Even with strong legal practice management techniques, stress is an inevitable component of every workplace. But too much of it for too long can negatively impact productivity and push your top attorneys and paralegals to flee the organization. Also, chronic stress can cause or aggravate serious health conditions like heart disease, depression and autoimmune disorders.
A recent Robert Half Legal survey identified long workdays and the pressures of billable hours as the top stressors in lawyer jobs. Managing client expectations came in at a close second. Managers must help their legal team mitigate key stressors before they lead to staff burnout, client dissatisfaction and a poor retention rate. If you sense low morale and high anxiety among your staff, take action before the problems spiral out of control. Here are some legal practice management steps you can take:
Model Work/Life Balance
A top legal practice management technique is to give your staff the flexibility they need to balance their personal and professional lives. And, in many ways, management sets the tone. Little things, like not sending work emails that require action on weekends, regularly stepping out for lunch and leaving the office at a relatively early hour, can help legal managers send the message that the firm encourages a healthy work/life balance.
Promote Healthy Lifestyles
A strong body can better handle the adverse effects of stress. You can promote good habits by stocking the break room with nutritious snacks like fresh fruit, vegetables and lean proteins. Motivate your staff to get regular exercise by providing gym memberships as part of the health benefits package, offering on-site yoga classes or starting a lunchtime walking group.
Foster a Positive Social Atmosphere
Strong relationships with colleagues can help mitigate common stressors like long work hours and pressing deadlines. Social gatherings — weekend get-togethers with spouses, attending shows or sports events together, etc. — can help employees deepen their friendships with one another. But don’t relegate group activities to after hours. Acknowledge birthdays with signed cards and monthly celebrations in the conference room. Liven up staff meetings with team-building activities or little treats. Hold quarterly potluck lunches and have people vote on the best dishes in each category.
Laughter also is a potent stress reliever, so don’t be afraid to exercise your sense of humor at the office. Just be sure that your humor is appropriate and you aren’t making sarcastic or hurtful jokes.
Gratitude is an important part of enhancing emotional wellbeing, and good legal practice management involves recognizing your staff. After the completion of a major case or project, show your appreciation through spoken words, written notes, gift cards and extra time off. Although employees are compensated with salary and benefits, praise can mean more than you may assume. Take time to thank your staff for their valuable contributions.
Cut Workload to Cut Stress
Another way to reduce stress among your staff is to bring in project legal professionals to help out during peak times and help teams manage constantly changing workloads.
No matter your approach to legal practice management, the most potent way to reduce stress among your staff is to show that you care about their wellbeing. Let them know that they can and should speak up when stress levels rise, and that you will do your best to mitigate the problem. Reducing the stress inherent in the legal workspace will lead to more engaged and productive employees — not to mention a happier you as a more successful manager.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.