Link wellbeing to the hip pocket

By Leanne Mezrani|15 May 2014

A managing partner who is an outspoken critic of large law firm culture has said that staff wellbeing must be built into partner remuneration systems.

John Poulsen (pictured), the managing partner of Squire Sanders in Australia, spoke with Lawyers Weekly in the wake of the release of depression guidelines by the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation.

He said firms should assess partners against organisational values, such as supporting employee wellbeing and encouraging a fulfilling personal life.

“That way you make sure [values] are not just something that sits on the wall, they are something people live by,” he added.


Last year Poulsen spoke to Lawyers Weekly about his personal battle with depression and how it had informed his management philosophy, first as the head of Minter Ellison in Perth between 2007 to 2011 and then as the managing partner of Squires in Australia.

Among the factors determining partner remuneration at Squires is whether individuals comply with firm values, which is assessed by a 360-degree feedback process.

Poulsen admitted that it might be an unpopular move, having himself faced resistance from Minters partners when he first introduced such changes. However, he said it was effective.

In 2007, half of Minters’ partners in Perth complied with firm values. By 2011, when he and 13 other partners from Minters defected to Squires to start the global firm’s Australian offering, all of the partners complied.

Taking this approach to partner pay sends a message to the rest of the firm that the psychological wellbeing of lawyers is important, said Poulsen.


“What we’ve been trying to do is ... create an organisation where you look after your people, and a big part of that is looking after their mental wellbeing and health.”

He added that there were commercial benefits for firms promoting positive mental health: “If you have happy motivated people, you have happy motivated clients and everything looks after itself.”

The TJMF guidelines cover 13 psychosocial factors, with organisational culture topping the list. Under each factor are suggested ‘implementation frameworks’. These range from ‘basic’ to ‘best practice’ to cater to all sections of the legal profession, including firms of varying sizes, the Bar and in-house teams.

Poulsen revealed that he had assessed Squires against the guidelines and found that the firm was either at a ‘standard’ or ‘advanced’ level. He said he would strive to move into the ‘best practice’ category, adding that the TJMF guidelines “mean a lot to me”.

“It’s something I’m really passionate about ... having suffered from [depression and anxiety] myself.”

Poulsen spoke passionately on the subject when speaking to Lawyers Weekly in July 2013.

He said at the time that the partner remuneration systems at many large firms in Australia tolerate bullying and reward selfish behaviour.

“As a managing partner, you should run a firm where a collegiate and collaborative culture is rewarded and selfish, silo-type behaviour, which is all about ‘how much can I bill and look good?’, is not."

Firm commitment

beyondblue CEO Georgie Harman told Lawyers Weekly that while the TJMF guidelines are “a positive step forward for the legal profession”, the degree of firm commitment to the guidelines would determine their effectiveness.

“To enact real change there must be widespread take-up across the profession,” she said.

A 2007 survey commissioned by beyondblue and Beaton Consulting found that lawyers were at the highest risk of developing depression. Held again in 2010, the same survey found attitudes had improved and stigma was reduced, but little else had changed.

Prolonged or excessive job stress is still a risk factor for mental health problems, said Harman.

“Employees who are particularly at risk of job stress in the workplace are those who experience working conditions such as work overload or pressure ... bullying and poor communication,” she added.

Harman also pointed to research that suggests the nature of legal work, which is adversarial and conflict-driven, together with attributes shared by lawyers, including perfectionism and pessimism, place lawyers at higher risk of depression.

Other risk factors are the expectation of long working hours, a competitive working culture and a lack of work-life balance.

While Harman commended the TJMF on the guidelines, she maintained that they should remain voluntary.

“Forcing businesses to take on guidelines they’re not committed to can lead to poor outcomes,” she said.

“Business leaders need to understand that good workplace mental health is a business imperative and that it costs their businesses dearly in terms of dollars as well as their staff’s mental health if they don’t address it.”

Poulsen agreed, commenting that Squires’ engagement levels had improved and staff turnover had declined since the firm began focusing on mental health issues.

Link wellbeing to the hip pocket
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