Finding the Right Fit: Law Firm Fitness Benefits for a Health-Conscious Generation

  • Amy Jo Ehman

That lawyer running after the ambulance is a tired and unfair cliché, but at least he was getting some exercise. Many law firms are recognizing the power of physical fitness for improving job performance, marketing, retention and morale. So much so, that it’s not unusual to find subsidized gym memberships in the firm’s benefit package.

But not everyone enjoys working out in a gym. As many Canadian law firms are demonstrating, there are creative ways to offer physical fitness benefits so that there’s something for everyone and, more importantly, so that you can foster an atmosphere in which both staff and lawyers want to take part.

Rewarding Physical Activity

Miller Canfield – Windsor, Ontario

There are no brownie points for working through lunch at Miller Canfield in Windsor, Ontario. In fact, there are points for getting away from the desk and going for a run … or a yoga class … or a roller blade in the park. In an effort to encourage physical activity, Miller Canfield has created a punch card on which members of the firm voluntarily record their fitness activities and turn in their points for prizes such as athletic socks, pedometers, gym bags and jackets.

“We have quite an extensive list of rewards just for getting up and exercising,” says office manager Patricia Mayea. “The amount of staff involved is amazing.”

The fitness program at Miller Canfield is called MC Fitness Club, and membership has its rewards. Other perks include: $100 toward a gym membership, $150 toward a weight loss program and up to $150 to quit smoking by methods such as the nicotine patch or hypnotism. In fact, the financial incentive to quit smoking is offered three times.

“So if you try and fail, and a year later you try again, we’ll reimburse again. Because if you’re trying for a second time and a third time, we feel you’re pretty serious about it,” says Mayea.

Once a month, a massage therapist comes to the office to offer quick relaxing massages of the back, shoulders and hands. And once a year, a Registered Nurse comes to the office to check vital statistics such as blood pressure, cholesterol, body fat and weight. Participation is voluntary, but those who do are rewarded with $150 to spend as they please.

Results are confidential; the nurse will privately contact anyone who should be concerned. But the overall average data give a snapshot of the improving health among the 24 lawyers and 40 staff in the Windsor office. For example, according to Mayea, from 2003 to 2004 the number of overweight people went from 46% to 35%. Those with high cholesterol dropped from 34% to 17%. The number of smokers dropped from 26% to 17%. At the same time, overall participation in the program jumped from 44 people to 52.

“It’s totally voluntary. We’re making it available but we’re not pushy about it.”

Mayea is now working on the MC Healthy Choices Cookbook, a collection of healthy recipes from members of the firm. Publication has been delayed by the overwhelming number of submissions. The MC Fitness Club has earned the firm a gold award for participation from the Windsor regional health authority.

Top-Down vs. Grassroots

Fitness benefits fall into two broad categories: those, like the MC Fitness Club, which are created by management and offered to all firm members who wish to take part, and member-driven activities proposed from the grassroots and supported by the firm.

According to Mayea, the MC Fitness Club was created by the head office of Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone in Detroit, Michigan, to improve the health of its American employees and reduce the long-term cost of medical care. And while the cost of health care is less of a concern in Canada, where everyone benefits from universal Medicare, other advantages were soon evident: more energy in the office, fewer absentee days due to illness and a greater camaraderie among lawyers and staff.

In addition to the formal program, local initiatives in the Windsor office include ice skating and bike rides for charity. A group of staff works out together at the YWCA. A senior partner plays basketball at lunchtime and another gives demonstrations in self defense. It paints a picture of an active workplace where senior members lead by example, and just about everyone down to the junior clerk is happy to follow their lead.

Leading By Example

Siskinds – London, Ontario

Even the most athletic junior associate would have trouble keeping up with Mike Peerless, a partner at Siskinds in London, Ontario. An avowed couch potato until 2000, he’s now a fitness convert, running marathons and participating in Iron Man triathlon events from Hawaii to Florida. But that wasn’t his priority when he joined the firm.

“When I started here in 1991 as an articling student, I wasn’t into fitness of any kind,” he says. “I worked very very hard, probably too hard, for five or six years, to the point where I weighed 250 pounds and needed back surgery. I sat at my desk for 18 hours a day and that wasn’t good.”

Peerless ‘found’ fitness and today, he leads by example in a law firm where physical activity is part of the corporate culture. Athletics support a number of the firm’s goals from building teamwork, to marketing, to balancing work and life, to charitable good deeds.

“If all the senior people were sitting around smoking cigars and playing golf, we’d have more people all the way down doing those things. Lawyers are good at picking up what is valued in the firm,” says Peerless.

Formal benefits include sponsored gym memberships, adequate shower-change facilities in the office and a flexible attitude toward exercising during the workday. Grassroots activities are initiated by individuals and supported by the firm.

This is how Siskinds came to sponsor the annual Run for Retina Research and Do It For Dad (a run to raise money for prostate cancer research) by supplying volunteers, t-shirts, prizes and a cadre of runners. And to be sure, some of the firm’s 75 lawyers will relax or play golf at the annual retreat, but a good number of them will be donning their sneakers and heading out together for a good long run.

“If you don’t do these things at the top, then others won’t do it behind you. You can’t tell them to get fit and then not get out and be fit. If I can encourage them to do it and make it fun, then that’s good for my business,” says Peerless. “There’s no question in my mind that I’m more effective when I’m fit, and I believe that’s true about everyone.”

If you live in London, chances are you’ve seen the blazing orange and white stock car sponsored in part by Siskinds. It makes an appearance at many Siskinds-sponsored events. The firm also supports a lacrosse team and local hockey. One arm of the firm, Siskinds Sports Management, was established to represent professional athletes under the management of Brain MacDonald, a former NHL hockey scout and general manager. Obviously, this emphasis on athletics isn’t just about healthy employees, it’s about healthy marketing.

“These are things that, in a town like London, people recognize,” says Peerless. “No one is hiring a lawyer because the firm sponsors a running race or a stock car, but it’s just one more factor that goes into that person’s decision-making process.”

The Holistic Approach

Bull, Housser & Tupper – Vancouver, British Columbia

If fitness is not just physical, then fitness benefits are not just about pulse rates and sweat. Many firms, including Siskinds and Miller Canfield, offer wellness programs that include nutrition, stress reduction, ergonomics and mental health.

“We have a more holistic approach to health and wellness that doesn’t just encompass physical fitness, although that’s certainly a part of it,” says Ann Johnston, manager of human resources at Bull, Housser and Tupper in Vancouver, British Columbia. “I believe this broader approach contributes to our low attrition rate. We have employees who have worked here for over 30 years.”

Obviously, the 100 lawyers and 150 staff at Bull, Housser & Tupper like this approach. In a workplace survey published by B.C. Business Magazine, members of the firm rated it so highly, it was named one of the top 25 places to work in British Columbia. Last year it was 22nd on the list; this year it was 12th. It’s the only law firm in the top 25. Johnston says the culture of wellness and physical fitness is a big part of that.

“We have a very flexible attitude toward physical fitness so our employees can fit in a decent workout whether it’s a run in Stanley Park or a yoga class,” she says. “A lot of women work here, and so they can actually have an hour to an hour-and-a-half to work out, have a shower, dry their hair and get back to work refreshed. That makes a big difference.”

The formal program is called Health and Wellness at BHT, which offers a number of benefits and activities to encourage physical fitness and work-life balance. This includes subsidized gym memberships, healthy snacks in the office and lunch-hour speakers who address topics encompassing physical, mental, emotional, financial and family health.

Along with the formal program, grassroots initiatives are encouraged and supported by the firm. These include a basketball team and a hockey team, a curling funspiel, a weekly climb up the Grouse Grind (a popular mountain hike), and group participation in charity runs.

“It’s one person’s idea and the firm gets behind it and supports it in whatever way they need,” says Johnston. “It can range from buying pizza after a baseball game, to buying jerseys and shorts, to paying entrance fees. We’re flexible and customized to the needs and passions of our firm members. That’s a large part of what makes our health and wellness program so successful.”

Last year, some members of the firm organized a rowing team for a charity. Participants ranged from an officer clerk to a senior partner, and while they had an abundance of enthusiasm, few of them had any rowing experience. To everyone’s astonishment, they won the tournament.

“For those individuals, it was so beneficial. But accumulatively, it is also so beneficial for the firm,” says Johnston. “We’re 250 people who work here together, five days a week, often under stressful circumstances and long hours, and this type of thing pulls us together. It gives the feeling that they work with everybody at the firm.”

She says it’s also important to include family members in physical events because those who work hard all week want to spend quality time with loved ones on their time off.

“This is becoming more and more important, we find, so we look for opportunities to include family members. Not just the spouses, but the children as well. They really value that we organize events involving the whole family.”

Slimming the Fitness Budget

Epstein Cole – Toronto, Ontario

Many firms that offer fitness benefits consider it money well spent. For example, Peerless estimates that Siskinds spends $50,000-70,000 per year in fitness activities and sponsorships involving the firm, but it’s not an expenditure he scrutinizes at budget time.

“If somebody came to me with another $5,000 or $10,000 worth of sensible ways for us to spend money on this kind of thing, we wouldn’t hesitate,” he says. “It’s good for my business. Fit people are healthy, and healthy people are more effective at work and that makes us more money. It’s the easiest investment we can make.”

At Bull, Housser and Tupper, HR manager Johnston says there is no fitness budget and she has no tally of what the firm has spent in the past. “We have never said no to a good idea. We’ve never turned anybody down.”

But physical fitness benefits need not be expensive. Mid-size and smaller firms can find creative ways to encourage fitness without bulging the budget. The key is to tailor the activity to the needs of the firm, the community in which it exists and the personal interests of the staff and lawyers.

At Epstein Cole, a boutique firm in downtown Toronto specializing in family law, fitness is encouraged without a big cash injection. Two years ago, the firm moved into an office tower with a fitness centre on the main level; tenants in the building benefit from a discounted membership. A member of the staff, a law clerk who is also a certified yoga instructor, initiated yoga and stretching classes in the office during the day (and on the rooftop patio in summertime). While the firm supports these endeavours, participants pay the cost themselves.

“The majority of our employees are women, and by the time they get home and take care of the children, it’s hard for them to leave the home again to go to the gym. If they can do this during the day or on their way home, it’s more enticing for them,” says Catherine O’Neill, the human resources administrator for the 25 lawyers and 45 staff at Epstein Cole.

The firm offers a flexible two-hour window at lunchtime, so it’s possible to fit in some exercise even after a late lunch. In winter, it’s common to see a group of staff and lawyers swing their skates over their shoulders and head to the ice rink at Toronto City Hall. “You can definitely notice a difference when they return. They come back rejuvenated,” says O’Neill.

“To me it nourishes the culture, especially in a family law firm. We are tightly knit. We still have that small firm mentality, that small firm culture, where we do have social events and they often include some physical activity.”

“I don’t think that size has to be a barrier. It just may challenge your creativity,” says Sally Scotland, national manager of human resources at Grant Thornton, an accounting and management consultant firm offering business advice to small and mid-size professional services firms across Canada.

She offers some advice: Cash benefits should be flexible so individuals can use it for activities of their choice, whether it’s a pilates class, a gym membership or an exercise bike at home. Fitness benefits should be part of a broader package that encourages healthy lifestyles and a balance between work and life. Activities should be tailored to the goals of the firm and the interests of grassroots members. Combine social events with physical activity. Combining fitness with charity may satisfy several goals at once.

“It’s a win-win-win situation because you’re promoting physical well being in your office, which should lead to better health and productivity, with the spinoff of taking social responsibility in your community,” says Scotland. “Employers with such programs are also taking social responsibility by helping to reduce overall health care costs in the country.”

Best of all, she says it’s a proactive way to show members of the firm that it’s not just about work – that their personal wellbeing is in the balance.

Amy Jo Ehman is a freelance writer in Saskatoon.