March/April 2020

The Thriving Lawyer

Well-Being Strategies for Small Firms: Building Resilient Work Cultures

Anne Brafford

Lawyer well-being has received considerable attention lately. Large firms in particular have attracted the spotlight for their efforts and innovations—which are commendable. But the big-firm focus may have left the wrong impression that big budgets are required to afford the “luxury” of promoting lawyers’ mental health and happiness. Well-being should not be viewed as a dispensable extravagance, and, in fact, many science-based strategies are available for solo and small-firm lawyers to try out.

A better understanding of factors that contribute to psychological distress in the workplace can help small firms prioritize their well-being efforts. According to research, common causes of stress, burnout, depression, anxiety and/or suicidal thinking include the following:

  • long working hours,
  • feeling overloaded and a lack of control with too much work and too little time,
  • feeling stagnant and not growing,
  • feeling that work demands outmatch one’s lawyering skills and abilities,
  • high interpersonal conflict and incivility at work and
  • chronic work/life conflict.

Generally, these factors can be harmful, but they don’t affect us all in the same way. Our individual traits, strengths and vulnerabilities shape our reactions. For example, whether we perceive a dangerous threat or a positive challenge depends a lot on our capacity to understand and manage our automatic, irrational thoughts (including, for example, catastrophizing pessimism, perfectionism, excessive achievement orientation and impostor syndrome) and the negative emotions that flow from them.

Fortunately, we can reshape our thinking habits to boost well-being. This can include individual and collective efforts to develop healthy work cultures and individual strengths that make us more resilient and able to thrive. To get started, two key strategies are recommended.

Develop Flexibility

A recommendation to develop “flexibility” might trigger thoughts of downward dogs and other bendy poses. Although yoga is a proven well-being booster, it’s not what I’m referring to here. I’m referring to psychological and behavioral flexibility (PBF), which is the ability to be consciously aware of our internal experience and, based on situational demands, to flexibly choose, change or persist in behaviors that align with our values and goals. That may sound dry and technical, but the basic idea is that we can substantially boost our well-being by being aware, adaptable and intentionally goal-oriented rather than rigidly and mindlessly reacting to the world on autopilot.

For example, if we have a disagreement with a colleague, we can notice our negative thoughts and emotional response without being controlled by them. We then can choose collaborative (rather than destructive) behaviors because our ultimate goal is to maintain good relationships with our colleagues. By doing this, we disentangle ourselves from our automatic thoughts. We create space between our thoughts and behaviors so that we can choose behaviors aligned with our ultimate goals and values.

PBF is a fundamental resilience skill that will provide the biggest bang for your firm’s well-being bucks. This is so because all experience is funneled through our brains, and the machinations that go on inside that 3-pound lump of fat and water determine whether we feel stressed-out or composed and ready for a challenge. Improving our ability to understand and manage what’s going on in there is crucial for well-being and performing our best. Four skills are primarily involved in PBF:

  • an ability to avoid being carried away by our emotions by cultivating a conscious awareness of our inner experience,
  • an ability to read the situation to guide our choice of self-regulation strategy,
  • a repertoire of self-regulatory skills and behaviors from which to choose (e.g., acceptance, self-compassion, cognitive reframing) and
  • an ability to change strategies if needed if our initial efforts are not successful.

PBF takes commitment and persistence to develop, but the value it can bring to lawyers’ lives will be worth the effort. It can contribute to well-being in a variety of ways, including, for example, defusing negative emotions and dysfunctional self-talk, curtailing procrastination, curbing our tendency to avoid tough situations or problems even as they escalate toward a crisis, and helping us manage obsessive thoughts about work that can damage our nonwork relationships.

Lawyers in any size firm can work on developing more resilient thinking skills individually or in small groups. One way to do so is by starting “well-being book clubs.” Multiple studies have found that reading and practicing activities in books (called “bibliotherapy”) can be an effective approach to learn cognitive and behavioral well-being skills like PBF. Further, learning and practicing with small groups of “accountability partners” will improve your chances of success. Such unique book clubs also may foster the types of close connections needed to help lawyers feel more comfortable asking for help when needed.

Many useful books are available for your new well-being book club, but a few of my favorites (which all are founded on acceptance and commitment therapy) include: Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Life by Steven Hayes and The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Stress Reduction (the latter is part of a series, which also includes workbooks on depression and anxiety). Both are workbooks that small groups could use to work on these skills together. Two other excellent books that provide a conceptual discussion of these skills include The Confidence Gap and The Happiness Trap—both written by Russ Harris. Also recommended is Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. Founded on cognitive behavioral therapy, this is a classic book that has been life-changing for many.

Cultivate Work Cultures That Prioritize Positive Emotions

Full well-being also requires that we actively cultivate positive emotions, not only reduce negative ones. Positive emotions (e.g., joy, interest, contentment, calm) alter how our minds and our bodies function—including thoughts, neurological processes, motivation and behaviors—in ways that are critical for optimal health, functioning, resilience and well-being. Primary features of harmful conditions like depression, anxiety and burnout are an absence of positive emotions and a tendency to minimize and dampen them.

Notably, for evolutionary reasons, bad is stronger than good: Negative emotions are much stronger than positive ones. We’re hardwired with a “negativity bias” that makes us notice and react more strongly to bad things. As a result, we’re not likely to feel fully well and perform at our best unless our positive emotions outweigh negative ones in a ratio of about 3-to-1. This is not to say that we should strive to eliminate negative emotions (which would be impossible anyway). Negative emotions are useful, but, if they dominate our lives, our health and well-being will suffer. The goal is to better understand, regulate and use the full continuum of emotions to support health, happiness and success.

Our work colleagues can have an enormous impact on our well-being because they contribute to (or detract from) our daily positivity ratio. This is because their words and actions impact our emotions and because emotions are contagious. This means that, during all of our daily interactions (no matter how brief), we have an opportunity to “infect” everyone around us with positive (or negative) jolts through our energy, attention, words and actions. We can help achieve a healthy positivity ratio by building work cultures—including practices, rituals and habits—that prioritize positive emotions to offset all of the negative emotions that are a normal part of lawyers’ work lives. This strategy can take many forms, but a few specific examples include:

  • Look for opportunities to express appreciation and earned compliments.
  • Say please and thank you.
  • Smile, say hello and use their names.
  • Be warm and fully present during interactions.
  • Consciously sort out and, if possible, uplift your own emotions before interacting with others.
  • Respond to their good news with enthusiastic interest (called “active constructive responding”).
  • Ask what they’re doing and how you can help.
  • Whenever possible, remove obstacles for their progress and work productivity.
  • Collectively review and implement strengths, gratitude and acts of kindness activities that you can find in the worksheet section of the ABA’s Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers, which is freely available on the internet.
  • Actively work on developing high-quality relationships with colleagues and reducing interpersonal conflict, which is among the largest reducible workplace stressors.

Conclusion

Even without big budgets or dedicated well-being staff, there are many strategies that small-firm lawyers can implement to boost lawyers’ health and happiness. The two strategies recommended above are a good place to start. They cost little and have the potential for building lawyers’ resilience and enabling them to thrive.

Anne Brafford

Anne Brafford is a former BigLaw partner and the founder of Aspire, an educational and consultancy firm for the legal profession. She is a doctoral student in positive organizational psychology and is involved in multiple national-level initiatives focused on lawyer well-being. She is the author of Positive Professionals, which provides science-based guidance to aspiring positive law firms. ambrafford@gmail.com