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Leading the Legal Industry: Why Wellbeing Matters

4 min read

It’s no secret that a life in law can mean long hours, high stress and tough deadlines. We’ve all seen the movies – young lawyers spending all night in the office, eating takeaway Chinese food and finding the answer in some obscure case law at four in the morning.

But in reality, this working style is neither sustainable nor aspirational and is increasingly coming under scrutiny.

Now, the tides are turning with the emergence of movements like The Mindful Business Charter – advocating for firms to sign up to ensure that their employees work in sustainable ways that help promote and maintain good mental health and wellbeing.

Planning to Protect Against Burnout

The rise of workforce planning and resource allocation has also offered the ability to see, at a glance, where there are pockets of capacity but equally to help identify associates with excessively high utilization rates.

While these are a step in the right direction, they can only have the desired impact if the senior leaders (often partners in the case of a law firm) are willing to put in place the infrastructure to allow healthier working practices to be implemented. Ultimately, partners set both the expectation and the example to be followed.

Intergenerational teams make for an interesting dynamic. Gen Z’s confidence in asking for a ‘wellbeing day’ or to ‘respect their boundaries’ around work/life balance can sit at odds with the views of more senior leaders who sacrificed their personal life (and at times their health) to forge ahead, and make it clear they were serious about their careers. Being met with pushback from members of their team can read as a lack of commitment or entitlement.

The Rise of the ‘Retainmaker’

The billable hours model and the focus on the bottom line poses an essential question regarding employee wellbeing: is there really a healthy way to work in a law firm? Coining the term Retainmakers – leaders who spend time ensuring their people grow, not just their revenue – Jordan Furlong outlined the crucial role partners who prioritize their people play in law firms. But while these leaders are vital in the success of firms across the legal industry, Retainmakers’ skills and efforts are not recognized (or indeed remunerated) in the same way as traditional Rainmakers’ contributions. 

In the context of an unprecedented global crisis, the pandemic caused a seismic shift in the conversation around mental health, pushing wellbeing to the top of every agenda. Now, some organizations are reflecting on how they have perhaps over-indexed on empowering the individual to set preferences about when and how they chose to work – the trend of increasing mandated days in the office is reflective of this.

Historically law firm partners were not to be disturbed unless a signature was required, residing in glass offices with closed doors. In the new open plan world, partners and leaders are being asked to show up in a different way and to take an interest in not just the professional but the personal wellbeing of the individuals in their teams – whether or not the wider organization recognizes that or rewards it is another story.

It is clear that in the absence of balanced and ethical leadership, younger members of the workforce will happily vote with their feet. As a generation increasingly searching for purpose and placing value on authenticity, their tolerance for command and control dictatorships is low.

Achieving Balance in Business

Ultimately, in any professional services business, clients are paying for the advice of another human being. If that human being happens to be exhausted, overworked or close to burnout then chances are the quality of their advice will be poor.

Without a commitment from leaders to make systemic changes to ensure healthier ways of working, there’s a chance that working towards partnership in a law firm will simply cease to become aspirational (except for in the movies).  

Partners cast a shadow, that’s why embedding the right leadership team is critical to ensure an environment where more junior members of a team can thrive.  At Odgers Berndtson, we specialize in sourcing responsible, inclusive leaders who understand how to balance supporting and developing talent whilst still achieving ambitious profit targets.




Get in touch. Follow the links below to discover more, or contact our dedicated leadership experts from your local Odgers Berndtson office here.






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