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Perfect problem: some lawyers’ tendency to perfectionism creates the conditions for feeling overwhelmed © Getty

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The data may not be in yet, but health professionals and law firm leaders are braced for an increase in mental health problems at top Asia-Pacific law firms. They blame a potent mix of stresses from the coronavirus pandemic and the perfectionist tendencies of many legal professionals.

Berkeley Cox, chief executive partner at King & Wood Mallesons in Australia, says that it is well known that more lawyers struggle with mental wellbeing than people in many other sectors. “It’s a function of the nature of the people who are attracted to and do well in this profession,” he says, adding that the strong service culture and long hours at top law firms are also to blame.

In the same way that you can spot risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, you can also detect warning signs of mental illness, says Brian Marien, a physician and chief executive of The Positive Group, a mental wellbeing consultancy.

“Very successful people have a level of perfectionism,” he says, adding that such individuals can have rigid standards, which means they struggle to accept anything other than their best performance. They can also find it hard to accept change and uncertainty.

Sufferers from anxiety, says Dr Marien, are the people for whom Covid-19 presents the greatest additional risk. Even after the lockdowns loosen, the aftermath of uncertainty it created and the worry that the virus is still circulating will have an effect.

Asian woman exercising and stretching while wearing protective surgical mask to warm up before fitness workout outdoors
Mind and body: physical exercise helps deal with anxiety © (c) Saletomic | Dreamstime.com

Legal analyst ALM’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey, published in February, is just one of a number of studies over recent years that should be ringing alarm bells for senior partners in top law firms.

The research, which the consultancy produced in conjunction with Law.com, found that 31.2 per cent of the 3,800-plus respondents from top law firms around the world felt they were depressed, while 64 per cent reported anxiety. More than 10 per cent reported having an alcohol problem and nearly 3 per cent thought they had a drug problem.

Research in the Asia-Pacific region conveys a similar story. The Australia & New Zealand Wellness Survey 2019, published by the Meritas association of business law firms, found that 63 per cent of respondents had either experienced depression themselves or knew someone in their workplace who had suffered from it. That figure rose to 85 per cent for anxiety.

“The losers will be people who become anxious. It takes up a lot of your bandwidth,” Dr Marien says, explaining that intrusive worrying thoughts start to make people tired, which affects their performance at work. “If you’re a perfectionist lawyer,” he says, that may spark a vicious circle of further worry that other people will notice your work is suffering.

After the initial shock, the continuing effects of the crisis are causing concern. Employees fear losing income or a career, as well as anxiety over loved ones becoming ill.

“We are not recession proof,” says Mr Cox, adding: “We’ve tried to give people as much comfort as we can and have taken an approach of openness on how the business is trading.”

A number of people have developed healthy coping mechanisms in which fears are accepted in what Dr Marien refers to as an “it is what it is” mentality. But for those who are wired differently there is a danger that the worries become magnified.

In such circumstances, to mitigate a preoccupation with any worry, Hannah Reidy, a clinical psychologist and chief executive of charity Mind HK, recommends making efforts to connect with other people, more exercise, accepting anxiety and then trying to move on. However, all these steps were made more difficult by coronavirus lockdowns.

Brian Marien’s Dos and Don’ts for planning a return to the office after lockdown

Do:

  • Communicate regularly and openly about the future of the workplace
  • Be clear, fast and flexible in responding to changing circumstances
  • Acknowledge there are individual differences in how people feel
  • Allow a stepped return
  • Show continued support towards all staff, whether back in the office or still at home
  • Adopt active listening: check in regularly to understand concerns and expectations

Don’t:

  • Ignore psychological anxieties and the difficult challenges many staff have over returning to the workplace
  • Assume your staff already know you are supportive. They will be looking to the leadership for clarity and guidance

For very competitive teams of lawyers, there is the added worry that they might be missing out if they are working from home.

“For example, you hear about a meeting and you thought you should have been part of it. It might have been an oversight, but you don’t know,” says Jefferey Tan, group general counsel, Jardine Cycle & Carriage, the investment holding company.

Mr Tan says technologies such as Zoom give the impression that people are connecting, but there are limitations. “The dialogue tends to be cooler,” he says.

Working from home has also brought other problems. “The intersection of home and work is very blurry,” says Jo McAlpine, Australia head of talent and capability at King & Wood Mallesons. Not everyone can just turn off or manage expectations of availability.

Recognising the risks of burnout in isolation, Mr Cox says the firm acted quickly after its centres in Australia closed on March 16. The HR team called everyone to see how they were doing and if they needed help, and team “check ins” became more frequent.

Now, however, with more businesses beginning to emerge from lockdown, a new problem is looming. How to manage and encourage a return to the office, especially for people who remain very worried about catching the virus or passing it on.

Just as with a phobia, the only way to manage those with a fear of commuting and being in an office is to introduce a gradual exposure, says Dr Marien. “Companies will need to help people return to work.”

The tables below rank law firms for the FT Innovative Lawyers Asia-Pacific awards

People and skills
RankIn-house legal teamsOriginalityLeadershipImpactTotal
STANDOUTGLP — Lawyers have worked closely with their IT colleagues to introduce new technologies. These include tools to automate contracts and systems that provide detailed data from the business to inform how lawyers negotiate and price new agreements. The legal team's tech-led approach has not only saved money but, more importantly, allows the business to agree contracts with new customers faster and collect more data to improve its services. This has helped the logistics company expand, including into new sectors such as financial services, funds and asset management.78924
HIGHLY COMMENDEDTelstra — The Australian telecoms company's legal team combined technologies to create an integrated matter management system that covers new matter intake, triage, workflow automation, and contract management. It ensures work is allocated more efficiently and is expected to save A$500,000 in its first year.78823
HIGHLY COMMENDEDWestpac — The Australian bank's legal and secretariat team implemented a triage and workflow system, including digital forms, automated approval processes and an automated triaging process, to ensure requests go to the right staff. Lawyers were trained to code the digital forms themselves.78823
COMMENDEDOzMinerals — The Australian miner worked with Lawyers On Demand, a flexible lawyering service, to implement a self-service platform that tells business colleagues if they need a contract in place and guides them through creating it. As a result, 70 per cent of work no longer requires a lawyer, saving A$1.4m a year.67922
COMMENDEDPfizer Australia — The legal team replaced a long policy document for internal contracting with an interactive flowchart that has been rolled out globally as part of an initiative to represent legal processes visually. Developing a chatbot has also freed up the legal team to take on more high value work.77620
COMMENDEDTata Communications — The legal team has implemented a range of new tools as part of a digital strategy to focus on automation, analytics and AI. Technologies to manage contract, litigation, compliance and due diligence processes have saved money and are enabling the busy team to handle more requests.56718
People and skills
RankLaw firm & descriptionOriginalityLeadershipImpactTotal
STANDOUTKing & Wood Mallesons — Implemented new programmes to improve the health and wellbeing of employees, including the appointment of “people champions” to facilitate conversations about mental health and the increased reporting of wellbeing metrics. The firm collected and analysed 75,000 data points to identify patterns and risk factors relating to employee wellbeing to inform its new strategy.89724
STANDOUTHerbert Smith Freehills — Implemented a new parental leave policy in nine jurisdictions across Asia-Pacific that entitles primary carers to 24 weeks of parental leave and secondary carers to three weeks. The policy allows employees to switch between secondary and primary, effectively making the policy gender neutral and helping parents to share leave with their partner after the birth of a child.78823
HIGHLY COMMENDEDBaker McKenzie — Removed gender labelling of parental leave and the concept of primary and secondary carers in a new policy that allows all staff to take 18 weeks of parental leave over a 24-month period, regardless of their partner's leave arrangements and entitlement. This flexible policy allows parents to work shorter hours, or to take time in blocks.78722
HIGHLY COMMENDEDCorrs Chambers Westgarth — Introduced a gender-neutral policy to encourage parents to take parental leave and reduce the stress of returning to work. All employees are able to take 18 weeks as a primary carer for a new child. Lawyers can be promoted to partnership while on leave and billing targets are reduced when they return.78722
HIGHLY COMMENDEDKing & Wood Mallesons — Introduced a programme to increase the adoption of new technologies in all the firm's practice areas. Lawyers are rewarded for using tools by applying a multiplier of 1.25 to each hour spent where the technology was used. This multiplier is used for performance reviews and billable target purposes internally only, and not to external billing.88521
HIGHLY COMMENDEDClayton Utz — The firm's accounting, computer science and IT graduate programme offers graduates a range of data, investigations and innovation training. It aims to attract graduates from disciplines such as computer science into the firm's forensic and technology service practice.78520
HIGHLY COMMENDEDGilbert + Tobin — Created new hybrid advisory and innovation roles for three of the firm's lawyers to split their time between the legal transformation team and billable advisory work. The firm has also introduced an optional clerkship seat in the legal transformation team for its graduates.77620
HIGHLY COMMENDEDMinterEllison — Launched Revolution, a 12-month legal operations programme for law graduates. Graduates train in a legal operations role in each of the firm's main practice areas and develop skills in data analytics, AI, legal technology consulting and design thinking.77620
COMMENDEDClayton Utz — A new approach to flexible working included redesigning how work is done and analysing data on promotions to ensure flexible working was not preventing individuals progressing in their careers. Consequently, nearly 65 per cent of employees now access flexible work, with an increased proportion of male employees working flexibly and reporting an improvement in their mental health.57719
COMMENDEDYulchon — Designed a mobile app to allow partners to give regular feedback to associates. Since November 2019, there has been an 80 per cent increase in the number of partners who provided feedback.67619
COMMENDEDZico Law — The firm's Asean Lawyer training programme is designed to help share geographical, political and social knowledge between lawyers across the firm's network of 18 offices in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region, including information about the spread of Covid-19. More than 600 lawyers have participated in the programme.56718

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