Law firms launch wellness schemes to reduce burnout and retain talent

International law firms are launching wellbeing programmes and taking steps such as hiring “burnout advisers” to hold on to staff as a boom in deals activity stokes a war for talent.

UK-based Ashurst and US group Baker McKenzie are among those to have introduced programmes to improve staff mental health and stem exits.

Law firms have been deluged with work in the past two years thanks to record M&A volumes and an impending rush of litigation generated by the Covid crisis. The resulting demand for talent has led to a pay war for junior lawyers, exacerbated by higher rates of attrition than before the pandemic.

A study by legal mental health charity LawCare published in September found that almost 70 per cent of lawyers surveyed between October and January had experienced mental ill health in the previous 12 months. Almost 30 per cent of participants said their work required them to be available to clients 24 hours a day, while 12 per cent said they averaged fewer than five hours’ sleep a night.

In response to such issues, Chicago-based law firm Baker McKenzie has started training partners and managers in mental health. US rival Reed Smith set up a mental health task force last year and offers a free counselling service for lawyers and their families. It has also introduced a “ramp up, ramp down” scheme in which lawyers can gradually alter their workload before or after an extended absence.

Large banks and some blue-chip companies have also begun to offer wellness programmes, a trend that has been accelerated by the pandemic. UBS introduced a “wellness hour” and fitness bike company Peloton launched a “corporate wellbeing offering” in June, which companies including Sky have signed up to.

City law firm Ashurst set up a wellbeing space in its Glasgow office in August, which staff can use for yoga and check-in sessions as well as quiet reflection. And US outfit Goodwin Procter paid non-partner staff in the US, UK, Luxembourg and Hong Kong a $1,000 “wellness payment” in May.

Other groups have hired “burnout adviser” Charlène Gisèle.

“That was a title law firms gave me,” said the Jones Day associate-turned-executive coach. “Firms want to keep hold of talent and lawyers are dropping like flies from burnout.” 

Rob Insolia, chief executive of Goodwin Procter, told the Financial Times there was a “significant shortage of talent right now” because of attrition and the volume of legal mandates.

In July Goodwin raised base salaries for its newly qualified lawyers to £147,000, its second increase since the start of the year, when those lawyers earned £125,000. Linklaters made a similar move last month, raising starting salaries to £107,500, up from £100,000.

Hugo Chambers, a recruiter for junior lawyers at Fox Rodney, said: “We already see associates from high-quality firms come to us to help them find positions at firms with better working arrangements and lower hours expectations. Usually these types of moves have been in trade-off with a reduction in pay — however, top firms will jump the queue for high-quality associates if they introduce high levels of flexibility post-Covid.”

Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of LawCare, said law firm wellness programmes would not be successful without a change in culture.

“We need to address the big elephants in the legal mental wellbeing room, the ingrained culture of long hours, lack of management support and the poor boundaries between work and home, and until we do, not much is going to change.”

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