Episode 21: A Winning Recipe for a Happy and Successful Lawyer (and Team!)

July 1, 2021

Here at CGL, we are all about promoting happiness and balance for our team. Even before the pandemic, we were having conversations about the relationship we as a society have with work. These conversations are now at the forefront for many other employees in the country as well. Because of this greater emphasis on balance in the workplace, the issue of burnout and a lack of work-life balance has been coming up a lot.


So today we want to share our thoughts on balancing happiness and success with the realities of legal practice. We want to provide some insight into how we here at CGL think we’re making a difference, while also identifying areas where we still have work to do. We hope that by bringing up these issues and having an honest conversation about them, the topic will stay on your mind.

We want to see more options for attorneys and all white-collar professionals who crave balance and happiness. This is an attainable goal that just comes down to changing the narrative around work. Tune in to hear ideas that will give you some food for thought on this topic.

In this episode, you will hear:

  • Why burnout is so prevalent for attorneys.
  • The dangers of attorney burnout.
  • The lack of work-life balance in the legal system.
  • How to create a healthy work-life balance.
  • Our three principles here at CGL for promoting a happy and successful legal team.

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Supporting Resources:

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Episode 21 Transcript:

 

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

attorneys, burnout, work, folks, encourage, people, clients, balance, happiness, billable hour, conversations, lawyer, big, pandemic, firm, discussion, speak, problem, impact, success

 

00:02

I’m your host Hannah Genton and I’m one of the founding partners of CGL. What if you could speak with top business leaders and CEOs about their professional insights and personal journeys. Each week we share authentic discussions with business leaders, where they flesh out substantive issues while also getting deeper into their authentic stories. Our goal is to bring you conversations on the fusion of business and humanity, success and authenticity, and the challenges of balancing life and work. Thank you for joining us. Hello, hello, and welcome to conversations with CGL. I’m Hannah Genton, and I am your host today. My co-founder Noam is not here with me in this week’s episode, so it’s just me and your ears for this week’s piece. Today, I want to share our thoughts here at CGL, about balancing happiness and success with the realities of the legal practice. This comes up a lot. And so I figured this would be a great topic for us to talk about on the podcast. So I want to dive into how we here at CGL think we’re making a difference on this and identify some of the areas where I believe we’ve still got some work to do. This is the stuff I’m passionate about. So our hope with this is really by continuing to bring up these issues and have an honest conversation, the discussion is going to stay in your minds. And ultimately, our passion here is really to see more options for attorneys and all white-collar professionals who crave balance and happiness. So we love talking about work. We love talking about changing the narrative about work. And that’s what this is about. So, again, we’re going to talk a little bit about burnout, and why the discussion around lawyer burnout is so important. So you might think this topic is more important for lawyers than it is for business owners and CEOs. But the reality is that your attorneys well being and health really impacts the way that they practice law. And so clients, you want your attorneys engaged, and you want them to be sharp. And unfortunately, one of the problems with burnout on any professional but definitely in the legal profession that requires great attention to detail, and thoughtful neps burned out attorneys are likely to experience physiological symptoms like reduced performance and productivity, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, lack of creativity, quickness to anger, cynicism, and frustration. Definitely not qualities you want to see in your service provider or your lawyer. And trust me when I say that none of those symptoms are conducive to an attorney doing a good job. I think any service professional, but certainly, attorneys really need to be agile and creative and motivated. They really need to have a good handle over their reactions. You do not want an attorney who is burned out working on your important business legal matters. I can’t emphasize that enough. And, unfortunately, kind of the big law world is rife with this burnout, and not just big lot. The legal world is rife with this, there are burnt-out attorneys all over the place, working themselves to the bone, because that’s the way it is. And people have this assumption that attorneys are workaholics and miserable people. I hate to say that, but that’s a stereotype that we have in our society that’s accepted. And these attorneys are really encouraged to work exceptionally long hours. Oftentimes, that’s a requirement if you need to remain on partner track at certain places. And one just having an honest discussion about that I wanted to raise that piece there. But what are some of these other factors that impact your happiness? So I think that there are other factors outside of burnout, specifically that impact lawyer happiness, particularly a lack of work-life balance is also one. So you don’t need to be burnt out to be suffering the negative consequences of a lack of work-life balance and work-life balance and what balances I think is specific to each person. So what is balanced for me might be different for someone else. And that is a personal journey that folks need to go on themselves and define for themselves what balance looks like, but many of us and especially parent attorneys suffer when their work-life balance tips further toward work. So attorneys really are often motivated by success that takes that hunger to even get into the game of being an attorney. It’s a lot of work to get into the industry and so often it does bring folks who are motivated by success and the attorneys. Again, I’m generalizing here, but we tend to thrive when we’re working on challenging matters. The attorneys I know are folks that are just curious people and poking into things and digging things. And when things are challenging, we enjoy that. Exploring that or there’s curiosity there, I guess. But unfortunately, the industry, the kind of traditional model of legal practice, right now seems to take advantage of this kind of type, a personality that most attorneys possess, creating this really fast-paced, super competitive environment, where you’re either working all the time, you’re like outworking, your colleagues, or you’re falling behind, I can’t tell you how much that pressure is felt in the industry, definitely a big law firms. But I think just across the industry, there’s this belief that our time is tied to the hours built and things. And if I’m honest, actually, this can be kind of fun, especially when you’re young and working in the office. In my early days, in the big law world, I got a little bit of a high and I’m fully transparent. Working in that environment, you’re working on these like challenging high stake projects, you’re surrounded by colleagues kind of bouncing ideas around, it can be kind of addictive in those early phases. But it’s not really a sustainable model for everyone. For some folks, it is but for not everyone. And for those folks that it’s not a sustainable model, it definitely doesn’t generate long-term happiness. And this is especially true for people that want to do things in their life outside of work or pursue other things. And speaking personally, in my case, which is the case for many working-age women, one of those other things that I really wanted was a family, I’ve always been called to having a family and having children. And that in itself impacted my happiness. And I was thrilled when I was pregnant. And I saw I got pregnant at my first big firm, I was working at a big law firm in Palo Alto. And I was overjoyed, I gave birth to my first healthy baby boy. But it also really brought up these feelings for me that were really difficult to navigate. I loved being a mother. But my identity was so closely tied to this sense of being an attorney, or at least working. And I want to see myself as successful, like I had this view of myself, but being successful at that point, not returning to work. And so that’s what I did. And I was working like 15 hour days, I’m pumping breast milk whenever I could find time to do it. And I missed so many of my son’s first like, I was getting pictures, texts to me from my nanny, and the whole thing just felt, for me, it wasn’t working, I didn’t feel successful at all. Yet, on paper, I was successful and checking the box on my own definition, my own definition of success. So I ended up quitting my job at my big firm. And I in that moment really felt like I needed to choose between being a successful lawyer or being a present mother. And that did not make me happy. And I’m hopeful that after the pandemic, maybe fewer parents will have to make choices like that. And that we’re opening up the narrative a little bit more about our relationship with work, because it’s not one size fits all. So I left my firm thinking that there has to be something better, there has to be a different option, my son is only going to be little for so long. I just want to be present obvious and want to be president his whole life. But I really he really needs me to be president right now. How do I balance us? So that kind of nagging feeling is one of the inspirations behind the CGL. And no, I’m and I talked at length in episode one about CGL and how it all came together, how we formed the firm and the motivations there. But one of CGL is really foundational pillars is that we believe autonomy leads to happier employees. So in our case, those happy employees are experienced and high-achieving attorneys, who for whatever reason, may not have been able to continue practicing law inside a traditional legal work model. So what we’re creating here is an alternative framework, a different type of workplace, if you will, that really promotes attorney happiness and balance while offering our attorneys the opportunity to still do that challenging and engaging work and service our clients. So I want to go into that a little bit. So there are a couple of ways that we here at CGL are working to build a workplace for happy attorneys. So first, we’ve reduced the billable hour targets for our attorneys. That whole concept of your value being tied to how much time you spend working, we think is part of the problem. So that’s why we’ve really reduced our billable hour targets. And this is really designed to reduce the likelihood of burnout occurring. But what we’ve also found is that this approach really opens the doors for creative problem-solving. The biggest issue that clients have with the billable hour model is that it promotes an efficient kind of resolutions of issues. Because firm revenue is tied to attorney spending longer time on files and hours, which we think discourages creativity and creative problem solving for our clients definitely can’t say that we’ve solved the billable hour problem at all, or that we fixed attorney burnout completely. But we’re really receiving consistently good feedback from our clients. Despite our attorneys spending less hours at work, we’d like to credit some of that to just our attorneys’ creativity and problem-solving. I think that just their presence and engagement and not being so overwhelmed with hours and hours of work, they’re able to really dedicate themselves deeper to our clients and our client issues. And certainly we get that feedback from clients that our team is really engaged and responsive. And so we’re hoping that a piece of that has to do with these reduced billable hour requirements. Second, and this is a big important piece to us. So we’ve given our attorneys this autonomy by allowing them to work from wherever kind of they want to work, whichever hours of the day are most productive for them. And then of course, for client services. So we’re responsive to our clients when they need us. But most of our team, and most of our work allows us to create a workday or work schedule that fits with our flow, if you will. So for example, I get up early. I’m an early riser. And so my workday starts really early. And I can hammer through a lot of stuff. First thing, that’s the schedule that works for me, other attorneys work really late into the evening. And we don’t micromanage folks, I don’t track my team and say, “Are you online, are you online?” We let folks speak the grownups that they are and decide the work schedule that fits into their life. But this flexibility has in no way impacted our ability to meet any deadlines. So we’re still always responsive to clients. And we’re always meeting our deadlines. It just requires thoughtful planning. And it allows our attorneys that autonomy to build something that makes sense for them so they don’t get to that point of burnout. So that’s another way that we’re working to build a better workplace for happy attorneys. The third focus of CGL is we work so hard on our culture, I cannot emphasize how much we work on our culture. We send around an internal newsletter every Monday with productivity hacks, motivational tips, and reminders of the importance of health and well being and balance. I can’t say how often that’s infused to the conversations, I feel like we’re trying to very much encourage our team to be to the extent they’re comfortable, but to be open about what they have going on in their lives. We encourage them to speak up if they’re overwhelmed, and we normalize these discussions. I want folks to tell me if they’re taking a break, not out of micromanaging purposes, but because I want them to be taking breaks during the day or doing different things. And so that takes constant kind of effort and intentionality on our leadership team. And we really care about that culture. In fact, Jenny, one of our partners here at CGL, spoke just a few weeks ago on this podcast, about how she herself felt she was on the cusp of burnout. Not only do we encourage folks to share about these things, but we encourage folks to share honestly, you know, we talk honestly about the team. And then we say “Okay, what do you need? Let’s address this.” We try to solve those problems in real time. And we really encourage our employees to discuss what they do outside of work to the extent they’re comfortable. For example, one of our team members, he wants to own a hobby farm and he always has the most amazing stories about the stuff that he’s doing or these interesting stories about animals and things that he’s dedicating his time to and we love to hear about that. You know, I’m working on my death doula certification, which is a whole bunch of work and something that’s very near and dear to my heart and we don’t hide away these other things that we do out of fear that because we’re not just talking about work all the time. We really focus on being whole elastic, autonomous people. So we really encourage everybody to talk about it. And really encourage our team to make a life outside of work. And finally, this is like anything in life. But we realized that no matter what we do and what we try to do here, each of our attorneys and our employees is going to have this inner dialogue that they need to grapple with, especially attorneys. As I said, attorneys are notoriously these type A personalities. And oftentimes, the attorneys who come to us are used to a legal environment, that’s high pressure with a lot of oversight and a lot of micromanaging. When we take a lot of hands-off approach, Noam, my co-founder, puts it well, often, and she says, “We’re not running an adult daycare center.” We really encourage our team to be autonomous. And whatever they need to do to get their work done. We’re less concerned with power when they do it. So long as we’re meeting kind of the highest quality that we can for our clients, we really take a hands-off approach, and we encourage them to reach out if they need anything from us, we’re always available to support, we don’t constantly tell them what we need to do, we create the open door and empower them to kind of step into that and own their pieces of work. And I cannot tell you how much we benefit from that. Because our team just bring such amazing value to the table day in day out and they own it. But oftentimes, it’s an adjustment for them to get them there when we bring new hires. And so we really try to help folks and be empathetic about where they’re coming from, and help them navigate this change. Because many people aren’t used to this in a work environment. CGL, of course, is not without flaws. We are a work in progress every day. But we feel that starting to really ask these questions about the impact of the workplace, on employees, and working to resolve those issues where we can as important just having conversations about this and being honest and transparent about what’s going on is important, I think and certainly I think what’s happened over the past year with this pandemic, has opened people’s eyes in terms of the relationship that we’ve had as a society to work we’ve been having conversations about this since before the pandemic in terms of our relationship with work in the workplace and how we can become a better society by just being thoughtful about this. Anyway, I hope that kind of hearing me discuss these issues today is giving you some food for thought how you can have more happy and successful workers at your workplace. As you probably know from listening to these I love feedback. I love the conversation. I would love to hear from you. If you have something that you want to add to this I would love to hear from you. If you disagree with everything that I’ve said I would love to continue that discussion. If you have anything that you’d like to contribute, please feel free to reach out to me directly you can send me an email to hannah@CGL-LLP.com. It’s hannah@CGL-LLP.com. If you like what you hear you’re welcome to give us a rating and or subscribe to wherever you listen to your podcast on Apple or Spotify. And thank you so much for your time and joining me for this episode today. We’ll speak with you next time.

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