Through the years, law firms have consistently overlooked essential needs of employees to feel experientially grounded during their work lives. Only recently has awareness grown within the legal profession of the extent to which attorneys experience harmful disconnect from their experience resulting from predominant gravitation toward analytical thought.
Until approximately 40 years ago, law firms were small enough so that the partners were unable to insulate themselves from oppressive work conditions. For the most part, up until then, law firms were small enough so that each individual attorney felt some direct accountability to his or her colleagues to ensure an acceptable level of work/life balance. With the emergence of “Big Law” around the 1980s, partners within law firms became more removed from the large number of young associates that were brought in to do much of the hourly work demanded by the partnership. This created a situation in which partners could overlook an oppressive workplace culture since they could effectively insulate themselves from the negative byproducts of that culture.
This situation has changed over the past decade or two as those who were associates say 30 or 40 years ago have ascended to management positions within large law firms. This new generation of partners has experienced harsh work conditions for years which paid lip service toany sort of meaningful work/life balance. Because of this experience, the “new guard” of managing partners is more sensitive to the existential needs of associates within the law firm. In addition, many of these managing partners have suffered from the rising occurrence of mental health challenges as well as substance abuse issues over the past several decades within the legal profession. Thus, those in law firm management positions today have a heightened sensitivity to the potential negative impact of law firm culture on attorneys and have become willing to consider structural and cultural changes within law firms conducive to a more healthy existence for their attorneys.
Thus, over the past several years a movement has grown within the legal industry to promote “wellness” for attorneys and staff within the legal industry. A growing body of research has emerged suggesting possible root causes of mental health and substance abuse challenges, especially for practicing attorneys. As these root causes have become more clearly identified, mental health professionals have become more able to develop treatment approaches specifically for attorneys. These approaches have emerged in law firm wellness initiatives among many of the most prominent law firms in the United States.