More than making money

Legal leadership means a lot more than putting the bottom line as the top priority, writes Justin Whealing

All managing partners are equal, but some managing partners are more equal than others. That, in a nutshell, sums up the different attitudes to be found lurking in the minds of law firm heads as they seek to implement strategies to ensure their staff are happy and healthy.

The best managing partners have at the forefront of their mind how their specific leadership will ensure that all staff (not just the lawyers) want to come to work and can fulfil their duties while remaining physically and mentally healthy.

Managing partners that adopt such a mindset know that if you have that as the philosophical basis that informs your leadership style, the professional benefits will flow. Retention and recruitment strategies that are underpinned by an engaged and motivated workforce are much more likely to be successful – with the associated knock-on benefits of establishing a culture that champions collaboration and where client expectations and financial targets are much more likely to be not just met, but exceeded.

When lawyers feel their specific contributions and personal welfare is valued at a firm, clients often reap the benefits via the quality of the legal advice proffered.

While the best managing partners seek to build a firm in this way – they would be in the minority.

For most, billable-hours, turnover, budgetary targets and scrutinising profit per partner numbers remains king. When talking to the media or pitching for work, such a philosophy is traditionally couched around a public discourse of meeting client concerns and demands.

A recent survey of law firm heads (completed in February and March) by Eaton Capital Partners (ECP) provided a sober reminder of why a lawyer’s lot at the moment is too often a tale of woe.

The ECP Survey of 34 managing partners found that around a fifth of them (20.7%) were “not sure” as to why there is such a high rate of depression amongst lawyers.

A further 20.7 per cent essentially wash their hands of the problem, by stating it is something intrinsic in the nature of lawyers. Only 20.7 per cent thought their firm might be at least part of the problem by citing “long working hours” as the main reason.

“Simple. Demands of client service mean lawyers prioritise clients over their own well-being and needs,” wrote one law firm head.

Law firms featured in the survey included some of the largest global law firms with an Australian practice (Herbert Smith Freehills, Baker & McKenzie, DLA Piper), leading independent firms (Gilbert + Tobin, Hall & Wilcox, Johnson Winter & Slattery) and boutique and specialist practices (Hive Legal, Nexus Lawyers, Curwoods Lawyers).

While ECP released the name of survey participants, the survey was anonymous.

When it is broke, it is time to fix it

As to what can be done to address the appallingly high rate of depression amongst lawyers, managing partners seem to be at a collective loss.

While the featured legal leaders in the ECP survey would be comfortable in distilling complex financial metrics into a myriad of performance evaluation mechanisms, many have no idea of how to gauge the happiness and health of their firm’s staff.

“It is something intrinsic in the nature of lawyers”,” high achievers”, “strive for perfection” and “adversarial nature of legal practice” were all mooted as potential factors as to the high rate of legal ill-health.

There was a reticence to say we have a problem here, and will reforming the culture and structures we currently have at my firm help to provide a solution?

Such honesty is what is required from our law firm leaders as a first step in reducing the worryingly high numbers of lawyers with depression.

A number of the managing partners understand the gravity of the situation and provided possible solutions, or at the very least, showed some awareness of possible causes.

“No time sheets, reviews of workloads, health and well-being initiatives, work/life balance, supportive ‘work culture’ and leaders with emotional intelligence capability,” said one law firm head.

Another managing partner wrote that; “Firms need to lead the charge on this, not the peak bodies. Improving client management skills and learning to manage expectations in a way that minimises personal cost”.

Firms most definitely SHOULD be leading the charge on this.

The current insanity which sees large law firm models and accepted behaviours compromising the mental health and happiness of lawyers will only be amplified, not reduced, unless reform is enacted.

To wish for a different outcome whilst continuing and actually entrenching such practises, or to pretend there is no problem at all, is an abrogation of leadership.

Justin Whealing is an associate director of Eaton Capital Partners.

Eaton Capital Partners  is a sponsor of the annual Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation Lecture on 27 October.