Paul Rawlinson, Baker McKenzie’s Global Chair, stepped down temporarily from his position last month. The firm’s announcement read in part:

“Based on the advice of his doctor, in response to medical issues caused by exhaustion, Paul has decided to take a step back from Firm leadership and client responsibilities to make his health and recovery his immediate priority.”

While we don’t know the particulars of Mr. Rawlinson’s situation, the legal profession generally seems similarly overcome.

In September of 2017, a year after the release of a survey that found the levels of problem drinking and mental health issues in the legal profession significantly higher than in previous studies, the ABA Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession was formed.  The Working Group published a well-being toolkit for law firms, to which Muir contributed, and announced in September 2018 that several firms had signed a pledge to focus more on lawyer mental health. It is unclear whether Bake McKenzie was among them.

Pundits everywhere have weighed in on the causes of these increasingly troublesome mental health breakdowns among our ranks. As discussed in Beyond Smart: Lawyering with Emotional Intelligence, Muir’s research has uncovered some tantalizing correlations. The LSAT’s deductive-style questions apparently favor those who are slightly depressed, indicating even before entering law school a population possibly not able to manage their emotions well. There are also indications that law school may further alienate students from recognizing, and then being in a position to deal with, their emotional states. Pessimism, long recognized as a pervasive career asset among lawyers, nonetheless has some potentially unattractive side effects both personally and professionally, making collaboration, relationship-building and maintenance, risk-taking, innovation and reaching out for help more difficult. All of which can lead to isolation and a spiral downward because of little personal support.

Firm practices often reinforce or compound these personal tendencies. Those so accused include compensation plans:

“Compensation systems intentionally incentivize lawyers to work as hard and as long as they can… [m]agnifying and exploiting lawyers’ weakness for individual achievement and financial gain…”

We all know that practicing law can be a taxing and stressful endeavor. Yet there are a number of steps legal organizations can, and certainly should, take to improve the mental health of their troops. The first question, however, is whether we are even going to consider that endeavor to be a valuable undertaking? Exactly what does it take–beyond statistical exclamations and individual carnage–to make that a priority?

Congratulations to Baker McKenzie for at least copping to their Global Chair’s impairment and offering support and a way back home. Who is next?

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Photo of Ronda Muir Ronda Muir

Muir is a lawyer with both Big Law and inside counsel experience in the US and abroad. Grounded in the behavioral sciences, she provides psychologically sophisticated and business-savvy advice to maximize individual and organizational law practice performance in the 21st century. Muir specializes in getting your lawyers invested in their careers, motivated, productive, profitable and leading effectively.

Muir publishes LawPeopleBlog and is an award-winning author and speaker on numerous current issues unique to the legal industry. Her best-selling book Beyond Smart: Lawyering with Emotional Intelligence, published by the ABA in 2017, is the first comprehensive guide to understanding, using and raising emotional intelligence in the unique context of law practice.