In this episode series, I interviewed Mike Ethridge. Mike Ethridge, attorney from Charleston, SC, champion of wellness for lawyers, begins our discussion on creating your own happiness and how to deal with unease/frustration in the workplace.
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Jeena: This is the Resilient Lawyer Podcast, meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs, and agents of change.
The Resilient Lawyer is inspired by those in the legal profession living with authenticity and courage. This podcast is about ordinary people making an extraordinary difference.
I’m your host, Jeena Cho. On this week’s show, we have Mike Ethridge back on the show. Mike, welcome back.
Mike: Thanks, Jeena. It’s good to be back.
Jeena: Today we’re going to talk about wellness in the workplace, specifically places where the lawyers work. I guess to start off, Mike, can you explain what do you mean when you say wellness? Does that mean running? Does that mean exercising? What does that mean?
Mike: Well, it’s an awfully big term and those of us that have been working with lawyers and in the legal arena around wellness or well-being, struggle with how big that umbrella is and everything that’s underneath it. I think it’s important for it to remain a pretty expansive concept force.
Yes, it does involve exercise and nutrition and good sleep, physical well-being, but it also involves relationships and how we find meaning in our life, mindfulness work, things that enable us emotionally, psychologically, spiritually to be more present to our life and more present to our work. Those concepts, I think, are very much impartial of each other.
I get a little frustrated when I hear people talk about wellness or well-being and they divide it into different categories as if physical well-being is something separate and distinct from mental or emotional well-being and I don’t think that’s true at all.
When I talk about this, one of the things I will say is that you decide you’re never going to eat chocolate cake again for the rest of your life and you’re going to take the stairs wherever you go no matter how tall the building.
But you can still find yourself waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning, worried about that answer that you might not have filed or those request to admit that might need to be responded to and trying to survive all for 4, 5 hours of sleep. Physically you are not well but that has a lot to do with your obsession with work and some issues going on with you emotionally. I think it’s a mistake to try to separate them.
When we talk about wellness or well-being… And I’m really starting to use the word well-being more because I feel like that’s a better word for us. It’s pretty expansive in scope.
Mike: It needs to be, by necessity.
Jeena: So we know it just mean sort of the absence of illness because that’s the other thing I find with some lawyers. They’ll say “Well, I’m healthy. I’m not sick, therefore, I’m well and I’m perfectly fine.” Well, we need something more comprehensive than that.
Mike: That’s exactly right. That’s a great point. And I think that is a mistake. I think our culture is oriented so much toward treating illness that we define things like well-being in exactly the terms you just used which is absence — absence of illness or infirmity when well-being is really something that’s a bit different. It’s the ability to thrive. Really be in your life and really thrive. And so, I think, that is a subtle but really important shift in terms of how we think about wellness.
Jeena: Yeah. I think about it as all of the sets of practices that we do want an ongoing regular basis so that we can be our best selves. That’s the other interesting thing is that some people think about wellness or well-being as something that they do on occasion. I go on vacation twice a year and that’s how I’m caring for my wellness, well-being.
Like, no, you have to do it on a regular ongoing basis. It’s not so much about how hard you exercise or think it’s really… It’s like meditation. You could meditate once a month and it’s probably not going to have that great of an impact. But if you meditate for even two or three minutes a day, you’ll really start to see the benefits.
There’s this group called The Energy Project. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that group or their work. But they talk about how to improve… basically engagement with employees and improve firm’s function. They talk about it in the concept of energy and they really base it on what’s the fundamental principle of the universe which is to really function at your best, you have to balance energy expenditure with energy renewal.
That’s so basic and so obvious and it’s rather remarkable to me that we structure our firms and work life as if that fundamental law of the universe doesn’t exist. Whereas if we’re going to perform really at our best and bring our best to this work that we do, there has to be space in our life to be reenergized. We have to make space to exercise, to rest, to just push the pause button and that needs to be a constant fixture or constantly present in our work life daily.
But that’s not the work ethic or work dynamic of the traditional law firm in this country. You go there early, you try to stay later than everybody else, you work on the weekends, you’re available by cell phone or whatever when you’re not at work. There’s not this institutional structuring of opportunities for you to rest and recharge and get that renewal of energy that’s necessary for you to really be the lawyer that the firm and your clients need you to be.
Jeena: Yeah. Maybe we can talk about this from a top-down approach and maybe we can talk about it from bottom up.
I guess let’s start here. What’s the business case for why managing partners at a law firm should even care about wellness or well-being? Don’t you just want your attorneys to maximize their billing and bill as many hours as possible? If you give them an hour off to go take a meditation class, or go to yoga, or have some sort of a social function where people are authentically connecting with each other, you’re taking valuable, billable time away from the attorneys.
Mike: Well, as you put your finger on… I think the crux of the issue as it relates to firm management and firm operation and what firm struggle with, one of the difficulties, I think, we have as a professional right now is that we define our productivity in terms of billable hours.
The reasons why we need to do that… I understand that and I have a practice that is very much oriented toward the billable hours. It’s not this demonic thing but it really does create a problem if that becomes truly the measure of productivity simply having hours that you spend on something. That is, I think, antithetical to what essentially we’re about as a profession.
Our most valuable commodity is not time but it’s attention. I could spend four, five hours trying to write a brief and I’m having a hard time focusing because I’m tired or I’m worried about something else. What actually happens is I write two pages, or I sit down for 45 minutes and I’m really focused and I crank the whole thing out. Well, I’m able to bring all of my attention to the endeavor in that second event but, economically, I don’t make nearly as much money for the firm as if I’m sitting around distracted for four hours.
When you think about it that way, it’s a really rather absurd way to think about servicing your clients. But we live in a billable hour world so we have to understand where we are. But, I think, we need to begin with understanding that what we’re really about as lawyers is providing a certain level of service to our client which involves economy and efficiency and wisdom and for us to really value the skill and the preciseness of our craft much more than how long it takes us to do it and how much money you’d get from it.
I think, again, shifting what we want to try to produce and what we want our result to be for our client away from X number of billable hours is the first step and that is a very high first step to take because, I think, so many law firms are built around this billable hour model and the billable hours are the widgets and we need to crank out a lot of widgets to create the revenue to pay the salaries and to give these folks jobs and to keep the machine running.
Jeena: Yeah, and, of course, that’s how lawyers are often measured is by their billable hour and that seems like that’s probably the most important metrics in terms of when they’re deciding who’s going to get the bonuses or who’s going to stay or go.
Every single billable hour is created equal but it’s not because sometimes, just like you’re saying, you can spend 45 minutes and knock out this really great brief or come up with some brilliant idea to help your client and then it may only take you 10 minutes but somehow that 10-minute is valued equally as if you just spent 10 minutes halfway distracted and halfway focused. I think talking about our billable, or how we generate income, is a whole another conversation about alternative billings and all of that good stuff.
Mike: Well, it is and we don’t need to go down that road now but I do think we need… that is something that lawyers certainly need to explore for reasons we’re talking about.
The other part of the equation when you think about billable hours, that way of thinking that billable hours are our widgets, we need to generate as many billable hours as possible to increase our revenue and that becomes a primary measure of value for the lawyers that work in our firm. That is incredibly shortsighted.
It may be true for some limited period of time but overall… I mean after awhile, a client is not going to stay with the law firm that churns the files or that prioritizes billing hours over getting results and early resolutions.
Ultimately, you are going to be measured on how well you do your work for clients and the measure’s going to be the book of business that you have and how many clients decide that they want you to be their lawyer because you’re able to deliver the kind of results that they’re looking for which frequently means moving a case quickly towards some kind of resolution.
It’s interesting because I recently met someone that works at Google and, of course, Google is radically different than big law firms in general. But they were talking about how… Not only are the productivity of every employee at Google closely monitor but also how happy they are. And there’s a direct correlation between happiness and, I guess, tied to that well-being, and how productive people are.
But in law firms, it almost feels like there’s a sense that if you’re a happy lawyer then you can’t be the best lawyer possible. It’s almost like the more miserable you are, the better attorney you’re presumed to be. There’s almost this natural culture where you sit around and talk about how hard you work, and how long you stayed at the office, and how many all-nighters you pulled. When you start to talk about, oh, there’s actually a correlation between happiness and how good of an employee or partner you can be, lawyers frown upon that. Why do you think that is? Why are we so backward thinking despite all the science and all the evidence that’s contrary?
Mike: That’s a great question. As you were asking that I was thinking “I’m going to ask Jeena why she thinks that Google is different from law firms.”
What you’re saying really is true. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the kitchen and you’re standing around the coffee pot or the water cooler and everybody are engaging in this my-life-sucks-worse-than-yours kind of back and forth. That’s really present in law firms.
It’s, I think, fascinating when we go outside the legal profession, we go to companies like Google and other companies too. Think about Google. They have all kinds of metrics that they will use to measure productivity.
So metrics are not… that’s not the cause of the problem. Businesses all over the world have metrics that use to measure how well the folks that are working there are doing. But they are businesses that even with those metrics, they have very happy employees really engaged in their work.
I think the difference with law firms is that we quite really value and meaning with those metrics and with the productivity so that become, you know, you are how many hours you bill and how much money you make or able to make is directly related to that.
That is a different way of thinking from an organization that says we are about something bigger than making money and something bigger than ourselves. We’re about really being a meaningful organization in our community and in this world and for the people that work here.
Now, to be what we want to be, we have to have a certain amount of fuel. We’ve got to make a certain amount of money because it takes a lot of fuel to build this thing and fly this plane. The revenue we generate is that… and we need to be good stewards of that and the way we do that is by measuring. So we’re careful about how we measure and we’re going to talk a lot about what that looks like. But this is not about how many hours we work and how many dollars we make, it’s about really becoming the kind of organization, the kind of firm, the kind of business that we feel like this community and this planet needs.
Mike: Law firms really never quite get there because they don’t begin by asking itself that question which is what are our real values and what do we want to be, how do we see ourselves as a firm or as a business. If you don’t have consensus on the answers to those questions by default, the value is going to be how much money you make.
Jeena: For the law firms out there that kind of buy into this idea that the well-being and the happiness of the people that work within the organization is going to have a positive net benefit towards how well they’ll be able to service their client, where do you start? Because it also feels kind of overwhelming because we started by talking about a definition of wellness and well-being and we specifically talked about that is all-encompassing. What are some suggestions you have for how to implement some type of wellness or well-being programs?
Mike: Well, ideally it starts at the top. Ideally, you have firm management, the equity partners, the owners of the firm who really do buy into this idea that the well-being and the engagement of the lawyers and the people who work in the firm is really what it’s all about and really will drive the productivity and the profit. That is a difficult thing to achieve because that, again, culturally is just not, I think, what we’ve been about as a profession. I think many of us grew up in a culture that was a lot different than that and thought about productivity more in terms of what we’ve been talking about which is billable hours.
But, ideally, you have for managers that begin to think about the importance of engagement and well-being and the relationship between that and the productivity. Then they can, from there, explore what does that look like in terms of how we run this firm and what we offer to people and make available for the people that work here and partner with them to promote well-being?
That I think, like I said, is rarely the case so more realistically there’ll be somebody… It might be a staff person, it might be a young lawyer who says “There’s something wrong with this culture and I want to do things differently.” The real challenge for them is how can they begin to introduce these ideas into the firm and begin to start creating a change in culture, maybe a little more underground than the partners they can get on.
I’m friends with the guy that started the Intel Mindfulness Program and I thought that was really interesting because that was really one of those instances where the effort started from the bottom up so no one at top said “Oh, we need a mindfulness program at Intel.”
Intel tends to also be a little bit about more traditional tech company and he is a meditator himself and this is something that he values in his life personally. He just decided “You know what, I am just going to reserve a conference room on every Wednesday from 12:00 to 12:30. I’m going to just send out an email to my little group of people that I work with and just invite people to come for a short guided meditation.”
He said “At first one or two people showed up and then it continues to grow. And then the manager started to see the impact that that short practice was having.” So then the manager started to adopt the idea in the program and it spread to other departments. And then finally, the upper managers at Intel really saw the value of offering such a program and gave them budget to be able to really roll this program out and now it’s a companywide program.
I think it kind of actually happen both ways but what I think that’s really important is for the attorneys to actually embrace these practices in their own lives because I think so often there’s this feeling like “Do as I say, not as I do.” Like “I’m not going to go to the gym, I’m not going to go to yoga, I’m not going to meditate but I heard this is a good idea for everybody else. So I want everybody else to do this.”
That really seems to work. I think that saying “Be the change you want to see in the world” is so true in this context.
Mike: It’s true.
Jeena: Often I’ll get these emails from young associates in these big law firms and they are just miserable. They’ll tell me things like “I work with this partner and he’s so not receptive to these type of ideas. I want the firm to change.” I’ll say “Well, the only thing you can change is yourself. I think we also sort of underestimate the value of changing yourself and the ripple effect that that can have.
Mike: You’re absolutely right. And I think that the model that you talk about with your friend at Intel is precisely the model that I would hope lawyers and staff and law firms would start to embrace. It begins with, you just said, living these changes and living this way of prioritizing well-being.
And deciding that you want to try to do that in some way, in the context of your work, not being attached to any idea that management is going to somehow buy into this or that you’re going to one day maybe totally transform the culture. You might not. It doesn’t matter. What really matters is this practice in a way of life that is meaningful to you and are there places and ways there in the office where you can begin to engage in that and share it with others and invite others to do it with you? I love this idea, reserving a conference room and having meditation.
There are all kinds of things that you can do. You can organize just a walk to lunch one day a week. A lot of law firms, particularly in larger law firms, will have empty offices. You can approach the office manager and just ask for permission to transform one of these empty offices into a stress-free zone and bring and lamps and candles and just have it a place where people can go and relax.
Create wellness challenges just inside your office, organize monthly get-togethers or something. All kinds of things. We could sit here and brainstorm about what’s available. That really cost much of anything and one person could do it and get a handful of people there at the office and then see what happens.
I think, inevitably, what happened at Intel does happen. I think that people began to see that there is value in this and there’s a certain kind of enthusiasm and engagement by the people that are participating that’s very helpful for the organization and then there’s an openness to it.
The other thing, I think, that happens is you can begin to create some of these practices in your office and then when the firm managers are out at conferences or conventions and they begin to hear other firms doing similar things, there’s just an openness to it that started to develop because you’re trying to do it at your office as well. That’s how the change is going to happen, I think. It’s going to be this grassroots.
Jeena: How important do you think it is to measure the impact of this type of programs? Do you think it’s a good idea to have a survey or questionnaire that people that are participating can fill out?
Mike: That’s a great question because I have… For a long time, I just thought it was not important that you measure that. That the measure is your experience of it and you’re deciding that it’s meaningful and people, they’re deciding it’s meaningful or not. But it was just to get bogged down and measuring something that really can’t be measured. You can’t measure thriving, you can’t measure happiness. That, to me, seems to be a waste of time. However, I have changed is how I think about.
And a lot of that had come from my meeting Anne Bradford who is doing a lot of work around… I think she has a book that’s going to be published by the ABA called Rules of Engagement. She’s done a lot of writing on this idea of how can firms create engagement in the workplace.
What Anne — she’s a scientist. She’s a lawyer who’s going back to school. But she is all about measuring everything. The more that I talk to Anne about this, I began to understand it’s so important that this… what we’re talking about which is how can we begin to take better care of ourselves and thrive as a profession is too important for it to be something that just… We do it because we think it’s a good idea. We really need to measure it so we can articulate its values to the profession. And lawyers, they’re going to listen when it’s evidence-based and fact-based.
Now, I’m not a scientist. Anne is much better person to answer the question. I think about how you measure. But I think it’s really important that be measured and that we be able to demonstrate that there are tangible things that happen to people and to firms who consciously choose to promote and prioritize well-being.
Jeena: Yeah. And, I guess, this is also a sort of a personal decision but I tend to measure everything. So I have an app and I measure exactly how long I meditate for every single day. Then after I meditate, I will spend 30 seconds just jotting down what the experience was like. And it’s interesting to have a little bit of data because then I can look back at the end of the year and say “Okay, like how many hours did I spend meditating?” And when I was able to meditate for, let’s say, 30 days in a row, was there some measurable impact than if I didn’t meditate regularly for 30 days.
Think having a little bit of a metrics, not in, I think, your point about not getting bogged down by it is a good one and, of course, because we’re lawyers, we could probably debate which metrics is the most appropriate one to use for 10 months and create sub-committees to decide on that. I think action over planning perhaps is too much planning.
Mike: No. I think if there’s real value in doing some of that measuring — and I come from it very differently and from a very different place than you do and trying to measure it somehow diminish or cheapen the event. And I wanted it to be, I guess, pure. Meditation is a good example. But having said that, there’s real truth to this notion that what we measure grows and increases.
And I have this app, I think it’s called Habit or something like that, where I have it on my phone and so everyday… I don’t measure how long I meditate but the fact that I measure whether or not I meditate or workout or whether eat a low carb diet. It is remarkable how much more consistently I will do those things just because I’m going go on the phone and click whether I do it or not. It’s just the act of measuring it has so much to do with my ability to come back to it day after day after day and keep the practice going.
I think what you’re talking about is important. Just, for a long time, I just never thought it was that important but we’re going to understand it really is. We have all kinds of things with our phones and their… There are easy ways to measure a lot of the stuff just without any effort.
Jeena: Also, lawyers are kind of good at doing homework. So having an app on your phone and it reminds you “Hey, remember, you’re going to walk for 10 minutes today” or do whatever, little doses.
Also, it’s a good way to not cheat yourself. I think there’s this tendency if you just say “Oh, well, I’ll do it when I get around to doing it” then it’s really easy to not do it because you already have 48 other things on your to-do list and exercise or well-being practices, well, typically end up on the bottom of the list.
Maybe that’s another question that we can chat about just very briefly is how do you prioritize these wellness or well-being practices when there’s so many other things on your to-do list? How do you say this is more important than caring for others, or doing my work, or maybe not more important but as important?
Mike: I think that question is going to be answered differently by different people. I can talk about what, for me, how I do that. We’ll say that it is really hard and, in a lot of times, it feels almost next to impossible once my work day begins to hit a pause button and go do some self care. I just get thrown into, or jump into, dive into whatever my work may holds. And I’m on the phone, I’m on conference calls, I’m in depositions, or mediations, but I’m just kind of there and it’s hard… I’ve tried, a lot of times, just step away for a couple of hours at lunch and come back and sometimes I’ll do that.
But, for me, the way I prioritize it is carving out a section of my day that I know is going to be committed to that kind of self care. For me, that’s early morning. I get up about 5 o’clock and I’ll go work out. I’ll come back and I’ll meditate. I’ll have coffee, I’ll have my breakfast. I’m conscious about how that morning is structured and how I move into my work. That works the best but there also seasons in my life where it might not be mornings, it might be in the evenings or something else. But the morning, carving it out in the morning, for me, is what is may the biggest difference in terms of having it available and being able to engage in it every day.
We’re so programmed in this culture that Monday morning, you go to work and you work all day long. If you stop during the middle of the day, then you’re being lazy.
We’ll try to, on days where I’m not in deposition or hearing or something like that, but I have the ability to pause there… I will try to stop and intentionally set up a lunch with somebody and reconnect with somebody that I need to work with.
When I was downtown I would stop and I’d walk over to the water or go to the art museum. Really just once or twice a week try to do something to just reenergize myself. But those are things that are pretty much inserted into my day on a week by week basis. It’s hard to really create or structure a day around those kinds of events when you do what we do for a living. We don’t always get to choose how our days unfold in the practice.
Jeena: Yeah, definitely.
We’re at about a 35-minute mark. Is there anything else related to this topic you want to chat about?
Mike: There’s one other point that I was going to make in this…I think the need for law firms to address this issue with wellbeing is vital for us as a profession.
There was a study that was done not too long ago… I think it might have been done by the ABA, I can’t remember. Anne Bradford cites it in her work. But it identified an association in a private law firm is being the most miserable job in America.
There’s such dissatisfaction, particularly among young lawyers in our profession, the level of attrition that we’re seeing with lawyers, the amount of distress — and we’ve talked about that here. I know you’ve talked about it in another podcast, the level of distress that the lawyers experience. We need to begin to come to come to grips with how we prioritize taking care of ourselves. And if we’re going to do that as a profession, I believe that has to begin to happen at the firm institutional level in addition to what we’re doing individually.
Jeena: Yeah, so true.
Mike, thank you so much for joining me on another episode of the Resilient Lawyer Podcast.
Mike: Thank you, Jeena.
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