How Legal Leaders Can Decrease Lawyer Burnout and Attrition Rates
By Catherine Kemnitz
Four steps GCs should take if they want to keep their top talent
Are you concerned your employees are going to leave, if they haven’t already? The American workforce is shifting like never before, and agile legal leaders can take certain steps to ensure they don’t lose their rockstars.
As a GC, you recognize that the primary role of the legal department is to provide value to internal clients and stakeholders. While excellent service and faster delivery improve the satisfaction of internal clients, it’s just as important for you to invest in your team. In the midst of the Great Resignation, recognizing the impact that stress has on the well-being of your team’s mental health is critical to the success of your legal department. COVID-19 has, of course, added extra burdens onto already overwhelmed legal teams, and many leaders are finding they have fewer permanent team members, but ever-increasing workloads. Consideration of mental health and well-being is now one of the greatest drivers of the Great Resignation for many employees in the United States, and you need to ensure your team’s health is a priority if you want to maintain your top talent.
Lawyers are burned out
We’ve all heard the term “burnout” used ad-nauseum over the past couple of years. You can call it “exhaustion,” “fatigue,” “weariness,” or any other word that captures the dire mental health toll the pandemic has caused on the average U.S. worker, but the point is the same – lawyers are at their breaking point.
A Thomson Reuters report found 58% of corporate law departments in 2020 experienced a surge in workload, at the expense of their budget. In fact, most law departments were forced to decrease their budgets and spending by 29%. Additionally, a LawCare report found almost 70% of 1,700 surveyed lawyers experienced mental health issues during the pandemic, including anxiety and depression, according to a recent Financial Times article.
In our own recent report, 2021 General Counsel Survey Report: Corporate Conscience at Stake, we found most GCs (84%) said the mental health of their team has been impacted by the increased level of responsibility the pandemic has placed on them, and 83% said they themselves have felt the effects. Burnout has taken hold of much of the nation’s workforce, and legal leaders have felt it while also needing to alleviate it for their own employees.
In fact, wellness will become one of the newest metrics for many companies this year, in addition to the traditional employee satisfaction or engagement measures. While a Gartner survey found 94% of companies made significant investments in well-being programs in 2020, Harvard Business Review data shows less than 40% of employees have taken advantage of these kinds of employer offerings.
Lawyers are leaving
The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November 2021, as employees across most industries are reevaluating what’s important to them in their careers. While the media continues to call this the Great Resignation, we at Axiom describe it as the “Great Reflection,” a term coined by David Pierce, our Chief Commercial Officer. Attorneys aren’t necessarily driven to leave their company or their profession purely because there are better jobs where they can make more money. Employees in almost any industry would agree re-evaluating their priorities and work/life balance is something that can be more easily done now than in the past, especially in an increasingly virtual world.
Because people are taking harder looks at their careers, thinking about where they are, where they’ve been, and where they want to go, they are reflecting on what’s important to them. Legal leaders need to ensure they are considering this when strategizing how to retain their top talent.
What can legal leaders do?
What can legal leaders do to mitigate turnover, decrease burnout, and ensure employees don’t have to sacrifice department and company values for the sake of profits and business goals? David recently sat down with The Geek in Review to discuss what’s necessary to make businesses and people successful during this time, which can be summed up into four steps:
1. Provide autonomy: Keep the emphasis on flexibility in place
Some GCs are hoping to eventually move back into an in-person or hybrid work model, but many employees simply won’t feel it’s important to sacrifice the freedom to which they’ve become accustomed. As David says, “It seems ridiculous to me to think that the sum total flexibility that people want comes down to where they sit in a chair. Where do you want to work? Who do you want to work with? What kind of team, what kind of industry? People want more autonomy than they’re getting. I believe the companies that get this right are going to find and keep the best talent.”
2. Create a mission statement: Ensure health and wellness is a priority
It’s imperative to be abundantly clear to staff that their mental and physical well-being is a priority for your business strategy. Including this in a department mission statement can help you and your team adhere to these values, and show that while communicating these efforts is important, you also are acting upon your mission. Our survey findings show that while most GCs (90%) believe they give lawyers within their legal departments a clear sense of their department’s mission, many are not codifying those values into a clear mission statement. A full 40% of GCs admit they lack a legal department mission statement reinforcing their commitment to their values and roles.
There are going to be numerous logistical concerns for legal leaders, beyond just requiring staff to come back to an office in-person — what about vaccine or mask requirements? If someone chooses to feel safer at home and is allowed to do so, is it clearly communicated that they should feel their career is still safe and they are still considered a valuable part of their team?
Further, GCs must understand that, as the conscience of the company, they must know how to navigate and support team members who are struggling with life events or unique and never-before-seen circumstances, due to the ever-changing pandemic burdens. As David says, “I don’t think you need an MBA or a JD to nail all that stuff. It’s just hard work to get it right. It’s a simple promise, but sometimes hard to execute.” A codified mission statement is a way to ensure the focus on health and wellness is documented and communicated to the department. Only 34% of Axiom survey respondents said their mission statement includes a focus on maintaining the health and well-being of the legal team. In a new year, either redefine your department mission statement to include this, or create one if you haven’t already. We have a 5-step checklist that can help guide you.
3. Hire flexible talent: Provide outside expertise to support your in-house staff
Throughout its history, the legal industry as a whole hasn’t been at the forefront of embracing change and innovation, and before Axiom entered the picture, in-house legal departments traditionally just hired outside law firms to supplement their work. However, COVID-19 has forced many legal departments to embrace change and consider alternative ways of operating, including hiring outside talent. While many GCs are simultaneously facing budget cuts, along with new and unanticipated risks, hiring an elite law firm or increasing headcount just doesn’t make sense strategically. Supporting your core team with a bench of on-demand lawyers is both cost-effective and more likely to decrease lawyer burnout. The bench is curated, built, and onboarded before specific needs arise, according to subject matter experts selected to address anticipated risks, thereby creating a standby team with existing institutional knowledge ready to ramp up at any time.
As David says, speaking from his background as a lawyer, “You have to prepare for change, you have to navigate change, and you have to be ready to navigate even more change. You can’t be rigid and inflexible.” In his role overseeing global sales strategy, he knows this is part of Axiom’s core principles. “Consider labor and employment – what legal department, just two years ago, thought they would have to renegotiate and reassess their entire office footprint? Did a GC have enough real estate lawyers onsite to do that? Or did they need to go outside? If they did hire in-house, would they still need that person in another year or two? That person may need to be let go or asked to retrain and learn an entirely new skillset. Neither of these is conducive to a happy team member.” On the flip side, if you hire an outside firm focusing on real estate, you may be spending more money that could otherwise be focused elsewhere. COVID-19 has taught us we can’t predict stability.
So, not only is flexible talent cost-effective, but it also ultimately preserves in-house talent and allows them to thrive in their specialized role, while also providing the comfort of knowing they are less likely to be laid off if the market turns. In addition, you can ensure your team is less burned out and overwhelmed by providing experienced and skilled support. The statistics stated above underscore the importance of providing in-house counsel with support, in the form of on-demand attorneys and legal professionals who can provide additional lift for ever-increasing volumes of work, or additional expertise for emerging and unanticipated needs. To learn more about how the core bench can supplement your in-house staff, download our recent whitepaper.
4. Overcommunicate: Maintain genuine transparency
Perhaps one of the simplest, yet often ignored, steps every leader should consider is providing transparency. Continuing to offer autonomy and flexibility, prioritizing your team’s well-being, and hiring outside support should all be communicated to your department. As stated earlier, the legal department ready to embrace change will be successful, but that’s only possible if the changes are made known to your team members. Employees feel most engaged in companies where their leaders provide transparency, and thus are less likely to leave for other opportunities. To truly retain top talent, you need to overcommunicate all the ways you are keeping the well-being of the team a top priority.
If you’d like to hear more about how we can support your legal team, contact us today.
Catherine Kemnitz is Executive Vice President, Chief Strategy and Development Officer at Axiom and Managing Director for Axiom Advice & Counsel. Throughout her 9-year tenure at Axiom in senior roles, Kemnitz has brought her extensive legal experience to bear across a range of strategic, commercial, corporate development and operations roles. In her prior role as Chief Legal Officer, Kemnitz led the global Legal & Compliance, Corporate Development, and Corporate Secretary functions. She is known for her strengths in driving strategic growth and high stakes transformation.
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