Getting Real About Wellness in the Legal Industry: Conversation with Dr. Larry Richard (Pt. 2 of 3)

JD Supra Perspectives

This is the second part of my discussion with Dr. Larry Richard, an expert on the psychology of lawyers, on wellness and mental health in our industry. You can find the first part of our discussion here

MATT: You consider a positive firm culture a real competitive advantage. That’s a really important point, so let’s talk more about that.

The idea that wellness is something that is not only good for employees, but will also generate positive performance for the firm, is not broadly understood in our industry. It certainly resonates with me. We work very hard to create a positive culture on our team. It starts with the way we recruit new people to our team and runs through the way we say goodbye to people who leave the company. We do not have one single big program, or “culture week.” We do hundreds of things all the time that express and create our culture. But I think many leaders still fail to see the connection between a positive work culture and increased productivity.

What are they missing?

LARRY: Multiple scientific studies over the past two decades have shown strong links between psychologically positive cultures and the desired outcomes we all want for individuals and firms. There is a vast literature spanning many disciplines – some studies look at “happiness” at work, others look at “engagement,” still others look at “work satisfaction,” “positivity,” or “positive emotions” – for our purposes, I’m lumping them all under the category of “positive cultures.”  

...happiness leads to success, rather than the other way around.

One of the most influential articles makes a strong case that happiness leads to success, rather than the other way around. Most lawyers I talk to seem to make the flawed assumption that success will lead to happiness.

Extraordinary research comprising dozens of other studies explores the payoffs that come from building a happier, more engaged, more energized, or more satisfied workforce.

MATT: That reverse logic reminds me of the story of addiction written by Caroline Knapp. Her belief (and justification) that “I drink because I am unhappy,” was backwards, and she needed to learn “I am unhappy because I drink.” Reversing the flawed “success will make me happy” belief system may be simple to articulate, but hard to practice. How will lawyers and the legal profession learn to do this?

LARRY: It may be hard or counter-intuitive, but consider the long list of payoffs for an organization that emphasizes wellness: better mental health, improved physical health, greater productivity, improved creativity and innovation, and better collaboration.

They also see a rise in commitment, social connections, and employee resilience. We even see an impact on the bottom-line values that every manager values: shareholder value, profitability, and customer loyalty.

MATT:  That’s quite a list! The current wave of wellness efforts in BigLaw are too superficial. They don’t go far enough. When a firm signs a wellness pledge and assigns a few partners to a committee, it’s not creating the kind of systemic cultural change that we both feel is needed. So let’s talk about what you think would be a comprehensive, effective wellness program. 

LARRY: This is a big, complex challenge that resists easy and quick answers. And of course every organization is different. There are, however, a few focus areas that really make sense for every firm to consider. 

The real potential for a transformative culture comes from psychological principles and practice...

Any wellness program, of course, needs to focus on the physical components – the importance of proper diet, adequate exercise, sufficient sleep, proper health monitoring, and regular checkups. These are necessary but not sufficient. 

The real potential for a transformative culture comes from psychological principles and practices. These can have enormous potential to create a climate that fosters thriving and overall wellness. 

MATT: Let’s dig a bit deeper into the specific and essential focus areas that your research has identified.

LARRY: The first is positive emotion. Although there are many competing models for how to create a positive culture, nearly all of them primarily include practices designed to evoke positive emotions in a reliable and ongoing way. Positive emotions are the principal driver of most of the beneficial outcomes listed above. This can offset many of the negative emotions that are part of practicing law.

Here are some simple examples of things that a firm can do to begin to actively foster positive emotions. You can reserve five minutes at the beginning of every meeting to recap what’s working, what we’ve done well so far, or what we’re proud of. You can hold five minutes at the end of every meeting not only to itemize commitments and action steps, but also to call out what worked well in the meeting. Teach your leaders to “catch somebody doing something right” (credit to Ken Blanchard and his 1982 classic, The One Minute Manager). 

MATT: One thing I often say about NetApp is that I am incredibly fortunate to work in a place where people routinely say “thank you,” and are generous with praise. We have a long history of showing simple, yet sincere, appreciation for each other, and I suspect that in itself can make a big difference.

LARRY: Absolutely! A second key component is meaning. People thrive when they know that the work they’re doing matters — i.e., when it’s meaningful.

Meaning in life and work can be one of the most powerful antidotes to the disconnected and lonely feelings that often lead lawyers down the path toward depression, substance abuse, and in some cases suicide. 

Meaning in life and work can be one of the most powerful antidotes to disconnected and lonely feelings...

MATT: This is a place where I feel those of us who work in-house have an advantage over a law firm. Our company has a clear and compelling mission: to enable our customers to change the world with data. Lawyers who join NetApp are passionate about the real difference our company can make in the world. My team contributes meaningfully to that mission. But if you work for a law firm, how can you articulate meaning in that way?

LARRY:  We often become so absorbed in the intellectually stimulating legal work itself that we lose sight of the impact that it has on the client. To counter this, a comprehensive program needs to incorporate ways to encourage lawyers to pay attention to both. Training and development programs must be designed in such a way to address the pathways to meaning. There are multiple ways to get there, but you want to encourage employees to understand the bigger picture and see themselves as part of something important and larger.

Another critical component is autonomy. Employees need to feel like masters of their own ship. That is, people want to see evidence that they have the autonomy to make decisions every now and then about things that are meaningful to them. The opposite would be micromanaging someone. 

Stay tuned, the third and final part of this dialog will publish soon...


[As senior vice president, general counsel, chief compliance counsel, and secretary for NetAppMatthew Fawcett is responsible for all legal affairs worldwide, including corporate governance and securities law compliance, intellectual property matters, contracts, and mergers and acquisitions. He has overseen the development of NetApp Legal into a global high-performance organization with a unique commitment to innovation and transformation.]

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