Striking a balance: Law firms are busier than ever — and that’s why leaders are focused on morale and well-being

Brach Eichler, like many law firms, had every department rushing to the finish line last year. It was a marathon year for high-volume, complex legal transactions, Managing Member John Fanburg said — one of its busiest on record.

Law firms such as this one completed a stellar year for profits in 2021. It would be time for a victory lap … if they weren’t so exhausted.

“We even had two people who canceled vacations, which is something we never do — and never ask for,” Fanburg said. “Everyone works so hard during the course of the year, I don’t like anyone to miss out on time away, because we all need a break.”

Heading into 2022, the industry isn’t so much worried about sustaining that level of business as it is about sustaining morale under the weight of heavy caseloads. Combined with the stresses of the pandemic piling up for attorneys, burnout — a syndrome regularly tied in psychology publications to mental health issues — is a phenomenon there’s a lot of anxiety about.

Around a third of the 3,000-plus respondents to law media company ALM’s 2021 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey said they were depressed, and twice as many have anxiety. The remote work setups haven’t necessarily helped in that, with almost three-fourths of respondents to a recent Bloomberg Law Attorney Workload and Hours Survey reporting difficulties in disconnecting from work.

The alarm has been raised. The New York State Bar Association formed a Task Force on Attorney Well-Being that’s scrutinizing the industry’s billable hour model, and recommending the encouragement of more vacations and perhaps even new caps put on billable hours.

Fanburg said it’s going to be essential this year, as the demand for law firm services continues to swell, that firms like his maintain a track record of being flexible.

“We encourage any of our people to speak up anytime they need to be offline,” he said. “We’re trying to emphasize the importance of that to make sure our employees can deal with personal issues if necessary. Flexibility, for us, has been the key word.”

Max Crane. (File photo)

Max Crane, managing partner at Sills Cummis & Gross, said 2021 represented his firm’s most profitable year in its history.

And, as he says, he’s paid to worry.

He, too, wonders about the sustainability, with the firm adding more clients by the day, of non-economic forces like productivity amid a cresting burnout syndrome.

“I think what makes me a little nervous is that, as good as lawyers have been about being productive and figuring things out over the past year, I think everyone individually is kind of fatigued by everything going on during the pandemic,” Crane said. “How long can people maintain the high level of success they’ve had and work they’ve done?”

He added that he’s extrapolating at this point, as he’s not personally seeing the signs of it yet. Employees across all layers of the firm are meeting extraordinary demands by clients and leaving them professionally satisfied, he said. And he has no complaints about the productivity of those working remotely.

Hybrid work

Work-from-home arrangements are often portrayed as the end-all, be-all for young workers.

Tim Corriston. (File photo)

Following a recent cordial meet-and-greet with young attorneys who were interested in talking shop at a local brewery, Tim Corriston, Connell Foley‘s new managing partner, isn’t so convinced.

“What I’ve found is, these attorneys might appreciate the flexibility of remote work, but they also really enjoy socialization and want more of it,” he said.

Here’s the kicker for him: Despite the fact that younger individuals use the administrative staff or other resources centered in an office environment far less often than older colleagues, they’re struggling to develop and get training in the practice of law in an all-remote environment.

That’s why he’s a fan of the hybrid approach, with associates reporting into in-person environments some portion of the week. And he thinks, for the opportunities for socialization as well as professional development, they’re fans of it, too.

“To develop and train young attorneys, it’s important that a lot of it happens face to face,” Corriston said.

Regardless, he said, he knows employees in a hybrid workforce risk having the box around their work  and home life permeated now more than ever.

“So, I worry that we’re going to see that exhaustion set in soon,” he said. “People are tired in their personal lives, tired of having to recalibrate travel and leisure, having to wear a mask and everything else — why wouldn’t they be tired in a work context as well?”

How do you retain talent and grow as a law firm in 2022? Crane expects it has a lot to do with maintenance of the mental health of staff.

That means ensuring that the walls between work and the nonwork elements of life don’t come crashing down in today’s industry, he said. And he’s found some comfort in offering his attorneys the chance to socialize and unwind at firm outings and events.

“I think we have to find opportunities to reconnect with each other,” Crane said. “We’ve taken for granted that people can work remotely and we don’t have to do anything to maintain that culture, work ethic and even mental and emotional health of our staff.”

Everyone in the sector is dealing with the same concerns and unknowns. Fanburg conveyed that it’s going to be important for law firm leaders, in concert with their associates, to find out what’s going to keep everyone worry-free (as attorneys can be) and engaged in their work.

“I believe that, as long as we maintain flexibility for people, we’ll get through this,” he said.