How can firms create a culture that prioritizes health and well-being? In this On Balance Podcast, Tish Vincent and Rob Mathis talk to Anne Brafford about positive strategies for supporting well-being in the workplace. They focus on concrete ways firms can address problems and emphasize the positive effects that result from investing in a healthier work environment, including better productivity, increased client satisfaction, and greater profitability.
Anne Brafford (JD, MAPP, PhD in progress) is a former equity partner at Morgan, Lewis, & Bockius LLP and the founder of Aspire, an educational and consultancy firm for the legal profession.
State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast
The Mindful Law Firm—Using Positivity to Increase Well-Being
Intro: Welcome to State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast, where we talk about practice management and lawyer wellness for a thriving law practice with your hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent, here on Legal Talk Network.
Take it away ladies.
Tish Vincent: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I am Tish Vincent.
Rob Mathis: And I am Rob Mathis, guest host for today’s podcast. We are very pleased to have Anne Brafford lawyer, speaker, writer, consultant, lecturer and student of Positive Organizational Psychology join us today as our podcast guest to talk about how to be a positive professional.
Tish Vincent: So Anne, would you share some information about yourself with our listeners, please.
Anne Brafford: So my background is that I was a — was a practicing lawyer for about 20 years, I was an equity partner in a large law firm and as I got through my many years of practicing, I really started finding myself kind of just engaging a bit and not being as happy and enthusiastic about work every day, and so I started to get into the study of positive psychology hoping to find ways that science could help me and maybe help my environment, so that I could create a thriving space around me, so that I could stay.
So I ended up getting a Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology from Penn when I was still practicing law and during that time really started to feel a pull towards that area of thinking, you know, I really enjoyed practicing law. I wanted to be a lawyer since I was 11 years old, but thinking maybe this new direction was a way that I could make even a bigger impact within the legal profession.
So, I ended up leaving law in 2014 and I’m now a PhD student in Positive Organizational Psychology and my entire focus is on thriving in the legal profession, both at the individual level and kind of the organizational and institutional level. What can we do individually and collectively to really help lawyers and the profession as a whole living up to its best self? And so now that’s what I do, that’s my entire focus is on learning the science and finding new ways to apply it to individuals in the profession.
Tish Vincent: Thank you.
Rob Mathis: So Anne, what three steps do you recommend to a legal employer that could help them begin to create a more positive legal workplace?
Anne Brafford: One of the things that I’ve done in the past few years is I’ve been working a lot with the American Bar Association and one of the things that I did was create a Well-Being Toolkit for lawyers and legal employers and for law firms and other legal employers that are interested in getting more involved with well-being and starting its own initiative, I would invite them to start there. It’s freely available online, it’s on the ABA’s website. And some of the things that I recommended there is — is first, I think understanding the problem is critical. So to get started really doing a needs analysis like you would do for any problem, not all law firms are the same. They have different strengths and weaknesses. So really trying to get a sense for how their lawyers are doing and what strengths the firm already have in supporting the well-being of their folks, and what are the weaknesses, where can they focus more attention and I think that would guide, guide where the firm’s go next.
I think the easiest but still effective way to start initiative which isn’t a lot of law firms are doing right now is creating like small committees and that can even be like the small and medium-sized firms can do this as well as large firms can, I’m just having a couple people that are really focused on the issue, because otherwise, you know, in the crush of our busy days it will — it will get forgotten, but just having a few people start think about, what are things that we can start doing like for example, some of the larger firms are creating websites that have sort of information hubs where people can go to learn more about how they can change their lifestyles a bit if necessary. Even things like we all know that exercise and healthy eating have an enormous impact on our psychological health, but do we do it and so firms can start by just getting information distributed, so that people are reminded of the small ways and small choices they can make every day to improve their well-being.
And then obviously the third thing that I would ask firms to think about is to do kind of an audit of their practices and this is described in the Toolkit as well, that where organizations tend to think — when they think about well-being, kind of the first place their heads go are kind of exercise and nutrition, which is great, it’s a good place to start, but when we’re thinking about what’s going on within our work cultures that are contributing to or primarily causing some of the mental health issues that we’re seeing that gets more at a culture and practice level.
So, looking at everything from terms of, our billing practices, our diversity practices, our vacation practices, anything that might impact well-being which is most things, how might we look at this differently, how might we make tweaks or bigger changes within our practices and policies, so that we can start looking at this from more of a preventative level as opposed to what’s been generally going on over the past few decades, it’s been more of a detect and treat, which is really important too, of identifying who is already in crisis and trying to get them help, and that’s really important too. But what we really need to go for well-being initiatives to really make a difference is to look more the policy and practice of them within our organizations to find ways that we can better support well-being. So there are sort of three general — general ways that firms might get started.
Tish Vincent: Excellent. Thank you. I’m curious how might you respond if individuals were presenting the idea of working with the Toolkit to make a more positive employment environment in their law firm and they approached the managing partners of the firm and the managing partners responded with an attitude that this would take too much time or not be worth it.
Anne Brafford: Yes. So, but now I will start with it not worth it, because that’s been — yeah, one of the challenges that I’ve been working on addressing since I started in this area that, firms also need to make money, profitability is important and so that’s always a concern when you get into the management level, like are you saying that we should make less money, that we should bill less hours like that, it’s just sort of a knee-jerk reaction of wanting to understand how this well-being initiatives might impact that.
And what the research shows which shouldn’t be surprising is that people who are psychologically and physically healthy and engaged, meaning that they feel enthusiastic about going to work every day have a big impact on the bottom line and so research both in psychological health and engagement research and engagement is basically work-related well-being, but you know you’re enthusiastic about being at work.
But those studies show that that those sort of work-related well-being kind of measurements are positively quite powerfully associated with things that firms care about like profitability, client satisfaction, productivity, individual level work performance.
So, the investment is worth it and I think perhaps where too many firms have been right now is like they want more engagement than they’re willing to invest in, and it really is worth the investment. I mean the science shows that it is, and then with respect to the time thing, I think that’s always a challenge for lawyers, our time is, is our money; at least for lawyers in private practice like law firms are very focused on the billable hour, but many of the things, especially to get started with, these aren’t necessarily time-consuming things, they are just things that we need to think about changing our habits every day.
So I’ll give you an example. I’ve heard several firms have told me that these are smaller firms and they – well it can be done at a large level too, but smaller firms had told me that they’ve gotten like five to ten lawyers together where they need. I don’t know if it’s like once a week or once a month, but it’s some periodic set time and they go through the worksheets and the toolkit.
So at the back of the Well-Being Toolkit are series of worksheets to help give some ideas for what are some really practical concrete ways to start addressing well-being, and that’s what these lawyers are doing, they’re just going one worksheet at a time and kind of learning a bit about what that activity is and then doing it and then coming back and reporting to each other, and that’s like we could do that over lunch.
So, there’s many things that we can do that don’t take a lot of time, but I think some of the things like the bigger investments like auditing policies and practices. Yes, they’re — they are going to take some time. I think some of it will be non-lawyer times, a number of firms have been hiring like well-being directors and engagement directors and those types of things to help focus on this.
But I do, like I said, I think the investment will be worth it, the science indicates that the investment will be worth it.
Tish Vincent: Yes, it seems like the firm or the employer will be more productive with an engaged and productive workforce and it takes them in that direction. It’s probably too soon to have statistics that people can look at to underscore that, but it just — it just seems to me that it would be much more productive with these changes.
Anne Brafford: Yeah, it’s just being commonsense, and although there is not science in the legal profession, it’s just everything is sort of too new. There is twenty of evidence outside the legal profession, across many types of industries showing that psychological health and engagement are linked to all these things that we care about.
Rob Mathis: So in Michigan we have a lot of individual lawyers and solo practitioners, so what changes could an individual lawyer or solo practitioner make that will enable them to experience their life in a positive manner and to thrive?
Anne Brafford: I work — especially recently I have been working a lot with small and solo law firms, and I think my recommendation of where to start, because so much of it is done and how they handle the stress and how they manage being on their own, that thinking about their own psychological health, like there’s so many ways of learning the skills of resilient thinking and I think that’s where folks who are especially in the small law firms and solo law firms should start is working on their own — we can call it stress management, I call it resilient thinking. Because the really what the definition of stress is when we feel that our demands are outweighing our resources, that there’s just too much and we don’t have the resources, the capabilities to continually meet those demands.
And while that is somewhat affected by the objective world, it is also very much a subjective interpretation. So how we feel our emotions, whether we feel that we have supportive people in our lives, actually shapes the way we view and feel about stress.
So learning some of the skills and like I’ll give you an example that’s been talked a lot about now in the legal profession, which is mindfulness, and mindfulness is sort of the first step to resilient thinking, that you first have to be able to recognize your emotions when they’re triggered so that you don’t get carried away by them.
And then there’s — a series of steps after that and that we can learn as individuals to help us be more resilient to the stress that we know we’ll have, that there’s this well-being initiative isn’t about trying to eliminate stress in the legal profession, that’s not possible. We’re doing important work for people with significant problems and so it’s always going to be stressful, but it’s figuring out ways that we can better strengthen ourselves so that we can either turn our stress into positive challenges that actually boost our well-being or at least helped to make sure that it doesn’t deteriorate our well-being and in it, there’s — as I mentioned there’s a number of resources, there’s videos online, there is book in the Toolkit, I keep going back to the Well-Being Toolkit, but there’s a lot of resources in there, and one of the resources is a list of book recommendations, and I think that’s a great place for any solo to start if you to pick up one of the books on resilient thinking.
There’s like ‘Positive Intelligence’ and ‘Learned Optimism’ and a few others that that I have listed in there, that I think that’s an easy first step for any one small firm, solo, big firm, like that’s a great place to start.
Tish Vincent: The Well-Being Toolkit is really a masterpiece of resources for all attorneys and employers or solos and when the podcast is published, the link to it will be in the show notes.
Anne Brafford: Great.
Tish Vincent: So anyone listening to this podcast will find it easily as well as the links to the other information that you have just shared. I know you’ve written a book that’s very valuable and have a lot of guidance to give individuals.
I was reviewing the Toolkit again this morning. I use it in my work and think that it’s — it’s just amazing, and it’s also extremely easy to look at and find a piece of something that you want help with, it’s colorful, it’s well-designed and the ideas are just excellent. I am very impressed with it.
One of the things that — I was looking at two items in here this morning, one is the gratitude, Grow Your Gratitude, that is written by you I think and about keeping your gratitude journal, and then the PERMA-H Tool. I wondered if you could say a little bit about those two for our listeners.
Anne Brafford: Sure. So you are referring to that. There are worksheets as I mentioned at the back and so these are a couple of the research, a couple of the worksheets that kind of give some stats of okay, how do I start on some positivity activities and gratitude, Grow Your Gratitude is one of them.
Gratitude is probably the best research, positive emotion. There’s been decades of research on gratitude showing its contribution to psychological health. So including happiness and also buffering against depressive symptoms and also physical health. So it’s a very important positive emotion and the worksheet gives a number of ways to practice gratitude and one of them is a gratitude journal which also there’s now been many studies on gratitude journal showing how there are good positive effect on psychological health.
And it’s really simple and the idea of it is to periodically to sit down and think about three things that you’re grateful for. And see what you’re grateful for and a few little things about it, about why are you grateful for it and what happened recently to bring it to mind and the ongoing research on gratitude has shown that initially people — the studies were suggesting that people do it every day. But they’ve actually found that that’s a little bit too much because if you get bored with something, it stops having its good effect.
So probably people need to experiment to see what’s best for them but most likely once a week, it’s sort of a good sweet spot for everybody and there’s also now, there’s a physical gratitude journal that you can buy, easily available on Amazon and there’s also many apps. I have an app on my phone, like a gratitude app on my phone. So it reminds you of whatever interval you want to be reminded.
Hey, it’s time to do your gratitude journal and you just go in and you do your three things, whatever you like. So that one is a really simple science-based way to boost your gratitude, and the other one so the PERMA-H, so PERMA is an acronym that is an acronym for a well-being construct that was created by Dr. Martin Seligman who was the Founder of Positive Psychology and one of my mentors.
And what he did is reviewed tons and piles of research about what are the — what are the things, what are the dimensions that science shows, really contribute most to well-being or even that define well-being and what he found is that positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement; people call achievement a couple of different things but basically the idea is making progress and then the H is Health that others who have been using PERMA have really decided that they think it’s not okay to leave out health.
And what Martin’s view of it was that people don’t pursue health for its own sake, so the health for its own sake, it’s like they’re really after those other things and that’s why they pursue physical health and that’s why he didn’t include it.
But a lot of other people think that it really should be a dimension of well-being in its own right. And so the idea of like what the worksheet talks about is, here are our dimensions that we know are really important to well-being, so how can you think about getting them more into your life.
And I would say my book Positive Professionals which is — it’s about using the science of engagement to improve psychological well-being and optimal functioning in law firms but you can see the PERMA construct, the PERMA elements are in it. And so the book shows like at an organizational level what are ways that you can incorporate more positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement to really drive engagement.
And I won’t say like right now, I just — I’m doing an activity with three friends of mine where we’re picking, we’re doing PE. We’re doing a positive emotion and so we’re picking a positive emotion every — one positive emotion every week. So this week we’re doing joy and then we email each other about what it is that we’re doing in our life that week and to get more joy in.
So PERMA and positive emotions and all of those elements are something that organizations can use at an organizational level like how do we get leaders to do a better job at cultivating meaningfulness in work for example. That’s a big part of my book.
But also at the individual level, like in a group of my lawyer friends are just going through positive emotion, but that was — it’s actually based on a study that were the way that our activity is structured that it shows that if you just pick positive emotions and find ways to practice them, it boosts well-being and decreases the depressive symptoms.
So PERMA offers a lot of good ways that we can incorporate well-being strategies both at an organizational level and at individual level.
Tish Vincent: I can see that and it reduces it to a formula that people can remember even when they’re stressed I think if they spend a little time with it and remember that PERMA so that if you’re becoming stressed and feeling negative, you can go back to it kind of anchor yourself to it and find a way to a more positive mindset.
Anne Brafford: That’s a great point, and I think like if they could do it even better would be to work on getting it into your life before you’re feeling overwhelmed with stress because it will help suffer against that.
Tish Vincent: Yes.
Anne Brafford: It will help prevent you from going on a stress spiral where your psychological health really can be negatively impacted.
Rob Mathis: Anne, many of these concepts are quite new to me. One of the things you mentioned before was mindfulness, could you elaborate on what you mean by mindfulness and is it similar to meditation?
Anne Brafford: Yes. So a good question. So meditation is one way that we can cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness itself refers to the ability to know what’s going on in our minds especially emotions but what’s going on our brains without getting carried away by it.
So if we don’t have mindfulness, if we are mindless as we march through our busy days, we are more like bumper cars where whatever stimulus is going on like stress — something stressful happens and we immediately react and we might behave in a way that’s actually destructive.
Well what mindfulness helps us do is okay, so the stressful thing happened, mindfulness helps me create a space, so I can hear the self-talk that is triggered by the negative thing and figure out how to let it go or reframe it, but in some way modify it, so it has less of a negative impact and then have more of ability to choose how you respond.
If we are just reactive, which is what mindlessness is, we go around being very taken away by our emotions which is harmful to our psychological health and we can accidentally do things that make the situation worse.
So mindfulness is the first step to everything really and anything dealing with adult development starts with mindfulness, even things like leadership development. And the way that most people are familiar with of developing mindfulness because it’s just been getting a lot of airtime in the legal profession is meditation, and there’s mindfulness meditation involves really just focusing on your breath, anchoring your attention on your breath, because it helps to have an anchor and what you’ll find is that your mind will wander because that’s what your mind does and might create some negative chatter, because that’s what our minds do, and we just keep re-centering back on our breath.
And so what that helps us do is we start realizing that thoughts are just things that happen in the background. You can look at your thoughts like clouds in the sky or wheeze rolling down a river, like they’re not necessarily real and something that we need to follow and so it helps to start give us distance from our thoughts so that we have a greater ability to not be carried away by them.
And there’s — there’s other ways I’ve been trying to develop a regular meditation practice for years and I will keep trying but it is hard for some people. It doesn’t come naturally or easily to everyone, which doesn’t mean you should give up, but there are other things that you can do while you’re trying to create meditation practice if that’s what you want to do.
So one of the things in Positive Intelligence which is a book that’s listed in the well-being toolkit, it’s a doctor at Stanford, what he recommends is doing mindfulness rest and this is what I do.
So you take like something that you do frequently during the day. So I would often get up to fill my water bottle, so let’s say that like every time I get up to fill my water bottles I’m going to center myself. So the same sort of activity that I described in meditation where you become aware of where you are, you bring yourself to your body, you bring yourself to the present, maybe take a few breaths.
But if you do that then consistently over a day, maybe you do it a hundred times but you also start building this muscle, this mindfulness muscle and that meditation helps as well. And there’s other ways to build mindfulness as well that do a good Google search and you can find some other ways to find something that might fit you, might fit who you are in your lifestyle because it really is worth doing.
I’ve now been working on like that this skill for like five years and it’s a lifelong commitment, like no one will ever be perfect in this. We always will have a tendency to be carried away by our emotions and so it’s one of those skills where we just need to keep practicing.
Tish Vincent: Well it looks like we’ve come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank our guest today Anne Brafford for a wonderful program.
Rob Mathis: Anne, if our listeners would like to follow up with you how can they reach you?
Anne Brafford: One place that you can read a little bit more about me is on my website which is www.aspire.legal and my email address is [email protected].
Tish Vincent: This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan On Balance Podcast.
Rob Mathis: I am Rob Mathis.
Tish Vincent: And I am Tish Vincent. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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