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If you need laws to combat burnout, ‘you’ve lost the battle’

While legislation has its place, having honest conversations and setting clear expectations are more effective in addressing burnout in law firms, a BigLaw firm head has argued.

user iconMalavika Santhebennur 07 June 2024 Big Law
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Richard Wood – managing principal at national law firm Gilchrist Connell – said the Right to Disconnect Bill makes realistic requests to allow employees the right to disconnect outside their working hours.

“Having said that, if you as a law firm have to use legislation to address burnout, I think you’ve lost the battle,” he told Lawyers Weekly ahead of the inaugural Partner Summit 2024.

“We do need the legislation because there are unreasonable people in the world. But if a law firm needs to rely on that, they’ve done something wrong at some stage. Leading from behind by pushing somebody along the road doesn’t tend to work.”


Instead, Wood suggested creating a culture that enables partners to have open and honest conversations about the vision and objectives of the law firm, their systems and processes, their expectations from employees, and the expectations of clients.

Equally, employees should feel safe raising any issues with partners without fear of reprisal, he added.

This is particularly important in private practice where employees face significant pressures. Wood – who has been in private practice for almost four decades – affirmed that the challenges have intensified in the recent past.

“It’s not easy being in private practice because clients are demanding a lot more from their lawyers,” he said.

“Moreover, we face an existential problem about attracting talent because lawyers have more options these days. If they feel burnt out, they won’t fight it. They’ll vote with their feet, leave, and move on to something else.”

Wood’s comments preceded the summit, where he will address the causes and symptoms of burnout in legal teams and strategies for prevention.

The most effective – and “old-fashioned” – method to address burnout is talking to people, Wood highlighted.

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns forced employees and employers to have honest discussions about the issues they were facing (both at home and in the workplace) and be empathetic to each other’s circumstances.

While the pandemic has passed, Wood urged partners to continue discussions to clarify the expectations of the law firm and the requirements of the employee (particularly around returning to the office).

“Lay out the services your business needs to deliver and what clients expect. Make it clear that there are going to be times when employees will be asked to do something,” he said.

“But at other times, the employee might want to balance other aspects of their life with their professional life. The employer can be open to that and support it as long as the employee is fulfilling their responsibilities. That’s a two-way discussion, and [if] done right, it benefits everyone.”

He continued: “Communicating well builds trust, which minimises friction and lessens burnout.”

Elucidating where everyone sits in the hierarchy, what their roles are, and what is expected of the employee could also reduce friction.

“You can have all the work/life balance and flexibility you want until the court gives you a deadline and date for your trial. Clients will expect you to meet your deadlines and deliver your product,” Wood said.

“You don’t really get a choice then, and that could be difficult to manage. But having clarity on your roles and responsibilities could diffuse an intensely stressful situation.”

Additionally, Wood advised partners to identify “hotspots” in their business that could cause additional stress, and direct resources to support employees.

“For example, we do a lot of work in what we call sensitive claims. These could be ugly personal injury claims, or a lot of historical abuse claims, where people from various backgrounds have unfortunately suffered horrendous abuse,” Wood said.

“It’s a high-stress environment and psychologically taxing for our staff to deal with these claims. There’s a lot of emotional input, which means they’re very susceptible to burnout.”

Gilchrist Connell offers external support through independent counsellors as well as additional leave to staff handling these types of cases.

To hear more from Richard Wood about how to foster a cohesive work environment that bridges the gap between seasoned professionals and the new generation of lawyers, come along to the Partner Summit 2024.

It will be held on Thursday, 20 June, at The Star, Sydney.

Click here to buy tickets and don’t miss out!

For more information, including agenda and speakers, click here.