Law firms: 8 practical steps to improve staff mental health

8 practical steps to improve staff mental health in law firms
27 Oct 2020

Your staff’s mental health matters. It’s time to take action! And here’s why.

Mental Health is a hot topic in the legal industry at the moment!

After the release of the Task Force Report on Lawyer Well-being in 2016 (an excellent report by the way!), the mental health of legal professionals in the USA was firmly placed on the agenda. Other countries quickly followed suit with additional reports being produced in the UK, Australia & New Zealand and Hong Kong, amongst others.

Clearly the legal sector has a very real mental health problem.

But what actual strategies have law firms implemented to start improving the mental health of their staff? And, more importantly, what can your law firm do?

Why law firms should care about their staff mental health

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Your lawyers are your greatest asset. Your prized commodity. Your engine.

Like a car, if you want your law firm / team to function well, you need to keep the engine in good condition.

The Task Force Report on Lawyer Well-being succinctly highlights the business case for doing so:

  • It’s good for business
  • It’s good for clients
  • It’s the right thing to do!

1. It’s good for clients

By investing in improving the mental health of your staff, you will improve:

  • Staff communication
  • Staff productivity
  • Staff competence
  • Staff concentration

All of which are vital to achieve the high standards of ethics and professionalism demanded from the legal sector.

2. It makes good business sense

We all know that staff work better in an environment which is happy, friendly and supportive. And furthermore, it actually makes good business sense.

  • It creates a happier and healthier workforce
  • It creates a more productive workforce
  • It creates a more engaged workforce
  • It builds trust between the law firm and your staff
  • It reduces the number of sick days being taken
  • It improves staff retention
  • It builds office morale
  • It improves your corporate image

Based on that list, investing in mental health initiatives for your staff’s well-being is a bit of a no-brainer!

3. It’s the right thing to do!

Aside from the fact that caring for your staff’s mental health can improve the firm’s bottom line, there is also a moral obligation to do so.

Legal professionals spend on average between 60-80 hours a week in the office (even if that is a home office) – more time than they spend at home. You are dependent on them as much as they are dependent on you. Their lives and their careers matter. So, support them by encouraging and actively promoting good mental health initiatives and real life balance.

My experience

mental health and wellbeing

When I started out as a lawyer back in 2004, mental health was never a topic on the table for discussion.

I grew up in a legal world which was all about ‘toughening up’, ‘pulling the hard hours whilst you are young’ and ‘earning your stripes’. I’d often chat to my superiors who would quite happily regale their personal stories of:

  • 5 solid days and nights in the office to complete a transaction,
  • weekend trips to Australia for a family wedding because that’s all the time they had, and
  • feasting on a 3am dinner of m&ms and oreo cookies at the printers whilst prospectuses were being finalised.

They wore it like a badge of honour. And so I mirrored that behaviour.

What was not spoken about openly – but merely as a source of hushed toned gossip in the kitchenette – was:

  • The senior associate crying in the toilet during that 5-day stint after a huge row with her husband for missing their daughter’s speech and drama exam.
  • The partner lashing out at his exhausted junior associate for missing two typos in the prospectus and kicking the printer in a state of fury.
  • The sadness of the single, in-house counsel who left yet another friend’s wedding wishing she was in a happy relationship. If only she had the time to meet someone.

And because the above was not spoken about openly, the silenced experiences were repeated once again.

I’d love to say that things have changed, but 15 years later I continue to see the same scenarios emerging.

So, for a legal world that now allegedly promotes the importance of mental health and mental health awareness, how is it that the above scenarios are still happening?

When lip-service is no longer an option

Before I highlight a couple of the amazing mental health and well-being initiatives, in general, the emphasis on improving mental health in the legal world is still far below an acceptable standard.

It is:

  • no longer sufficient to have a mental health strategy which consists of a few pretty A4 posters dotted around the office claiming that mental health awareness is important to the firm.
  • no longer sufficient to fully promote #mentalhealthawareness for a day, week or month per year (brilliant CSR branding) and then have no ongoing strategy in place to keep the importance of mental health at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
  • no longer sufficient to promote the fact your firm has signed up to the Mindfulness Business Charter or the Pledge on Well Being, and then pay lip-service to that fact.
  • no longer sufficient to expect your individual staff members to take sole responsibility for their own mental health issues. Yes, they have a responsibility (see previous article), but, so do you as a law firm.

Many firms still have no mental health and well-being policies or strategies in place. And there is a general reluctance to spend money on such initiatives, as if the mental health of staff were merely a “nice to have” – another place to cut costs whilst struggling out of COVID-19.

In fact, this is probably the one place where you shouldn’t be scrimping on costs at the moment. Protect your staff. Help your staff. Care for your staff.

mental health

What is working out there?

Having said that, I do want to highlight two examples of mental health and wellness initiatives which have been instigated by legal firms (one global and one regional) which are having a really positive impact on the mental health of their staff and the working environment.

1. Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF)

In 2018, HSF launched Thrive, the mental health initiative which forms part of HSF’s wider global diversity and inclusion strategy. Whereas most D&I policies tend to focus on equality, HSF has a dedicated initiative to Mental Health. It is also one of the only global firms whose partners and associates regularly speak about mental health awareness across social media platforms.

Initiatives include:

  • “This is me” campaign – where individuals at all levels of the firm openly talk about mental health and their own experiences with poor mental health – breaking the stigma associated with discussing such topics.
  • Mental Health Champions (UK, EMEA and Australia) – training individuals at all levels of the business to better understand common poor mental health conditions, how to spot early signs of possible issues and how to direct such individuals to appropriate support.
  • How We Work – This is actually my favourite initiative. Why? Because it’s simple and it addresses the crux of the mental health problem in the legal sector. It promotes small changes to typical law firm behaviour which doesn’t promote good mental health. Some examples include: thoughtful delegation, encouraging balance and mindful emails. Check out the Guidelines.

2. Clarissa Rayward – Brisbane Family Law Centre / Happy Lawyer Happy Life

Clarissa is one of my favourite mental health advocates in the legal space. She is an entrepreneurial divorce lawyer who left big law to establish the Brisbane Family Law Centre back in 2003. It’s not easy going out on your own, and, by 2013, she realised the effects it was having on her happiness levels and mental health. She started the Happy Lawyer Happy Life blog which initially focused on kind, calm and respectful divorce. That blog has now transformed into a global community for lawyers who are struggling with life, love and happiness. She advocates for good mental health in her own Law Centre and to lawyers at large through regular podcasts, an annual retreat for lawyers and workshops and seminars.

Why it works? Because she is passionate and absolutely believes in the importance of health and happiness in lawyers for a successful business. She leads the march and she walks her talk.

8 practical ways law firms can improve staff well-being

Poor mental health and well-being is experienced by all legal professionals irrespective of whether they work for a global, regional or boutique law firm.

NO ONE is immune to poor mental health. So, a corporate strategy which will benefit ALL STAFF at some stage of their career is vital.

Here are 8 actionable ideas which law firms can take to improve staff well-being:

  1. Educate around mental health – Most lawyers still feel awkward talking about mental health as a whole. That is mainly due to a misunderstanding as to what ‘mental health’ actually is (See: We, as a legal sector, need to stop this stigma if there is any chance of improving mental health in the workplace. If you have a dedicated diversity & inclusion team which is capable of creating workshops / trainings around mental health, then regularly offer such trainings (at least once a quarter). If not, then invest in external support (such as Braving Boundaries ) which offer such training. Get your staff talking openly about mental health issues in the workplace: what it is, how it manifests, how they can help themselves and others.
  2. Walk the talk – No junior associate is going to look after their mental health, if the senior associate and partner above them is not doing so. As I stated above, we mirror the behaviour of our superiors. If they send emails at 10pm or stay in the office late, their juniors are going to feel obliged to do the same. Change is going to have to come from the top here. If you want a law firm which has a healthy environment, the management team has to walk the talk.
  3. Manage your clients – So many of us spend our legal lives living at the beck and call of our clients. “They pay us so much that we have to be available 24/7” – They pay you so much because you give them valuable advice. “They expect us to be immediately responsive.” – They expect us to be immediately responsive because we have created that expectation. Clients (well, most clients) are human too – they have lives outside of the office & understand the importance of work-life balance. Partners have a duty to manage client expectations, to set realistic deadlines that respect the personal and professional commitments of their staff. As well as reducing personal stress, it will also result in greater respect from your clients and your staff.
  4. Provide appropriate skills training – Being a lawyer is no longer just about being good at the law – you have to manage teams, negotiate, market and bring in clients. Given that none of these skills are taught during your law degree, it’s not surprising that many lawyers dread client drinks, speaking at seminars or leading a negotiation. It also explains why many lawyers make terrible managers and deeply struggle with business development. Help them to help you. Bring in outside specialists to help develop non-legal skills at an early stage in their legal career. Some examples include The Negotiation Academy:; and Really Great Training:
  5. Clamp down on bad behaviour – There is nothing worse than working in a toxic work environment. Executive management has a responsibility to stamp out behaviour which has a negative impact on the mental health of their staff (e.g. bullying, ostracism, the sending of nasty emails, yelling, temper tantrums, gossiping etc.). No one should have to tolerate this type of behaviour in the workplace irrespective of the seniority of the instigator. It’s damaging to the team. It’s damaging to the reputation of the firm. It’s damaging to the targeted individual. Create a dedicate Mental Health Committee of team members who genuinely care about the mental health of staff. Create protocols that allow individuals to report such behaviour without fear of retaliation/repercussion.
  6. Provide access to external coaches / counsellors – Many global firms include individuals with coaching or counselling training as part of their Diversity & Inclusion or Human Resources departments. This is wonderful, particularly from a training aspect, but many staff members will be uncomfortable talking to internal personnel about difficulties at work or home for fear that they will be reported back to management. I’m not saying the fear is rationale, but it is real. In addition, there is a concern that the advice being given by internal staff takes into account the corporate stance, and is therefore less neutral. Provide your staff with a list of coaches/counsellors who specialise in this area. Give them a chance to choose a person who they are comfortable speaking to.
  7. Wave goodbye to the personal / professional divide – How many of you’ve heard: “Oh that’s a personal issue. Not a concern for the office.”? Unfortunately, if you want to improve mental health in the work environment, that notion is going to need to be set aside. Lawyers are people. They have lives outside of the office and those lives are going to have an impact on them – both good and bad. Take a genuine interest in the lives of your staff and colleagues. Get to know them. It establishes trust between team members, but also it will enable you to spot when behaviour changes and when they may need help.
  8. Check-in on your staff – Now, more than ever given the remote working situation, we need to be checking in on each other. Check how your staff are feeling. Check if they are struggling with anything. If there has been an incident at work, follow up the next day and check that they are ok. It’s the little things that count here. If this doesn’t come naturally to you – stick a reminder in your calendar to drop them an email. It takes 1 minute to send a quick message to check someone’s ok.

Final thoughts

mental health

An on-going and practical mental health and well-being strategy is the key to improving mental health in the legal sector.

The mental health of legal professionals CANNOT improve without the buy-in to proper mental health initiatives from law firms and the active promotion, practice and support of good mental health practices by Partners / the Executive Team.

A fundamental change to long-standing, expected and accepted behaviour in the legal world is required if staff mental health is to improve.

That’s the corporate responsibility.

Well-being Workshops

Whether your organisation is just beginning to implement a staff well-being programme or is advanced in its efforts Braving Boundaries can provide you with tailored and focused workshops on a variety of mental health and well-being topics. Click here for more information.

See also:

(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)

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