Prioritizing Team Well-being: 4 Strategies for Legal Department Leaders
March 30, 2023
March 30, 2023
Written by Michelle Culligan, this article was originally published on March 28, 2023, in the Minnesota Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel members LinkedIn group.
When each of us arrives for work, so too does our state of well-being. Well-being, or its absence, is reflected through productivity levels, professional and social interactions, work quality, and how we contribute to serving clients’ needs. Prioritizing well-being not only benefits lawyers individually, but also contributes to optimizing team performance and better client outcomes.
I recently had the opportunity to join a trio of Twin Cities legal department leaders in a CLE hosted by The Minnesota Chapter of ACC to discuss “Leading Today’s Legal Department: Balancing Corporate Legal Demands While Supporting Attorney Well-being”. The panel included:
Jim, Sarah, and Steve described their experiences in leading and fostering legal team well-being, sharing their successes, lessons learned along the way, and areas they feel can still be improved upon. From their collective insights, four strategies emerged for legal team leaders to cultivate balanced, motivated teams positioned to best serve corporate needs:
For Sarah, whose legal team is entirely remote and situated around the country, building connections and fostering well-being requires intentional leadership. Sarah has increased her team’s travel budget significantly, allowing her to plan and prioritize time to meet and collaborate in person, and encouraging her team leaders to do the same.
Even small changes ripple into a larger impact for overall team success and well-being. CHS has adopted a hybrid work model and Jim’s highly social team is now no longer in an office all together. They have embraced a new tool, chat technology, to stay connected, ask questions, and share ideas. Beyond its value in keeping them connected, Jim discovered, it increased the flow of real-time information and reduced the number of thirty-minute meetings appearing on their calendars.
Steve’s team is similarly working in a hybrid model, and they have found ways to optimize that model for team and individual productivity. The scheduled times in which Steve’s team members work from the office adapt to key stakeholder meetings so individuals can focus that time on collaboration while time working remotely allows team members to complete focused work matters.
It is relatively common in today’s climate for employees to report feeling overworked and undervalued. In-house attorneys juggle numerous demands – heavy workloads, conflicting priorities, tight deadlines, long working hours, tightening budgets, and managing relationships with stakeholders while balancing legal and business considerations. As a legal team leader, it’s no small task to manage this, but a simple method to support team and individual well-being is to bear witness to those difficulties and actively recognize the efforts being made.
According to a 2022 Gallup and Workhuman survey, when employees feel recognized at work they are seventy-three percent less likely to “always” or “very often” feel burned out, four times more likely to be engaged, and fifty-six percent less likely to be on the lookout for alternative job opportunities. While this may seem obvious, the panelists noted that without the traditional “hallway conversations” they have looked for alternative ways to inspire their team and applaud large and small successes.
Jim described how chat technology has altered the way his team interacts, sharing that emojis and sticker icons began to emerge in their conversations. His team began sending small celebratory images to each other, small things like a thumbs up or a high five. He recalled recently sending one of his team members a fist bump sticker after they raised a helpful suggestion. “I don’t think I would have done that in a meeting,” he said, “but a quick sticker showing my thanks added emotion back into the exchange” and allowed Jim to express his thanks in a manner consistent with his team’s habits and preferences. A genuine and authentic “thank you” can go a long way in demonstrating that you see and appreciate an individual’s efforts.
There is a perceived expectation among legal professionals to be always on, always present. In a role that demands a client-services mindset, it’s difficult for attorneys to prioritize things that help them alleviate stress, like taking advantage of vacation time (and truly unplugging while on vacation) or taking breaks throughout the day. According to the American Bar Association’s 2022 Profile of the Legal Profession, twenty-seven percent of lawyers surveyed said they feel pressure to not take vacation time.
Drawing from their own experiences, the panelists believe the trend is improving, but there is still work to be done. Steve stressed the importance of reaffirming the benefits of vacation time and unplugging, sharing that “I have one attorney that went on vacation and didn’t take her laptop; I’m counting that as a win.” Sarah commented that with a remote legal team it’s not as easy to gauge stress levels and whether someone is neglecting their well-being; routine virtual engagement with team members is critical to know when she should step in and reiterate the benefit of taking time to be away. Legal team leaders can help to normalize these behaviors by speaking with team members about their expectations for vacation time and strategizing how workload will be covered so they don’t return to an even more unbalanced and stressful situation but can truly unplug and re-energize.
LawVu recently published their 2023 report on the current state of legal tech and impact on in-house legal team workflow efficiencies and business objectives. Respondents surveyed indicated that three of the top five major challenges facing their in-house legal team were volume and breadth of work, burnout, and a workload that is simply too high. As legal team leaders, the panelists recognize the same challenges with their own teams.
“Lawyers are customer service focused but sometimes you have to ration legal services out,” Steve said. Not every incoming request is a top priority or presents material risk to the company. For example, some tasks that can be draining and time-consuming may be managed more efficiently by providing a legal template for use by business teams, with oversight by the legal team. Steve empowers his team to prioritize their work and focus attention on high-impact tasks that are motivating and rewarding and to address the most critical legal matters for the company.
Jim recognizes that the way legal services are delivered has evolved in recent years and he takes advantage of the options available. Engaging contract attorneys or sending work to outside counsel allowed his team to rethink a mentality that their only options were to hire additional headcount or muddle through the overburdened workload.
“I saw it as an opportunity to make the model more contemporary,” Jim said. He focuses on two questions. First, what are the legal services needed? Then, how can those legal service needs be met in an economical and efficient way? The solution may vary depending on the need, but in taking stock of the options available, Jim can help distribute the workload and deliver the required needs in a way that supports and alleviates the demands placed on his team.
A common theme underpinning the panelists’ discussion is that well-being-focused leadership starts with actively listening and observing, particularly within remote work situations. Sometimes listening means asking the question – ‘what are you doing to take care of yourself?’. In some cases, it is noticing a behavior to address or applaud. It could be bearing witness to challenges or celebrating triumphs, or identifying areas for improvement and implementing innovative solutions that support overall team performance.
Legal team leaders who make the time to place focus and intention on checking in and nurturing the well-being of their teams – and themselves – will cultivate strong legal teams positioned for optimized team performance and better client outcomes.
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