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How Assumptions are Tainting the Legal Profession’s Well-Being

Where's the crotch?

Photo Courtesy of Spanx
Photo Courtesy of Spanx

You’re probably wondering why this article about lawyer wellbeing leads with “Where’s the Crotch?”

I’m assuming you’re wondering that, of course. As insignificant and meaningless as some assumptions are, others can change the course of your career. I’ve seen and lived it first hand.

Countless lawyers (many of them working moms) are leaving their jobs, or the profession entirely, due to faulty assumptions about what they can, should and do care about.

But first, an explanation of the crotch reference.

Sara Blakely’s Missing Crotch

I recently took Sara Blakely’s Masterclass on self-made entrepreneurship, where Sara shared the secrets to her success, one of them being: “Don’t assume anything.”

Years ago, Sara built shape-wear prototypes, all with built in crotches.  When she received her first large order though, she was shocked when her manufacturer said the items were crotch- less: if she wanted her product to hit store shelves on time, she would have to find a way to get the crotches on her own.  

Sara had made a logical, but incorrect, assumption about her manufacturer, and had to pivot quickly. (Spoiler alert: Sara figured it out, and now owns a billion dollar business.)

Assumptions About Wellbeing in the Legal Profession

If assumptions can be wrong when dealing with rational matters like manufactured shape-wear prototypes, ponder this. What happens when emotions collide with assumptions, like with lawyer wellbeing ?

We often assume that our lawyers are unstressed because they seem competent and produce great, or at least acceptable, work product.

But assumptions can have us connecting dots that aren’t there, and painting pictures that don’t exist, mainly that we are doing enough to champion wellbeing, even if we aren’t.

There is often a massive disconnect between the daily routines firms think their lawyers have, versus the days they actually have. Firms often assume that though some days can get busy, work is generally manageable, home life runs fairly predictably, and interruptions are rare.

Reality often looks less tidy (this example involves a lawyer mom but swap with your own brand of chaos):

4:45am: Get jolted awake by young child swinging a light saber over your head.

Pre-work Morning:  Shower, take an emergent client call as kids loudly argue over who ate the last muffin, trip over family dog, bandage ankle with left over party streamers, get kids to school, rush to work.

At work: Flurry of endless interruptions followed by a 2 hour (non-billable and highly irrelevant) meeting. Accomplish close to nothing.

Abrupt mid-day departure from work: School nurse calls. Child has a red eye, needs to be picked up immediately in case it’s contagious. Rush to school, where child informs you she’s not sick- she rubbed her eye after eating Spicy Cheez Its.

Evening: Spend several hours shuffling kids to and from activities in D.C. traffic, thaw frozen dinner, try assisting oldest child with algebraic two variable inequalities despite not having the faintest clue what that even means. Put kids to sleep, attempt articulate conversation with spouse. Fall asleep on laptop and pile of unfinished work.

Assumption – Legal Employers Intuitively Know What our Lawyers Need

In my wellbeing work, I see one huge problem time and time again. It’s not a lack of caring: a lot of legal employers care about doing better for their lawyers. It’s not a lack of programming: we are practically stepping over wellbeing programs and apps at every turn.

The problem is our inability or unwillingness to listen to what lawyers really need. In many of my client meetings, I struggle to convince leadership that my scenario of a working mom’s average day is pretty accurate, give or take some Cheez It induced emergencies. I always ask if they ever sat down with their lawyers to learn about their day- to -day life, both in and out of work. The resounding answer is: no.  This begs the question: how can we help people if we don’t even truly know who they are?

Think about it. A doctor doesn’t toss prefabricated prescription plans at her patients without speaking to them first. To treat her patients, she first diagnoses them. And to diagnose, she first listens.

Listening is how to best diagnose the state of our lawyers’ wellbeing. An annual wellness survey is not listening. Tossing your employees a company wide app and then leaving their wellbeing to fate is not listening.

When you really listen to your lawyers, you might learn that they don’t want high-end dinners at the office: they want to go home and eat boxed Mac and Cheese with their kids.

When you listen to your lawyers, you might learn that they don’t want premium espresso machines in every office: they want more sleep and a change to the billable hour system.

When you listen to your lawyers, you might learn that they don’t want more tech gadgets: they want less reason to need them late at night.

By making a habit of listening, we can get to know our people, and form a culture that people want to be part of.

Changing How We Approach Workplace Wellbeing

As Sara Blakely built her SPANX business empire, she learned not to assume anything, even when seemingly obvious (having a crotch).

Though a handful of firms are making impressive strides, the overall legal profession needs to take a page out of Sara Blakely’s playbook. We can’t assume our lawyers are fine just because we offer a wellness plan. (By the way, if we implement a wellness plan, we should hire someone to oversee it).

One of the most important things we can give our lawyers is our attention. The most basic human need is to be understood. We need to hear what our lawyers are really telling us.  We need to know them, and see what makes them tick. We need to allow them to be vulnerable, and be vulnerable right back. We need to share a sense of purpose and belonging. We need to inspire each other, learn from one another and be there for each other.

We need to stop assuming that we have all the answers already, and be open to listening to new ideas.

Minimizing assumptions might not make us the next Sara Blakely billionaires, but it could certainly make us a stronger and more unified profession.

Assume less. Listen more.

I always botch up quotes, but there’s a saying that goes “knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”

Here’s to growing wiser in 2020.

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