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Leaders must ‘embody’ their ideal culture

Positive wellness in legal leaders can impact an overall team’s mental health and prevent burnout, while exhausted leaders can result in micromanaging and lower team productivity. Here, leaders reflect on how important wellness is for leaders, as well as how it can positively or negatively impact the firm’s overall culture.

user iconLauren Croft 05 June 2024 Big Law
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Poor mental health and being overworked in the legal profession remain all too common, with lawyers working upwards of 50 hours a week this time last year and the vast majority being “very exhausted”.

In May last year, it was also revealed that 82 per cent of Australian workers were feeling pressured to work additional hours – with legal recruiters at the time confirming that “lawyers’ hours have always been long”.

And in March this year, as reported by Lawyers Weekly’s sister brand, HR Leader, 61 per cent of Australian workers reported experiencing burnout compared to the global average of 48 per cent.


This is also one of the key issues that will be discussed in the upcoming inaugural Lawyers Weekly Partner Summit, taking place on Thursday, 20 June 2024, at The Star, Sydney. Click here to buy tickets.

However, while employee wellbeing has been a “positive legal obligation” for more than a year, law firms and legal workplaces are still reportedly facing challenges in maintaining “high levels of job satisfaction and resilience” among lawyers.

Burnout affects lawyers at all levels

Symptoms of burnout can range from the more obvious – being overwhelmed or negative, having a short temper, persisting fatigue and reduced enthusiasm – signs can also include a slow withdrawal from work and a slight decline in productivity, as well as a tendency for more senior lawyers to control or micromanage their teams.

While this can commonly happen for younger lawyers, with burnout occurring from the completion of law school in some cases as well as when searching for a new job, it’s also a key issue across mid-senior and senior levels of the profession.

Hall & Wilcox employment partner, chair of DEIW, and author of Broken to Safe, Fay Calderone, said that managing the health and wellbeing of their staff while dealing with client deadlines, cost efficiency and a competitive legal market as well as having less administrative support with paperless offices and online document management can create a “heavy burden” for partners and team leaders.

Calderone addressed this issue in her book, Broken to Safe, launched today (Wednesday, 5 June), which said: “Leaders themselves also face burnout. According to an article published in Harvard Business Review, this is sometimes due to the trend towards servant leadership – something I have observed in practice. Flatter structures and cultural change in leadership styles has brought us more compassionate, human-centred workplaces, but has also led to leader burnout.”

As such, Calderone noted in her book that it is “critical” for organisations to look after their leaders and make sure they have “sufficient support” in the workplace.

HPX Group CEO and Hamilton Locke managing partner Nick Humphrey – who is speaking at the upcoming Lawyers Weekly Partner Summit this month – agreed that in the legal profession, lawyers tend to “have a view that they need to present themselves as bulletproof to their colleagues, team and clients”, leading to issues “bubbling under the surface”.

“Proactively identifying and addressing these issues begins with culture. Leaders and partners need to cultivate a culture where people feel safe to express how they feel without worrying that it’s going to negatively impact their perception or their career trajectory,” he said.

“We also need to train and coach our leaders to be aware of the signs of burnout, and then how to help. When senior lawyers and partners know what burnout may look like, they’re better equipped to spot the signs early, be it in themselves or their team.”

Driving wellness initiatives in 2024

In a notoriously high-pressure environment, added Humphrey, the wellness of staff cannot go unchecked.

“Part of this is the demand that we, as lawyers, place upon ourselves; part of it is the entrenched (and flawed) models that prioritise profit over people and an ‘eat what you kill’ mentality. The profession has traditionally glamorised working around the clock and burning the midnight oil for months or years on end,” he added.

“For many, this is seen as the cost of doing business – a price that they have to pay in order to be a leader. But the truth is, this simply isn’t sustainable, and left unchecked, this very quickly can have a negative impact on the mental health and wellbeing of themselves, their team, and the broader firm.”

ALA Law managing director and CEO Amanda Little has found that leaders cannot support those in their teams if they are burnt out themselves.

“Personally, I have always struggled to maintain balance, which surprises many people I talk to. I continue to try to find that elusive balance on a daily basis, and [I am] making progress towards this, one small step at a time. I do not think there is one single answer [that] people can apply to their lives and careers to achieve this. But I have identified personally for myself that the key to having a ‘better’ balance relates to delegation, team support, setting boundaries and prioritising tasks,” she said.

“I also now consider it essential to keep the things I enjoy doing and delegating out the tasks that I do not enjoy. This has led to a significant shift in my mental health as I find value in the tasks I complete, allowing me to support those who are around me better.”

Florence Thum, a certified trauma practitioner and assistant director of NSW PLT and lecturer at The College of Law, agreed that legal leaders need to be “self-aware and manage their priorities” to maintain a healthy balance.

“They must make conscious decisions on the appropriate volume of legal work they take on and to implement systems [that] give space for self-care and mental health,” she said.

Hive Legal supports a “truly flexible” workplace for employees, which can also aid in preventing burnout, in addition to mental health programs and other wellness activities.

“Mental health support, including access to services such as EAP, is really important, but equally important is integrating wellness practices into our communal daily workplace habits – one-on-one catch-ups, walking meetings, wellness activities such as meditation, connection points, exercise and education sessions,” principal Adrienne Trumbull said.

Hall & Wilcox’s EAP (employee assistance program) features additional support and coaching to assist partners and leaders with key challenges around wellness, Calderone said.

“Flexible work is also a game changer, especially for those with carers’ responsibilities, disabilities or chronic health conditions. More broadly, if offered indiscriminately, it allows partners to set up their life and manage their health in a way that allows them to survive the marathon that is a long career in the law and, ideally, to thrive in it,” she said.

“Our partners retreat this year was a two-day program on the Gold Coast exclusively focused on wellness with fitness assessment and programs, nutritional guidance, meditation and mindfulness workshops, device detox training and keynotes from leaders, including Dr Norman Swan and Dr Amantha Imber.”

Positive and negative flow-on effects

Having a solid wellness program in place can drive positive benefits for firms of all sizes – especially as the wellness of the leaders in a team can have “a direct impact” on the culture and mental health of those below them.

“A leader who is in a poor mental health state and suffering burnout is likely to inadvertently decrease morale, lower productivity, make poor decisions, create a negative firm culture and lose staff. Therefore triggering an overall decline in the firm. This is why it is essential that leaders prioritise their health first, as it can have long-reaching ramifications for not just the leader, but the firm itself,” Little said.

“A positive leader does the opposite. Leading from the front as an influencer in a positive future-focused way will enhance team morale, increase productivity, reduce staff turnover, foster innovation, and overall, the firm will do better.”

A leader having poor mental health can also mean that team members are no longer comfortable approaching a leader about their work and that “team effectiveness is compromised”, which Thum said can have negative implications for the firm.

“Prevention is better than cure, that is putting in place systems [that] respect the critical elements of wellbeing for staff, including leaders, is preferred to identifying signs of burnout in an attempt to remedy. For example, notwithstanding the position or role in the firm, persistent excessive working hours will lead to burnout,” she said.

“Therefore, implementing a system of reviewing workload or hours worked, which then prompts appropriate intervention, will be beneficial. It requires the firm’s leadership to pay attention and to give voice to concerns from a place of care and compassion. Work culture is vital. Having appropriate measures for effective teamwork and performance, which includes staff wellbeing, is crucial.”

There are various flow-on effects to both sides of the coin, Calderone said.

“The investment of the firm in the wellbeing of partners not only positively impacts how they present and engage with their teams but [also] has a flow-on effect with each of us bringing the focus and learnings from our partners retreat back to our staff,” she said.

“We also have countless wellbeing initiatives we offer for all staff across the firm, including an impressive wellbeing calendar encompassing everything from flu shots and skin checks to massages and mindfulness and an incredibly engaged cohort of wellbeing champions who put out a wellbeing newsletter and are available for staff to check in with at all levels.”

Wellness initiatives, however, need to be implemented by leaders to have a positive flow-on effect on wider teams and junior lawyers.

“Leaders need to embody the culture that they want to cultivate in their teams. If you have a leader who is always on, messaging teams on weekends, or constantly underplaying the importance of mental health and wellbeing, this will very rapidly have a negative impact on their team. If this behaviour is seen as being recognised and rewarded across the firm, be it by management or peers, then it quickly becomes entrenched in the culture. On the opposite end, if you have a leader who leads with purpose and cares about the wellbeing of those around them, that has a positive impact on their team and the firm,” Humphrey said.

“I’m a deep believer in courageous leadership. When leaders lead with openness and humility, this fosters a culture where others feel inspired to do the same. As leaders, we need to be brave enough to address the stigma around burnout, accept that we’re human, and walk the talk by building a culture centred upon people, culture, community and values.”

Ultimately, team members will mimic their leaders – and feel as though they are expected to work in the same way as their managers.

“If your leaders are staying at their desk around the clock, putting aside family and social events to prioritise work, cancelling holidays, or drinking hard, you will feel like you’re expected to do the same. Giving team members permission to focus on wellness is not enough if your behaviour is showing you value the opposite. Having a leader modelling wellness can not only lead to a calmer, more cohesive and fun team environment, but, in my experience, also results in team members being more likely to perform better, have a longer and more sustainable tenure in their role, and being more likely to integrate wellness practices themselves,” Trumbull added.

“In a lot of instances, lawyers are our own worst enemies – we seek perfection, and we pride ourselves as being hard workers. We need to keep in perspective the bigger picture – we only get one go at this life.”

Lawyers Weekly will host its inaugural Partner Summit on Thursday, 20 June 2024, at The Star, Sydney, at which speakers will address the range of opportunities and challenges for partners and partner equivalents, provide tips on how they can better approach their practice and team management, and propel their businesses towards success. Click here to book your tickets – don’t miss out! For more information, including agenda and speakers, click here.