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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Howlett

The Legal Burnout Solution: The Business Case for Attorney Well-Being

By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp

Take care of your employees, and they’ll take care of your business. It’s as simple as that. Healthy, engaged employees are your top competitive advantage. —Richard Branson

By now, most of us are aware that the COVID-19 pandemic worsened already epidemic levels of mental health concerns and substance abuse among members of the legal profession. In response, many bar associations, law firms, and other legal organizations have pledged to establish mental health programs and services to assist employees with these sensitive issues.

Despite these efforts, according to the recently released Fifth Annual Mental Health Survey of the Legal Profession conducted by ALM Compass, lawyers and non-attorney legal staff are worse off than they were before the pandemic. The following chart compares the rates of mental health issues reported in 2019, 2023, and 2024.

                                                     2019              2023           2024

Depression                                   31%              38%            36%

Anxiety                                        64%              71%            69%

Other Mental Health Issues        12%              31%            28%

Also, the percentage of lawyers and legal professionals who “hate their jobs, struggle concentrating, and feel detached” has increased. Furthermore, some have doubts about the sincerity of their organization’s commitment to their well-being.

The findings of this and other surveys demonstrate the critical need for legal organizations to continue to work on cultivating cultures that view employee well-being as a core value. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it also makes sound financial sense.

Below, we discuss how investing in well-being initiatives is essential for improving (1) recruitment, (2) retention, and (3) work performance—all of which directly impact efficiency as well as the bottom line. We also provide a few practical suggestions for simple actions that can be quickly put into practice.

Well-Being and Recruitment and Retention

Legal organizations that actively promote wellness initiatives will be better positioned to attract and retain top talent, especially among younger generations. Employers take heed: Money and prestige are no longer the most attractive features of a prospective legal gig. Spurred by the pandemic and generational shifts in priorities, the legal sector’s competitive environment now demands a more holistic approach to effective recruitment and retention.

Significantly, well-being has emerged as a priority for legal professionals when considering prospective employment. According to the 2023 Law Firm Culture Survey, 85 percent of Gen Z/Millennial attorneys cite well-being and work-life balance as their top priorities, including a desire for flexible scheduling, mental health support, and healthy work-life integration. (Notably, younger generations also heavily prioritize diversity and inclusion, with 70 percent seeking work environments that actively cultivate equity and inclusion.) This shift indicates a profound change in values, emphasizing the need for firms to adapt to attract legal talent.

Prioritizing well-being is good business. Period. According to Harvard Business Review, the Great Resignation of 2021 reflected an upward trend of employees voluntarily leaving jobs, which has been steadily rising for more than a decade. According to a 2021 report on attorney well-being by the New York State Bar Association, one in four female attorneys and one in five attorneys under 40 are considering leaving the profession entirely. Employee retention is a paramount business concern, as the cost of replacing a junior attorney is, on average, one and a half to two times more than the employee’s annual salary (not including the strain on service delivery, including lost institutional knowledge and lack of continuity on client matters).

Enhancing Organization-Wide Performance

Because of the emphasis on profits in the legal industry, leaders, particularly in the law firm setting, have historically placed their primary focus on numerical metrics while neglecting the personal welfare of employees. By doing so, they have missed opportunities that would ultimately enhance long-term profitability. After all, well-being directly correlates with performance across all job roles within the law firm. Lawyers and staff facing mental health challenges are less productive and more prone to errors, which can significantly impact a firm’s operations and reputation.

Recent studies show that prioritizing employee well-being benefits the firm’s bottom line in two major ways: (1) reducing costs and (2) increasing profits.

For example, according to the Report and Recommendations of the NYSBA Task Force on Attorney Well-Being,” for every dollar spent on wellness programs, medical costs decrease by $3.27, absenteeism-related costs drop by $2.73, and productivity increases by $4. Furthermore, those with untreated mental health concerns take twice as many sick days and have four times as much unproductive time at work, averaging five days a month of lost productivity. These statistics underscore the dual financial benefits of reducing costs and generating more profits through enhanced productivity.

According to the study “People, Professionals, and Profit Centers: The Connection Between Lawyer Well-Being and Employer Values,” spending money is not the only viable approach. The study found that attorneys who perceive that leadership prioritizes their skills and professionalism enjoy stronger mental health than professionals who believe that they are valued primarily for their financial contributions or receive no feedback whatsoever from their employers. Suggestions for creating a workplace culture that values professionalism and individual skills over financial performance are found below.

Implementation Strategies for Legal Well-Being

A reminder to our generally slow-to-change profession: Change is the only constant in life. Resistance to the ever-evolving state of play will likely lead to undue pain, including an inability to attract and retain top talent and, as a result, lost profits. We recommend that leadership in our legal institutions view this moment as an opportunity to consciously create work environments that align with the evolving priorities of legal professionals of all generations.

Ultimately, fostering a legal culture that prioritizes holistic well-being, inclusion, and collaboration, as well as professional mentorship opportunities, will lead to a happier, healthier, and more effective legal profession for us all. Based on 2023 survey data among lawyers, below are targeted strategies to attract and retain lawyers of all ages:

●      Create a culture of well-being. To be clear, if you’re going to talk the talk on attorney wellness, you gotta walk the walk. (Indeed, simply playing lip service to well-being without actual organizational buy-in may contribute to more employee burnout!) A true culture shift requires our leaders and decision-makers to embody their stated values around well-being and work-life balance. Prioritize well-being year round—not as a one-off presentation during Well-Being in Law Week. For example, many law firms and law schools are establishing permanent roles and resources dedicated to promoting well-being in their institutions, such as providing on-site counselors and law school curriculum on well-being (including the role of mindfulness).

●      Build sustainable work environments. We have known for years that mental health and burnout rates are plaguing our profession. Again, we see examining the status quo as an intrinsic opportunity to consciously create workplace cultures that are good both for people and for the financial bottom line. For example, remote and hybrid work options are in high demand by younger generations, and they also support working parents. Providing flexible work arrangements can lead to increased employee satisfaction and productivity. We recommend balancing this flexibility with continued emphasis on professional mentorship and leadership training to ensure the next generation is effectively equipped with the requisite knowledge and skills to thrive as our future leaders. The data trends also indicate that diversity and inclusion are top priorities for younger generations. Seek to actively recruit diverse candidates and prioritize implicit or unconscious bias trainings.

●      Foster transparent, open communication. One of the biggest contributors to burnout is feeling underappreciated. Establish and maintain clear channels of communication with employees, including attorneys and support staff. For example, regularly sharing organizational performance data with our team members fosters a sense of ownership and inclusion—which is something Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z all want. Consistently solicit employee feedback and incorporate concerns and suggestions into decision-making processes. An often overlooked piece of this equation is being transparent and taking the time to explain such decisions. Understanding how organizational decisions were ultimately reached further promotes a culture of trust and goodwill. Even if you don’t implement every suggestion proffered by your employees, there is significant value when they know their voices and concerns are heard and taken seriously by upper management.

Keep in mind that an investment in employee well-being doesn’t have to cost a lot. We issue a personal and professional challenge to our legal leaders: Consistently incorporate mindfulness into your daily law practice—together! Imagine the power of beginning each Monday morning staff meeting with everyone closing their eyes and taking three deep breaths together. Yes, really. If you are data hounds like us, you may even consider monitoring results through a short survey. For context, we recently did this exercise with several hundred attorneys through an ABA CLE program, and 80 percent reported immediate positive effects mentally or physically.

Such a simple mindfulness practice not only can foster productivity by lowering stress and improving mental clarity, but it also can build group synergy and connection. This sends the clear message that well-being is a recognized value of the organization and an active priority of leadership. Get creative and explore mindfulness practices that resonate with your organization—the world is your oyster!

Also, keep in mind that the positive effects of mindfulness are cumulative, which can offer short- and long-term benefits not only to individuals and our workplaces but also for the legal profession as a whole. Indeed, a rising tide lifts all boats. If you accept our challenge, let us know how it goes!

An Investment in the Future

Fortunately, legal organizations are finally acknowledging that the well-being of legal professionals is integral to continued growth and prosperity. Building an internal culture that prioritizes mental health and investing in well-being initiatives yields tangible improvements in the areas of recruitment, retention, and overall performance. The resulting boost in productivity and reduced absenteeism contributes directly to an organization’s financial health. Moreover, shifting the mindset of our profession to one that values well-being not only benefits individuals but also improves the legal profession overall.

Rebecca Howlett, Esq. and Cynthia Sharp, Esq. are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution ( a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers. Check out The Legal Mindset Corner, a podcast dedicated to tackling the unique challenges of the legal profession.

Originally published in ABA GPSolo eReport, June 2024 Issue (Vol. 13, No. 11) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

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