Growing a healthier office culture

  • April 01, 2014
  • Becky Rynor

Lisa Vogt calls it one of the “last frontiers” of the legal profession: supporting lawyers and staff through times of stress and mental illness.

“One of the areas where law firms still have not made a lot of headway is disability, and mental illness is a huge part of that,” says Vogt, a real estate lawyer and partner at McCarthy Tetrault.

“Stress and depression are huge issues in the legal profession. Once you recognize that, what supports can you put in place?”

Vogt is McCarthy’s chief diversity and engagement officer, a position she says is unique among law firms in Canada in that it is held by an equity partner who is part of the leadership team. “It’s not just leadership support of the idea, it’s leadership ownership.”

Lawyer-cum-psychotherapist Doron Gold says the single best change a firm can make is to create a healthy, respectful work culture.

“In the legal profession, frankly there are a lot of people being treated badly by superiors whether by having too much work heaped on them or by simply being treated rudely. What does one do in that situation? Do you go to one of the other partners? Well no,” says Gold, who specializes in counselling for lawyers, law students, judges and other professionals. He is registered with the law Society of Upper Canada and the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers.

Some firms will try to create a collegial atmosphere, offering Thursday night drinks with partners, or baseball teams – “the standard stuff,” Gold says – but it won’t work if it’s not sincere.

“If you have a rotten culture, your wine and cheese parties are not going to be viewed as in good faith. It’s not really for (the employee). It’s a firm event and you have to do it.”

Vogt says McCarthy Tetrault offers supports such as lunch-and-learn sessions on health issues, as well as wellness programs and a variety of benefits packages. The firm tops up compassionate care; pays for fitness club memberships and offers all staff a sabbatical of three months off, fully paid, for every seven years worked. In addition, staff in each of its regions have access to a psychologist who is kept on retainer so that no one in the firm will ever be aware a staffer is taking advantage of the benefit.

“You certainly don’t want to admit (to seeing a psychologist) to the people you’re working with because it sounds like you don’t fit or you’re not coping,” says Vogt.

Gold says large law firms have a unique set of stressors– such as onerous billing-hour requirements for young associates – that any attempt at a culture shift will have to address.

“For some, that’s not a problem. Some love every minute of that. For some it is eighty hours of work per week, weekends, calls at all hours of the night from clients and the expectations from superiors that this is just part of the job.”

While time issues may be the biggest stress factors in a large firm, they’re not the only culprits. Reaching what has been sold to you as the pinnacle of a career and then not liking what you find there can cause its own turmoil.

“What if one is actually not suited to the grind, or the kind of law that is practiced, or the people who work there?” asks Gold. “What if one feels too much like a cog in a machine—not autonomous enough, especially early in a career? What if one is chasing partnership and it’s not entirely clear that’s going to happen?”

Charles Gluckstein wanted to promote what was already a “family feeling” when he took over from his father at Gluckstein Personal Injury Lawyers in Toronto 11 years ago. He likes to lead by example, whether it’s weekly yoga with his wife, running to work or occasionally bringing his dog to the office.

“He runs around the office and it puts a smile on everyone’s face and reminds us that we’re all human,” Gluckstein says. “Throughout the year we have sessions where I bring in a facilitator and we’ll do things like assessing our behaviour types and learn more about each other that way.  We try to bring out the best in everyone and develop everyone individually.”

He says his firm also tries to spread family values by accommodating family demands, such as allowing time shifting of schedules and by opening a satellite office in Niagara to accommodate employees who were commuting. The firm also hosts an annual conference on compassion fatigue.

“Because we’re a personal injury firm, we deal with a lot of trauma and we work with trauma workers and families that have loved ones who have suffered trauma. Compassion fatigue is a syndrome that occurs when you are overly compassionate. It’s like a workplace injury,” he says. “They have to learn coping mechanisms to recharge themselves.”

Gluckstein says he has also discovered nothing beats a day at the spa to smooth out those rough workplace edges.

“We do a retreat every year to thank our staff. It’s not a partners meeting, it’s the entire staff of about 30 in total and we go out to one of the spas. When we started, we used to do meetings but now we just do the fun stuff—the team building, the games and then a day at the spa and a nice dinner.”

Gold says a spa day is nice, but kindness and respect are essential.

“I’ve had lawyers go through terribly abusive situations – and I’m using the word abuse on purpose, sexual harassment, awful situations – and their conclusion is they’re not cut out for law because this is what law is. It’s not them. It’s an unhealthy work environment. The partners themselves should make sure they are respectful; that they don’t overwork their people to the point of breakdown; that they keep an eye on their people to make sure they are OK. And have an open-door policy.”

Becky Rynor is a journalist based in Ottawa.