Sustainable law: stop lawyer burnout killing your team

How do you motivate your legal team in an age where young lawyers get their kicks from achievement, run from the mundane, and move jobs as quickly as they swipe left or right on their smartphones?

Are you hearing the talk of lawyer burnout and lawyer mental health a lot right now? Doesn’t sound like sustainable law or exciting for young lawyers.

Lawyer burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion resulting from excessive and chronic workplace stress. It’s not a bad day, rather endless bad days.

Burnout is almost a rite of passage on the way to the top. It was for me. How about you? What life events did you sacrifice for the sake of your legal career?

“It’s time to change things up, end the cycle of lawyer burnout, make the law sustainable using legal design.”

Legal design is a new mindset that creates a culture of creative problem solving where people come first. It levers off technology, and lawyers find meaning in their everyday work. (And your profit and loss statements are safe.)

Your lawyers are thinking about leaving the law (even if they don’t tell you)

I’ve written about unhappy lawyers leaving the law. Here I’m discussing how we as leaders can change the way we think about and practice law so our teams are happy to come to work and our customers enjoy the services we provide.

Do you lead a team? Having a revolving door of unhappy lawyers is a challenge. The gut-wrenching feeling when a person you value resigns is like a personal blow. The hours spent sharing knowledge and nurturing lawyerly talents is heartbreaking.

It affects the shape and vibe of your team and potentially the future of your firm. It costs money to recruit and onboard a new lawyer, and the more they come and go, the harder it is to find new talent, cos, ya know, word gets around.

The law is not the problem, it’s the way it’s done

The thing is, times are changing. New lawyers (and customers) have different drivers and motivators, and they will look elsewhere if they aren’t met.

We all chose to be lawyers for a reason. The most common I hear is to make a difference.

I’m sure you know the feeling, before long you’re stuck in the cog of the mundane, and the mundane consumes much of your daily work and you’re sure as hell not making a difference.

As Simon Sinek said: “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we care about is called passion.”

Use legal design to build better work for lawyers

So much of the legal system is a replica of centuries-old traditions. We guard the law, keep its secrets and cloak it in a veil of mystery. It alienates our customers and puts new lawyers through an unnecessary hazing process to succeed.

Why? I don’t have the answer.

What I do see is consumers and lawyers voting with their feet. Design thinking enables us to part ways with the old when we discover new and better ways to provide the service.

As leaders in the industry, it’s for us to lead the change and transform the law. (Can I be brave and add the regulatory and legal systems to the list?)

Make the law sustainable with legal design

1. Mindset

Legal design is a new mindset to approach law. I like to think of it like a new pair of glasses to help us see our work and services in a new, fresh way.

In the design process we are encouraged to be beginners, to not have the weight and duty of expertise on our shoulders all the time. This feels very uncomfortable, but it’s also quite a relief for a change.

Designer mindset is about taking a break from feasibility, putting perfectionism aside for a moment. Again, requires some rewiring for your brains through practice but it’s the most effective way to release your creativity. If creativity and innovation feel too intimidating, try curiousness and open-mindedness.

Legal design process steers you to true collaboration in mixed teams. You’ll be surprised how smart people really are and how willing they are to share their thoughts and ideas. Who knew providing legal services could be fun?

With your designer glasses on, you’re allowed to treat your work products as prototypes at first. Ask for feedback for your crappy first versions. Let your greater vision and purpose guide you instead of your ego – reframe critique as useful feedback and a chance to learn and improve.

Legal design provides the opportunity to create better ways of working and serving our clients and gives lawyers meaningful work. While saving time and money, you develop ideas for new initiatives and organizational changes we never thought possible.

I’ve been introducing the legal design mindset to many legal teams and when the “a-ha” moment happens, it’s a powerful thing.

Lawyers can work smarter and not harder. No need to burnout.

2. Culture

Vital to sustainable law is embedding the design mindset through the culture of the organization and team. Legal design enables us to build humane legal organizations.

We leaders need to leave space for committed and motivated people to come forward with their ideas. We need to trust our people so lawyers and other employees feel safe and encouraged to practice design thinking to optimize performance and outcomes. Walk the walk.

Every time I run a workshop; I see how eager lawyers are to open up. They want to talk about their experiences, their work, their frustrations and opportunities. Legal design allows lawyers to create cultures where lawyers are free to collaborate, vent, explore, and create new outcomes for their users (and produce meaningful work for the lawyers, too).

It’s very different to an exercise in human resources where people get their frustrations on the table and commit to change, and nothing changes. (No offence to human resource practitioners). Legal design forces group commitment to a new way of doing.

The recent Legal Design Podcast on Legal Designing Financial Services is well worth your time if you’d like to learn more about the organization-wide adoption of legal design.

3. Leverage legal tech

Let’s face the ugly truth. One of the root causes for lawyer burnout is that there simply is too much work. Manual, labor intensive and even commodity work lawyers grind through day in day out. It also means we’re too much busy working to find time for improvements. And yet there is an abundance of smart legal tech tools just waiting for a chance to help your team.

When we stop shooting ideas down and pause feasibility, it allows us to think about “what if” rather than “what is”. Legal design process gives you the framework of understanding the problems in the everyday processes and routine tasks and then finding and implementing the suitable tech solutions for them.

The promise of legal tech is to end the repetitive, manual work for lawyers. Tools and apps are emerging to make internal systems more efficient and streamlined (replacing the mundane stuff lawyers once did).

We have software able to read contracts and highlight the areas of risk so lawyers can get straight to the point. We have autofill leases and property documents and plug and paste contract generators for lawyers. Audible contracts are coming.

On the public side, users can buy off the shelf contracts, make wills, incorporate companies online without a lawyer. (This is where many of our unhappy colleagues are going – private practice – developing legal products, for a price, not a billable hour.)

Chatbots exist to help lawyers internally with repetitive transactions. (I’ve yet to see a chatbot for clients to use directly, but I’m sure someone is working on it.)

The businesses I work with use their firm-specific issues as the basis for their legal design work. No doubt your firm has its own set of opportunities to explore.

So don’t give up

Allowing your lawyers to open up and discuss what works and what doesn’t, then applying design thinking could be the beginning of a bright new future for your team.

A world where your law is sustainable, your revenue is strong (perhaps coming from sources a little different than now), your users are return customers and your lawyers are enthusiastic about outcomes and making a difference.

The change begins with the first step, the first nibble, the dipping of the first toe into the water. You’ll find the next step after the first step.

Just start.

If you would like more information about the Lawyer’s Design School, please subscribe to my newsletter or shoot me an email. I look forward to chatting with you.