific problem, Lucas Group recruiters encourage attorneys to talk with their employers about what is causing their stresses and what might make it better. An empathetic and capable legal recruiter can help struggling attorneys set realistic expectations and prioritize goals, whether for their current role or a future position.
Make a Move
If the stress load is simply not fixable, or the struggling attorney is unwilling or unable to speak up and communicate their situation to their boss, recruiters can also be helpful in navigating next steps. We discuss factors such as what type of work he or she wants to do, the preferred location of the job and the ideal work environment.
For many private-practice lawyers, making the move in-house is an attractive option. These roles often involve less hours; however, open positions can be very competitive and may offer less pay at the beginning. Attorneys with a niche practice also must consider the types of companies where their experiences would be a best fit and, depending on their expertise, options to transition in-house can be limited.
In some cases, making the move from a large firm to a smaller, family oriented firm can also be a cure to high stress.
Pivot from the Practice
In other cases, a total career change may be the best solution. Transitioning to a different career path, such as human resources, accounting, sales, operations, software licensing and academia, there are countless sustainable routes available beyond practicing law.
Attorneys can even parlay the knowledge and connections they have acquired during the job search to find additional non-practicing roles, potentially becoming recruiters themselves. In fact, I have several “recovering lawyers” on my team of recruiters across the country. The bottom line is, if attorneys are looking to pivot from the practice of law, recruiters can help them identify their unique skill sets and carve out new career paths.
Most importantly, attorneys need to realize they don’t have to suffer in silence. Life is too short to spend precious time in a constant state of stress, anxiety or depression as a result of a job that is too demanding.
NALP understands that and is addressing the problem head on, and Lucas Group’s Legal team stands ready to assist in identifying alternatives. Hopefully more attorneys and their employers will begin to seek sustainable solutions as well.
As the General Manager for Lucas Group’s Legal Division, Steven Lynch cultivates the development and relationship management of both clients and senior-level attorneys throughout the Southeast. Lynch leads a team of branch leaders and legal recruiters who are singularly dedicated to assisting the country’s firms and companies find and hire transcendent legal talent efficiently and discreetly.