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Lawyer Wellbeing

By Karla Schlaepfer
Design Thinking, Legal Design Thinking, Leadership, New Work, Empathy

Lawyer Well-being - The Silent Epidemic - A Liquid Legal Booklet to be published by Editions Weblaw in 2021

The following text is an excerpt from my contribution to the publication. It is an exploration with practical examples of using human-centered approaches like Design Thinking in legal business.

Becoming Human Centric: How to Promote Wellbeing in Business Practices

It’s never been more important to safeguard mental health in the legal workplace.

We are all continuing to learn in our accelerated digital legal environments. The pace is fast, and the amount of input we are expected to consume is huge. Lawyers use new tech tools, software, and innovative apps, and in “lunch and learn” sessions, many are consuming fresh content even in their recreational break. A well-deserved “break” from thinking is sacrificed for the sake of efficiency. How many of us notice when we need mental rest? And more importantly, how many do something about it? Are there working processes or resources that empower busy knowledge workers – like legal professionals - to become more human-centric?

A human-centric focus means here: The sense of becoming more in-tune with yourself, your human nature, and your condition and needs. Simply put, this is a kind of self-awareness that enables the development of insights and emotional wellbeing practices that help you to feel good about and take care of yourself. It can take patience and deliberate practice to make this shift. This paper will give you some tips on how.

What can be changed somewhat faster – albeit not overnight – is how law firms and organizations shape their cultural policies to shed light on the importance of mental health and wellbeing. Offerings to provide more alternatives through information and guidance. These services reduce fears and can kick off important conversations about what wellbeing and human-centric working policies are and how to promote these. Individuals and staff should have access to resources to do as much as they can to prevent serious harm, and to create a culture of psychological safety and dignity without stigmatization. This focus on people is a hallmark of human-centered working environments. Active law firms and organizations strive to treat all employees with respect and offer the resources people need to make them happy and stay healthier. This in turn motivates employees to be more productive and engaged which is good for the company.

Critical Data

No doubt, today’s virtual and remote work, home office, and hybrid working set-ups have clear benefits. Lawyers often have the autonomy and flexibility to decide when and where they commit to producing outcomes. The downside is that this manner of anytime, anyplace engagement invites people to work more. To regularly head back to the pc after the kids are in bed and on weekends. There are fewer clear boundaries or limits set from the outside. Often internal drivers, automatic behavior patterns, and cultural expectations influence routine overworking, potentially creating perfectionism and micro-management. The inherent freedom of remote working has not freed lawyers from feeling overwhelmed, as shown in a nationwide study “Practicing Law in the Pandemic” by the American Bar Association. As shown by the data from the survey, ABA members generally show much higher levels of stress in trying to manage work and home, a higher level of disengagement with the social aspects of work, and more frequent thoughts about whether full-time in the legal field is worth it! These are eye-opening results that beg for proactive steps.

Give me a Break

One robust way to deal with this automatic internal drive set to “go”, is to cultivate a culture of breaks. Does this sound unusual? It means pausing or stopping the chatter in our brains long enough to identify what we feel in the present moment and then acting accordingly to put on the brakes. This can be done by scheduling short interludes into the daily routine. This “pause” is a time to step back, let your brain sort things out on its own, and allow yourself to do—well, nothing, except rest. Rest is not laziness but an investment in well-being. There is a great expression in German “staring at holes into the wall” which expresses this empty stare as our brain recalibrates. In our hectic world, this lack of activity has a bad rap. When in fact a short brain rest can be beneficial for cognitive performance and your general psychological well-being as this Harvard study shows. While naps aren’t for everyone, experts write that a short nap can contribute to improved performance, faster reaction time, and better memory. In Japan, the name for this culturally accepted break or power nap is “Inemuri”, the art of strategic sleep. Isn’t it time to adopt such a healthy habit into our human-centered working practices? The importance of The Break should be culturally reinstated!

The following are examples of human-centered working concepts put into business practice.

New Work

In the context of “modern” working, there are environments shaped to fit the type of activities people are carrying out. These organizations and working spaces are characterized not only by table soccer and fantastic coffee but by flatter hierarchies and on values loosely defined as purpose-driven. The root of these models stems from the writings of the Austrian-born philosopher Professor Frithjof Bergmann, known as the father of “New Work”. Bergmann writes in one of his many influential books that the more work is outsourced to machines, the more important human-centered skills such as creativity, cooperation, and empathy will become in our digital world. His theories are elaborate, have been often modified and diluted, and are now too often used as the label for anything slightly hip. But there is more to the buzz word New Work than hype. Simply put, Bergmann’s New Work economic theory is based on three pillars. The first of which is set on the radical human-centered maxim that people should find out what they “really, really want to do” and be able to earn money with this choice of vocation.

Interestingly, although New Work is currently trendy and being shouted from the rooftops in Germany, (one of the reasons that Xing! Is now known as New Work SE) Bergmann maintains that in his opinion, no German companies have succeeded in establishing a viable New Work culture. US giant Google is the closest in spirit, shaping both innovation practices and company culture with the freedom to dive into personal projects that make their employees happy. In this Google New Work concept, employees got one paid day off in the working week to pursue their inventive passion. Emulated later by 3M, Atlassian, and others, the 20% Project can be seen as an initiative to inspire people to cultivate individual purpose, build innovation and ultimately increase company potential. Google no longer offers the 20% Project, but they do focus zealously on maintaining employee happiness and productivity, engaging staff exclusively to meet this objective.

Design Thinking

Google was also an early adaptor of Design Thinking. At its heart, Design Thinking is human-centered. It starts by identifying and defining an empathic understanding of how the client behaves, feels, and thinks, and asks why these targeted users demonstrate certain behaviors, feelings, and thoughts. Design thinking is a co-creative process to get you and your team thinking creatively about your services from your clients’ perspectives. In a nutshell, Design Thinking is both a philosophy and a holistic framework to bring business and technology partners together, to uncover and create innovative solutions for real people. Systematically, insights are collected, synthesized, developed, and then rapidly tested to see whether the solutions will really generate business value. All of this is done before investing in a full-scale roll-out. This helps to get the product or service tested fast and to market sooner.

Design Thinking is a practical starting point for any lean or agile process to quickly understand the human implications of the real-world problem or innovation challenge. Design Thinking is also called design doing. Although it is an open-ended, iterative framework, not driven by a pre-defined plan, there is a strong emphasis on “just do it”, experimentation and learning from the outcomes. The first focus is on gathering insights or data with user research and then applying these insights to find people patterns to move forward with. The team works out a shared understanding which of the early solutions ideas are most likely to be successful based on their assessment of the research data. Before the ideas are tested with users, they are developed into models or fast prototypes. Design Thinking teaches prototyping as a new core skill. Strong emphasis is placed on interpersonal skills like empathy and on applying agile mindset techniques to become more familiar with creative and innovative approaches, for example, how to gain new perspectives by reframing mistakes.

Legal Design Thinking

The benefits of using Design Thinking in legal organizations are numerous. In addition to placing the legal service user at the center of the solution, Design Thinking can help increase collaboration and break down silos in legal enterprises. When Design Thinking is introduced, there is the opportunity to promote interdisciplinary teamwork among lawyers within the firm, between lawyers and clients, and even between lawyers and non-legal staff from other parts of the organization like marketing, IT developers, engineers, and human resources. This cross-pollination within a firm in a Design Thinking project proves quite powerful for company collaboration.

Especially with legal project management, the implications for using Design Thinking as an onramp for new service/product development are exciting. Design Thinking gets people collaborating fast towards the same shared goals. Goals that the team has generated together and defined with a shared understanding. Applying the process in the legal sector produces deliverables, like contracts, transparently and efficiently that builds trust and buy-in from the stakeholders. Here is an example of a Design Thinking application at Seyfarth legal services. It shows how a human-centered approach increased the business impact of high-volume litigation to service the diverse and changing needs of the client and focus on lawyer and business professional satisfaction. When legal innovators and leaders set a genuine priority on a human-centered culture of working, then the best way to get sponsorship is to try out an agile Design Thinking mini-experiment. Why not set up a small, motivated team that can work outside the normal company structure for a weeklong sprint? Tackle a nagging company problem, get the know-how to use Design Thinking tools, and kick off a project! Be sure to carefully track the results. Once the rest of the organization sees how successful (and fun!) this kind of collaboration can be, they’ll want to participate as well.

Karla Schlaepfer