Wellness Is the New Competitive Advantage of High-Achieving Attorneys and Law Firms
In the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases—the ICD-11—the agency validated what every lawyer already knows: burnout, that feeling of chronic exhaustion and stress, is real. Classified as an “occupational phenomenon,” the WHO stopped short of calling it an actual disease. But that doesn’t make it any less of a problem for high-achieving lawyers, whose very personality traits that paved the way for their professional success—diligence, perfectionism and a hard-wired desire to provide exceptional client service—can also contribute to severe stress and major mental health issues. And not only can burnout negatively impact individuals; it can also prove detrimental to a firm’s future success by impeding a succession plan.
Rudhir Krishtel, a long-time client of IMS, former Big Law partner and senior in-house counsel at Apple, offers compelling reasons why high-performing professionals should seek permission to also serve themselves.
“The stakes are high,” says Krishtel, who now coaches attorneys and legal teams towards a more fulfilling career, including through teaching mindfulness techniques and other paths to well-being. Not only is burnout highly detrimental to an individual’s mental and even physical health, it leaves the firm at risk as well, particularly when it comes to planning for the future.
“If you’re thinking about longer term succession planning, you can’t have associates and junior partners practicing in a way that can lead to burnout and then expect them to all of a sudden change their ways when you want to guide them toward institutional leadership,” Krishtel says. “If you want to leave your firm in good hands, you want everyone, no matter their title or position, prioritizing good health and wellness practices.”
Where to Begin
Thinking about your firm’s future leadership starts with recognizing that an increased emphasis on mental health or mindfulness is not a reflection of weakness. In fact, showing some vulnerability is a testament to true leadership. The key, says Krishtel, is getting senior management to understand that focusing on a person’s well-being is imperative to unlocking their strengths. Law firms that focus on mental health at all levels within their organization and weave it into the cultural fabric of their firms will see tangible results, including levels of excellence uninhibited by the cultural norms that might have held previous generations back.
For example, Krishtel believes that mindfulness meditation practices can counterbalance some of the negative mindsets that prevent attorneys from excelling at business development, building meaningful relationships with clients and co-workers, and achieving a more fulfilling career. “The kinds of personality traits that typify lawyers can actually inhibit their excellence as leaders,” Krishtel says. “Over time, default traits, such as protecting clients, technical superiority, a high aptitude for issue spotting and healthy skepticism may hold lawyers back from success in leadership roles. These qualities can actually be disadvantageous when risk-taking, building relationships, creativity, identifying opportunities, sociability, resilience and empathy are needed.”
“Lawyers are great at taking depositions and making arguments in court because that’s their training,” Krishtel says, noting that most law schools spend little time preparing attorneys for the emotional rigors of the profession or about the value of serving themselves as well as clients. “I think that if we trained stress management through mindfulness and meditation, they would be naturally great at that as well. The result is the creation of an environment that’s regenerative and sustainable—where people want to stay and be healthy for their entire career.”
It’s also a matter of return on investment. “If a law firm loses talent mid-career because of health and wellness issues, it is losing out on an investment it made early,” Krishtel says. “What we’re learning is that you can be in an intense environment, but not necessarily have to hold that intensity inside. This is why I focus my workshops on creating spaces within law firms where people can comfortably talk about what’s most difficult—and come away with tools to navigate challenges and flourish as a result.”