General Counsels Role in the Legal Professions Mental Health Crisis


The demands of being a lawyer are taking a devastating toll on lawyers. Statistics show that the legal profession continues to face a mental health crisis. As a profession, it is the silent elephant in the room – burnout, depression, and anxiety.

General counsel should take note to ensure they are creating a culture in their legal department that is life giving and not life taking. This is the right thing to do from a moral perspective and business perspective. Those who are not intentional and strategic about their legal department’s culture are going to suffer in deliverables, productivity, and in recruitment and retention of top talent. Thankfully, there are simple actions general counsel can take to help make a difference when it comes to the health, well-being, productivity and longevity of the lawyers on their team.

The findings of the ALM and Compass 2023 Mental Health Survey of the Legal Profession are troubling to say the least. The survey found that of the respondents, 71% experienced anxiety; 38% felt depressed; 31% have another mental health issue; and 16% contemplated suicide while 7% preferred not to answer whether they contemplated suicide or not. In addition, 70% felt exhausted; 66% are physically and mentally overwhelmed and fatigued; and 23% hated their job. In short, burnout, depression, anxiety and other mental issues have become far too prevalent in the legal profession. The vast majority of lawyers say their workplace contributes to their mental health issues.

In some ways, the mental health issues lawyers face today are not surprising. The first entre for lawyers into the legal professional world begins at law school, which is competitive, individualistic, full of pressure, Socratic in form, unforgiving and ranks your performance compared to peers. Those three years are filled with stress, long hours and competition. Law school to some degree can be the academic form of the Hunger Games.

The practice of law at an in-house legal department is no less forgiving. There are several factors that contribute to the stress, fatigue and burnout in-house lawyers face. They include long hours, a heavy workload, competing interests, unrealistic expectations, time pressures, unclear feedback, always being on call, numerous clients’ demands, overcommitment, dealing in the grey and ethical issues. In addition, in-house lawyers are often in the unenviable position of being the adult in the room when the business is running a high risk of crossing the line of policy, corporate governance, regulatory, legal and ethical considerations. There can be a pressure associated for standing up for what is right when that is not a popular stance. In fact, it can be career ending.

General counsel have a moral obligation and business interest to ensure their leadership is not contributing to the mental health crisis. General counsel who take a human-centric approach to their team and recognize that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” will not only buck the horrific trend of lawyers silently suffering but will likewise have a collaborative, creative and motivated legal department that is high performing and sustainable.

Coming out of the legal profession, mental health crisis will have to come from within—and general counsel have a major role to play. There are a number of simple proactive things for general counsel to consider when leading the culture of the legal department toward a place of health, well-being and happiness. Here are 10 to consider:

1. Regular and Open Communication. Talk with your team on a daily and weekly basis. Look for ways to interact and connect with them, whether in their office, your office, and in the corridor and break room. Whether it is formal or informal, be present and engaged in these interactions. Take the initiative to engage and connect in meaningful ways with the members of your team.

2. Be Curious. Ask team members how they are doing. Ask them what is going well and what is not going well. Ask if they need anything from you. Ask about what they are learning on the job. Ask if they are finding meaning and purpose in their work. This curiosity not only benefits the team, but it also benefits the general counsel, who gains information and insight. Your team is talking with one another and others about issues, concerns, and shortcomings in the department; you want them to talk with you, and not about you, regarding those matters.

3. Clarity. Provide clear expectations and routine feedback, emphasizing the positive. Ensure that your team knows what is expected from them and use the “smart” methodology – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Be clear when they have done something well and let them know they did a great job. And when there is a mishap, process it with the team member and view it as a lesson learned.

4. Make it Personal. Take a genuine interest in peoples’ personal lives. Ask about their weekend, family, interests, and hobbies. Get to know your team on a personal level. And let them get to know you on a personal level as well. Take a human-centric approach to your role where there is a view that members of the team are people first and lawyers second.

5. Time Off. Encourage your people to take vacations and be off the clock on evenings, weekends, and vacations. Allow your team to recharge their batteries and enjoy the things that are important to them outside the office, whether it be hobbies, events, sports, and kids’ games. Providing the in-house lawyers of today with autonomy and flexibility is critical. Work does not have to be, nor should it be, 24/7/365.

6. Professional Development. Determine your lawyers’ professional goals and where they want to professionally develop. Ask your team members what success would look like for them over the next year, three years, and five years. Help them get to where they want to be from a professional perspective. Look for opportunities to invest in members of your team through Association of Corporate Counsel memberships, other associations’ memberships, professional networking gatherings, and coaching,

7. Run Interference and Coach. Run interference with difficult clients and functional heads. Your team wants to know you have their back and will stand up for them with your peers. In addition, part of setting your team up for success is helping them navigate difficult clients and unreasonable expectations and deadlines. Help coach your team how to deal with difficult individuals and situations and at the same time have your team’s back in such situations.

8. Cross Functional Interactions. Encourage cross-functional social and work events and meetings with Sales, HR, Procurement, Finance, Operations, Audit and Marketing. These interactions will make work more personal and purposeful. Building trust and stronger relationships across functions will help your team feel more connected to their clients and committed to the work they are doing.

9. Connectedness and Belonging. Encourage connection and belonging on your team via lunches, dinners, get-togethers and seminars. Socializing outside the office will create a deeper connection and sense of belonging among one another. In the office, create a speak-up culture among your team where people feel valued and listened to. Encourage people to share their thoughts and ideas and avoid a strict top-down hierarchy that stifles open discussion and creativity.

10. Speakers and Webinars. Have outside experts speak on topics such as mindfulness, yoga, sleep, nutrition, exercise, parenting, relationships, meditation and well-being. Look for ways to address peoples’ health and well-being in an informal, comfortable, and non-threatening format that will add value both personally and professionally. Lawyers find it difficult to ask for help. By bringing such topics to them in a positive, constructive way they will be exposed to many of the answers and help they are looking for.

As leaders, general counsel naturally have their important and necessary work deliverables as does the legal department under them. The “how” of how many law departments have gone about achieving those deliverables has contributed to team members’ suffering, burnout, anxiety and depression. In fact, close to one out of four lawyers hate their job and one out of five lawyers has contemplated suicide. Often general counsel are unaware of their teams’ well-being as in-house lawyers are reluctant to talk about such things. General counsel should take a human-centric approach to leading their departments with an emphasis on creating a healthy, collaborative, connected, purposeful, empowering, transparent, confident, creative, compassionate, caring and courageous culture. This will pay high dividends with performance, client satisfaction, deliverables, timeliness, innovation, retention and attracting top talent. As importantly, this human centric approach will help turn the awful tide of the legal profession’s mental health crisis. The 10 steps above are a great place to start.


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