A highlight on Day Two of the ILTACON conference included the panel discussion Mental Health and Work/Life Balance: Tools and Techniques to Avoid Burnout. Panelists, including Nita Cumello, global client director, Thomson Reuters, discussed prioritizing mental health and wellbeing in the legal industry.

Legal Current had the opportunity to talk with Cumello after the panel, and below is a recap of the conversation.

Legal Current: Why is it important for the legal industry to talk about mental health and wellbeing?

: There are so many reasons, but on a macro level – for the legal industry and any industry we serve – we need to recognize two really important and significant shifts that have been accelerated in the last 18 months.

First, we are experiencing a generational shift in the way the world and our clients define success. Profits alone are not the measure of success for businesses, professional organizations, law firms and the like. There’s a new currency in the form of positive impact on people and planet – literally making the world a better place. To drive high engagement in the workplace, organizations have to prioritize the health and wellbeing of their greatest asset: their people.

Second, we are in the midst of an epic talent war. For organizations to survive and thrive, they need to attract and retain their best people. The global pandemic challenged people to reconsider their priorities, to gain clarity on what matters to them personally and professionally. In a time of tremendous uncertainty and risk to our physical health because of COVID-19 and our mental health – being in lockdown, working from home, living at work, homeschooling kids, burning out – the legal industry can’t afford not to prioritize mental health and wellbeing. If the work environment does not align with people’s vision and expectations, they will look for their next opportunity elsewhere.

My fellow panelist, Matt Jackson at Unmind, said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got. We need to reposition and rebrand mental health and empower people to take proactive care. Mental health is health. It is not binary. We all have mental health – all of the time. It is important that all industries move from mental health awareness to action.”

LC: The 2021 Stellar Performance report identified 40 stress risk factors – such as pressure to work long hours – and considered whether these factors have a negative impact on lawyers’ wellbeing. At a high level, what did the survey results reveal about lawyers’ wellbeing?

Cumello: The report highlighted a focus on future working practices and maximizing wellbeing, with a goal of seeing how thinking had evolved through the pandemic. Interestingly, two-thirds of lawyers who clients view as “standout” – in other words, the lawyers law firms should be trying their hardest to retain and attract –want to work flexible hours, not necessarily fewer hours. They want to fit their lives into their work, with most indicating a strong desire to adopt hybrid remote and office schedules.

The data showed that lawyers expect to work hard and long hours. That didn’t necessarily correlate to negative impact on wellbeing. The important element is building in flexibility to achieve a better balance between work and life, particularly now that the line is more blurred.

The data also showed that the positive impacts on lawyer wellbeing were most strongly correlated to firms that provided more clarity, control and support for wellbeing. Clarity and control are more foundational elements for an individual’s future success. For example, when partners feel alignment between their own goals and the aim of the firm, and have the ability to control outcomes, it has a greater impact on their wellbeing and connectedness to the firm culture. Clarity and control are more likely to be overlooked but are also more likely to have a great impact on wellbeing as they involve risk mitigation rather than fixing the problem after the fact. That said, support for peoples’ wellbeing is a key pillar for maintaining lawyer wellbeing, particularly when firm leadership makes it a genuine priority to foster a supportive firm culture.

LC: What did the Stellar Performance report show are the biggest success factors in maintaining wellbeing for lawyers and partners?

Cumello: Lawyers generally expect to work hard, but wellbeing was helped by three foundations at work: clarity, control and support:

  • Clarity around how their role fits in with the firm aim.
  • Control over what, when, and how they work and that they can impact change in alignment with firm focus.
  • Direct support for wellbeing, particularly when demonstrated by firm leadership.

In my view, the data we see from the Stellar Performance report, and the loads of data being captured from multiple sources, really seem to beg a reframe of the way we view wellbeing – demanding a shift from a reactive to a proactive approach. The question we should be asking is, how do we create the cultures in which our people – our greatest asset – can thrive? How do we get it right in the first place rather than relying mostly on reactive measures to triage threats to wellbeing?

LC: Describe what the Stellar Performance report revealed for lawyers and partners who feel they have greater clarity and control.

Cumello: Lawyers who strongly agreed that their law firms had the three foundational pillars in place – clarity, control and support – were bringing in nearly one-third more in originations. When top talent was engaged in setting clear, achievable objectives for themselves and their team, and they were provided the opportunity to influence changes at the firm, it had a significant financial impact on the firm. This suggests the value on investment in firm culture, people, and wellbeing is more than just a “feel-good” way to attract and retain talent; it actually translates into more dollars for the firm.

Watch Legal Current and follow @LegalCurrent on social for updates during ILTACON 2021.

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