Mental Health and Work/Life Balance

Mental Health:  Marketing or Operations?

I like to bake bread. In my opinion, and in the opinion of a family member named Aidan, the crust is the best part of my bread.  When he was younger, Aidan would sometimes help himself to both end pieces. I did not like that.

Once, Aidan asked if it was okay for him to take a slice of my freshly baked bread as it was cooling on the counter. I told him to take just one slice.  The next thing I knew he had sliced the entire top of the bread off and was happily munching way.

When I confronted him, Aidan was not particularly remorseful. He said, “you said that I could have a slice. You didn’t say anything about how I had to slice it.”

It was my fault. I had not paid careful attention to the request. I had not pondered the different ways that his question could be interpreted. I certainly did not make my expectations clear. You would think that with all of my professional training I could have carefully communicated my expectations, and managed Aidan’s expectations.

Setting out our expectations of others and managing their expectations of us is really important in the legal profession.

‘They’ say that resentment flows from unfulfilled expectations, and I have seen plenty of resentment in law firms. When it comes to mental health, I expect to see more of it.

For example, let’s take a firm which has jumped on the mental health bandwagon, and promotes itself as being the type of firm that respects choices made by individual lawyers to protect their wellbeing. If they really meant it, they would move their wellness campaign from Marketing to Operations, reduce their billable hour targets, provide real mentoring and support, encourage everyone to take vacations and be completely “off-line,” and perhaps even consider lowering their short-term revenue projections. But maybe they won’t do any of that and will opt for things like bringing in a yoga instructor at lunch time instead.

And even if the firm does implement real change, you can bet your life that there will be at least a few Partners who half-heartedly signed on to the idea at the partners meeting when it became clear which way the vote was going, but who never had any intention of changing their ways and the demands that they make of their Associates and staff.

You can see where this might lead to an even greater gap between the expectations of their Associates and staff members, and the expectations of the firm.

It is great that there are finally conversations happening about mental health and work/life balance in the profession, but I worry that in most firms all of the noise is coming out of the Marketing department, and very little is coming out of Operations. And if that is the case, newcomers to the profession will have unrealistic expectations. If so, some people, like Aidan, will continue to earn more bread than they should (as they always do in law firms), and others will just become even more resentful.

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