Judge. To adjust. Overcome. These three words are guideposts for business, government, military, medical, and legal leaders. But since the pandemic, quarantine and the emotional toll it has taken on all of us, these three words are as powerful and compelling as ever.
The pandemic created a perfect storm that blurred the already thin line between family and work life. Working people with already stressful schedules took care of school children during the day and also kept billable hours. Many found themselves in isolation, working around the clock to keep up with jobs that inevitably go unfinished due to the needs of young childcare, school support, constant interruptions, or other problems of working from home could.
Mental health in the legal profession is arguably at an all-time low. Experts discussed the impending psychological pandemic as a result of isolation, stress and anxiety, as well as how to deal with the loss of loved ones and general insecurity.
American Lawyer Media’s 2021 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey found an increase in depression and anxiety as more than 3,200 respondents said the pandemic had affected their general well-being. When asked if the pandemic had made their mental health worse, 70% of respondents said it did, while 51% said isolation had a significant negative impact on their mental health.
Back to the office: business as usual or the new normal?
During the pandemic, many companies realized that productivity could continue while teams were working from home. however, many also recognized the loss of camaraderie and teamwork that comes from working in the office.
Business leaders may be ready to return to normal, but they need to recognize that many lawyers and professionals still grapple with the uncertainty, loss, and general fear of the pandemic. For many, getting back to “normal” will take time and many may not want to get back to normal business.
Law firms need to be flexible, and many need to implement teleworking policies and adapt flexible work schedules for workers who may still be anxious or suffering from other circumstances.
The most successful companies will take a step back to reflect, evaluate with an open mind, and then create a healthier, more fulfilling workplace. There must be a balance between set goals, productive and successful careers, customer care and the long-term health of both the company and everyone who works there. Realistically, a healthier law firm, attorneys, and staff will provide better service to the client.
Five decisions that affect the job and the employees
There are five options law firms should consider when adapting to this transition and return to office. But first we have to put it in the context of time.
Economics and especially law have monetized time. Time is the most precious, non-fungible asset we have, and yet we have made it a business model that is often the driving force behind the financial success and well-being of a company and a law firm. The question is how do we make the best use of the time we have.
Law firms should allow lawyers and employees to plan their own wellbeing for the day. Whether this is a quiet, meditative time in a safe space in the office or on a patio or deck, it should be provided and respected. Planning yourself into the day is not selfish, but rather important so that you can be everything you can be and still know that you are important and that you are not a fungible.
The company should continue to focus on the importance of the family to any successful business. Without this solid foundation, lawyers are tied to their support systems and this is never a safe place. Accordingly, the company must incorporate family and family obligations into its business model. Providing flexible work schedules and teleworking policies will help and should set clear expectations for hours worked and productivity goals.
Doing business must be based on clear moral, ethical and noble principles. This enables the law firm and individuals to know that they are responsible for the firm’s vision and mission. The firm and attorneys need to know and believe that they have a solid moral foundation that will allow everyone to breathe a little easier, knowing that they need not be afraid of decisions made.
The office should provide ongoing opportunities to train staff on how to navigate this new atmosphere. From courses on health care or mindfulness, purposeful work and camaraderie to mentoring and time management, everything should be offered and encouraged. Ensuring a healthy workplace – whether that means working from home when necessary or being in a welcoming and empowering office environment – are options that you should consider and provide.
We get a life so we have to find joy in what we do. There is no contradiction in having a serious business environment that also offers fulfillment and the feeling of being part of a bigger story than just making “widgets”.
Law firms should see this new era of change as an opportunity to be bolder and more innovative, rather than stifling and narrowing it down. Evaluate, adjust, and overcome in such a way that the future is better for the law firm, attorneys, and support staff. It may not look like it did before, but the past didn’t work out as well initially so maybe this is our chance to finally get it right.
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Write for us: Guidelines for Authors
Information about the author
Paul Lipton, Director of Professionalism, Career and Skills Development at RumbergerKirk, works with lawyers to support them through skills development, building an individual brand and helping them develop personally and professionally as successful litigators.