Legal Organizations Can Combat Industry Burn Out, Turnover with an ‘Inclusify’ Approach

People sit at desks in an office
Legal organizations can “inclusify” their offices to increase attorney well-being and address turnover and burnout in the legal industry. / Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash.

Creating a corporate culture that encourages belonging may seem like a wishy-washy idea. But corporate initiatives aimed toward inclusion, while also allowing employees to stand out, can have long lasting impacts. 

At a virtual event hosted by the Center for Legal Inclusiveness on Jan. 20, Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program Director Ryann Peyton explained how legal employers can “inclusify” their organizations to increase attorney well-being and address turnover and burnout in the legal industry. 

The term “inclusify” comes from a book by the same name written by Stefanie Johnson, an associate professor of management at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. An “inclusified” organization means two things to the employees who work there: they feel like they are accepted and their uniqueness, experience, knowledge and more, is recognized. 

It comes down to the idea of belonging, Peyton explained, which in practice can be harder to encourage at an organization than it may seem on the surface. “It may seem like a simple concept, but it’s actually a really difficult concept,” said Peyton. “What we’re trying to do in an ‘inclusified’ organization is give people the opportunity to be who they are, to stand out, to have uniqueness and also feel seen, heard and like they belong at the same.”

According to Peyton, at organizations that aren’t “inclusfied,” employees can feel pressured to change themselves to fit with company culture; can feel like they aren’t seen or known as a person and not just a professional; can feel left out of important meetings; can feel like there’s little transparency around how to move up in the company; can feel like they’re assigned unfair workloads of meaningless tasks; and can feel like they don’t have support to work in a way that makes sense to them. 

The ‘Less Tangible’ 

For the legal industry, an employer’s focus on fostering belonging might address some issues that plague attorneys. 

The Harvard Business Review in 2018 found that attorneys were the “loneliest workers” in the U.S. based on a study of more than 1,600 employees in a range of industries across the country. Studies have found that mental health issues, including substance abuse, depression and anxiety, disproportionately impact attorneys

Attorney well-being and health impacts the industry and employers too. A study by Georgetown Law’s Center on Legal Ethics and the Profession and the Thomson Reuters Institute found that in 2021 firms with the best retention rates had lower compensation rates and higher billable hours for associates than firms with high turnover rates. Hanging on to attorneys came down to “less tangible” factors than money and workload, the study found. Compared to prior years, firms had a hard time retaining associates. Associate turnover from November 2020 to November 2021 was 23%, a five percent increase compared to the turnover rate in 2019. 

These “less tangible” factors that set “stay firms” apart from “go firms,” as the study dubbed the firms with different turnover rates, could be related to elements of well-being and belonging. 

Peyton explained that embracing “inclusification” can have impacts on attorney retention, turnover and expenses. The legal industry has several unique factors that can make creating a culture of belonging difficult.

One factor is the importance of informal social gatherings and relationships to advancing at firms and in the industry, said Peyton. Attorneys who recently joined a firm may not know about the company’s unspoken rules or informal social opportunities and as a result, may miss out on professional growth opportunities and connections with colleagues. 

According to Peyton, who is let into these informal gatherings is impacted by another factor – affinity bias. Affinity bias is a tendency for people to gravitate towards others like them in terms of appearance, background and beliefs. In the professional world, and in the legal industry, Peyton explained, this means people who are similar to those already at firms are more likely to foster social and professional relationships with other attorneys. Affinity bias can undermine diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at firms since minority attorneys can be excluded from informal relationships with their colleagues who don’t look like them or have similar experiences. 

The legal industry has a strong rooted culture of “entrepreneurialism,” Peyton explained, or the tendency to value profits and efficiency which can encourage workers to put in as many hours as possible. This culture can create unhealthy work practices, Peyton added, and can alienate workers who can’t work extra hours due to family commitments. 

Another factor that impacts belonging at law firms is attorney expectations going into the industry versus realities, said Peyton. Young attorneys don’t always expect some of the demands of the job like workloads, deadlines, resources and internal competition. They can also harbor what Peyton calls “an Atticus Finch” complex, or a lofty goal to spark change in the world by becoming an attorney. 

How to ‘Inclusify’ Meaningfully

Employers can make a number of changes to help lawyers feel like they belong, which ultimately can improve staff retention, well-being and employee performance, explained Peyton. And when staff don’t feel like they belong, “that is your problem as a leader because ultimately that impacts your organization and your organization’s bottom line,” Peyton said.  

“Inclusified” leaders have four main characteristics: they are supportive, empathetic, willing to learn and fair, explained Peyton. In practice, this means leaders publicly support diversity efforts, get to know their employees as people, want to learn more about new ideas, hire those with different views and are looking for ways to make the environment more equitable by supporting employees’ individual needs. Peyton added that “inclusifed” leaders also recognize their ability to make meaningful changes in their workplace. 

At legal organizations, this includes encouraging transparency and getting rid of “closed door cultures.” Employees should understand how success and promotions are measured at their firm. This can help increase firm diversity since “it’s easier for some people to check those boxes and move through the hierarchy and it’s more challenging for other people,” said Peyton. 

Peyton also recommends that leaders empower their employees. Meaningful empowerment combines high expectations with active encouragement, resources and support from leaders.  

Including non-minorities in EDI efforts is also important, Peyton added, since EDI initiatives are generally more successful when they have active participation by non-minorities. 

Peyton also suggests encouraging complete mentor relationships. One of the most important aspects of a mentor-mentee relationship when cultivating belonging is the social role of mentors. At CAMP, Peyton explained, building professional competence skills is important, but it’s only one part of the relationship. “It’s the human connection and interrelatedness that comes from a mentoring relationship that helps people to excel in their professional pathway,” Peyton said.  

If a firm can’t create internal mentorship opportunities, Peyton encourages it to provide its employees time and resources to engage in outside mentorship programs like CAMP. 

Firms should also look at their office culture to be aware of how employees can be impacted and change practices that hurt well-being. Destigmatizing poor well-being, Peyton said, can be key. Peyton also recommends that firms be wise with financial incentives. Bonuses that depend on hitting billable hours might push employees to overwork, but other measures, like client satisfaction, could be used to recognize performance more effectively. Allowing meaningful work opportunities can also foster belonging, Peyton added, including leadership opportunities or pursuing areas of interest. 

“Inclusifying” your workplace isn’t a one-and-done practice. Peyton recommends employees ask themselves four questions regularly: Do you see me? Do you hear me? Will you treat me fairly? Will you protect me? If an employee doesn’t feel seen, heard, protected or treated fairly, that’s an issue of belonging, Peyton explained. 

“It’s really about culture, having an organizational culture where you’re always looking out for well-being,” said Peyton. “Not just ‘how do we tell people to be healthier? How do we put the burden and the onus on the individual to do more yoga or get more sleep or eat better?’ but really ‘how do we build our organization and lead our organization to create a healthier workplace?’”

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