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YourABA | Well-Being

Lawyer wellness starts with great leaders

May 16, 2022

“Legal leadership and law firm culture is central to talent retention and well-being,” says Amy Pruett, an intellectual property attorney in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“Leaders are central — they really drive what culture is and how it’s perceived,” she explains on “Win the Talent Wars: Creating Cultures that Support Well Being,” an on-demand program sponsored by the Law Practice Division.

Good leaders support talent development, engagement and productivity, and they know to address difficult situations and conflicts as they come up. Effective ones also understand that Connection + Trust = Influence.

Michele Powers, a former Big Law partner and founder of Elite Lawyer Coaching, cites a recent international study that found that “leaders that fostered an inclusive, shared identity with their people — so that sense of, we are together, we’re connected, there’s an us-ness, we have a shared vision or purpose — it was directly correlated to decreased burnout.”

Powers and Pruett offer the following advice to improve your leadership skills:

Be authentic.  Recognize that trust is established predominantly through nonverbal behavior. So, align your words, tone of voice and nonverbal behavior. Being authentic also includes being vulnerable and humble. “Of course, those are two aspects that are really hard, especially in a legal environment where we’re supposed to be … experts,” Powers acknowledges.

Hone your strategic planning. Create a vision for the organization, identify any barriers to that vision and develop strategies to overcome them. Then create action plans to enact strategies.

Actively listen. Be intent to really learn what’s going on and ask open-ended questions such as, “Tell me more about the situation.”

Reframe inflammatory statements. In a difficult conversation, look for ways to reframe a perception that may be tainted by anger or frustration. Can it be expressed in a way that is a step forward rather than a step back? Reframing “can show empathy with the person who’s feeling that emotion and lead to a more holistic conversation,” Pruett says.

Stay positive. Instead of saying, “Oh, that’s really great, but,” replace the “but” with “and.” It conveys, “Yes, I totally think that works. I love that idea of X, and how about,” or “I wonder if we could also consider Y and Z?” It also collectively builds with different ideas, but in a positive way. “That’s where that safety is created and the collaborative inquiry, which really helps with a team and group dynamics,” Powers says.

Practice gratitude. “Gratitude is … something that is key for our mental health and resilience, really bringing joy and happiness into our lives,” says Powers, although she acknowledges that attorneys can struggle with optimism. Research shows that attorneys “can be really successful and be abysmal optimists, but the fact is that our mental health and our well-being and our ability to connect with others really relies on that optimism,” she says.

Above all, “keeping a flexible and open mind about what works for you and your organization … is the best and most open mind to have,” Pruett says.

“Win the Talent Wars: Creating Cultures that Support Well Being” is one of more than 600 free CLE webinars and on-demand programs in the Member Benefit Library available to ABA members. New programs are added weekly.

Stay mindful during conflict

A tool that can be used during conflict to gain some clarity of mind and start to think more creatively and collaboratively is mindfulness, says attorney Amy Pruett, who came to well-being through her yoga practice and co-founded Abunditude, which focuses on yoga and mindfulness. “Mindfulness is … just simply being aware of what’s happening while it’s happening.”

Pruett recommends using the STOP tool when your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. It’s a simple formula to remember next steps:

  • S = Stop.
  • T = Take a breath. Your breath can act as an anchor for your attention and counteract the stress you’re feeling, slow down of the metabolic rate and increase relaxation.
  • O = Observe what’s going on in the body, emotions and thoughts, without judging them. Generally, emotions last about 90 seconds to 2 minutes, Pruett says. Whatever you’re going through is going to change. So instead of getting caught up in it, just notice it and take a step back.
  • P = Proceed with a new sense of calm and perspective.
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