In Biglaw, there is a natural inclination amongst attorneys to build a reputation for being the best, but too often this comes at the expense of mental health and overall wellness. Molly Ranns and JoAnn Hathaway talk with Anthony Sallah and Stacy Sampeck about their expertise and thought leadership in promoting well-being in large law firms and in-house legal teams. They discuss the traditional pressures of working in Biglaw and outline wellness strategies that can help attorneys thrive and do their best work.
Anthony Sallah is a partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP and serves as a member of the State Bar of Michigan’s Lawyers and Judges Assistance Committee.
Stacy Sampeck serves as Director, Assistant General Counsel at 3M and is a founding member of The Mind-Budget Connection, a volunteer group of attorneys and professionals focused on addressing burnout in the eDiscovery industry.
Molly Ranns: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I’m Molly Ranns.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I’m JoAnn Hathaway. We are very pleased to have Stacy Sampeck and Anthony Sallah join us today as our podcast guests.
Stacy Sampeck currently serves as Director, Assistant General Counsel at 3M, where she manages litigation matters and a team of in-house eDiscovery professionals for the company. Since 2020, she has chaired the Legal Affairs Workplace Inclusion, Satisfaction, and Energy Committee whose mission is centered on prioritizing well-being. Stacy is also a founding member of the Mind-Budget Connection, a volunteer group of attorneys and professionals in the legal community focused on addressing burnout in the eDiscovery industry.
Anthony Sallah currently serves as a partner in the litigation department of Barnes & Thornburg, a national business law firm with more than 800 attorneys throughout the U.S. Anthony focuses on representing clients in complex, commercial litigation matters. Since 2022, he has also served as a member of the State Bar of Michigan’s Lawyers and Judges Assistance Committee.
Stacy and Anthony, would you share some more information about yourselves with our listeners, please and Stacy, let’s start with you.
Stacy Sampeck: Great. Thank you so much JoAnn. First of all, thank you both, Molly and JoAnn, for the opportunity to have a conversation today about well-being in the legal profession. As a bit of background, additional background, I’ve spent my entire legal career in litigation primarily in the healthcare, commercial, labor and employment and product liability space.
I started with a regional law firm in Dallas and was there for a little over five years before going in-house about 14 years ago. I joined an advanced wound care company and then in 2019, I joined 3M as part of its in-house litigation team. And for those who may not know, 3M is a global company with about 90,000 employees, which was significantly larger than my first in-house opportunity.
And on a personal note, I live and work in San Antonio, Texas and live with my husband and two children. In addition to spending time with them to maintain my own well-being, I enjoy running, traveling and pretty much anything that involves the outdoors. And then finally as a bit of housekeeping, I’d note that I’m not here speaking on behalf of 3M.
Thank you. Anthony to you.
Anthony Sallah: Thanks Stacy, JoAnn and Molly, thank you very much for having me on today. As a bit of additional background, I’ve spent my entire legal career in litigation working now at two law firms. I worked at my first law firm in Cleveland, Ohio for about five years as an associate before moving with my family to Michigan and joining Barnes & Thornburg first as an associate and now as a partner in the litigation group.
I live and work in Grand Rapids, Michigan with my wife and three children. During my tenure at my last firm and now this firm. I’ve had the privilege of serving in both mentee and mentor roles with other lawyers and been able to sit on various internal committees at my firms that are intended to help promote law firm culture. So the wellness discussion has been something that’s been important to me since shortly after becoming a lawyer. And I’ve also had the privilege of working with and knowing Stacy for about 10 years now.
Molly Ranns: Thank you both so much for being here today. Stacy, let’s start with you. What about working as in-house legal counsel or at a larger firm, do you find that’s unique to balancing wellness and practice management in this profession?
Stacy Sampeck: Well, one of the reasons for me being in-house is so rewarding is the ability to partner directly with business and corporate leaders. As in-house counsel, you’re so close to the action and that is a really unique perspective that I personally did not have when I was with a law firm.
When you are in-house, your clients’ challenges are your challenges so the same thing that makes that connectivity so fun can come with its own unique challenges. I’d say one of the things that I hear a lot in talking to my peers in-house is one of challenges is there’s just so much coming towards you. There are so many voices.
When you’re in-house, you may work with a variety of different internal stakeholders, particularly when you work for a large organization. So balancing and prioritizing the needs of all of them can be challenging some days. There are times where you feel like all the plates are spinning and maybe starting to wobble a bit.
And I think for me, the best advice that I can give is to prioritize what you believe is the most important in that moment and also understand looking back as you often do in time to understand why did I focus on this project versus this. But when you do look back, make sure that you keep in mind that you were trying to make the best decision at that moment. And I think that’s been really helpful to me.
Another unique challenge I think about being in-house is that being in a company creates an environment sometimes that can challenge your well-being in ways that you wouldn’t naturally think about, at least, not at first, for instance, the high number of meetings than large number of meetings that you might have in a given day. I know many in-house lawyers who simply struggle with their own well-being because they don’t feel like they have enough time to get the work done that they need to do in a given day and that is not really surprising if you looked at their calendars because they really don’t have any time.
They haven’t built that time in and so they end up working late or on weekends to get their work done because that’s simply the only time that they have. So while the number of meetings increased during the pandemic, and I think in a lot of effort to remain connected, I think that it’s really imperative not only for yourself, but for organizations to try to create space for lawyers to work and think, creating focus time.
We have with our WISE Committee that was mentioned in the opening created internal meeting guidelines and some teams have no meeting Fridays and those types of initiatives I think can be really helpful at a larger organizational perspective to help create that time and space for the legal professionals in the organization to do their best work.
So those are just a few of the things that come to my mind.
JoAnn Hathaway: Anthony, have you had any particular experiences working on your legal teams that drove you to care about wellness in the legal field?
Anthony Sallah: Yes I certainly have. Starting my career at, I suppose what you would call a larger law firm, I learned quickly traditional norms of our legal profession and that really includes long hours, often times high pressure work. As a young associate, I felt personally at a bigger law firm. You’re striving for perfection but making mistakes anyway, which can often be frustrating.
You’re dealing with both internal and external clients. Your internal clients are the partners that you work for. Your external clients are the firm clients and you’re trying to gain credibility as a young lawyer by always saying yes and me personally, fortunately or unfortunately, I oftentimes did say yes when maybe I shouldn’t have to doing more work.
There’s just a natural desire among lawyers at firms to try and differentiate themselves and build the reputation and when you combine all those things, it can lead to situations like we are today, where we are having discussions about wellness and mental health and legal profession. Two to three years into my career at my former firm, we were going through some significant growth and to help facilitate integration of new younger lawyers, we had an associate development committee at my firm that I had the privilege of serving on.
It was about seven or eight associates, whose focus was really to promote a positive working culture at the firm, more designed towards younger lawyers, and to facilitate integration we did that by advocating for firm initiatives that you might hear about often times today with firms, extended parental leave, civic engagement, associate events, giving associates leadership positions at the firm that traditionally you might not give an associate or younger lawyer. And we involved firm management directly in those discussions.
And the firm wanted to leverage our own committee to attract other lawyers to help foster the growth. And so, when I think back about it now, this was in 2014, 2015, it was really wellness before wellness. I don’t know that we actually ever use the term wellness when we were meeting with our committee.
But we were trying to promote it without really knowing it and so, as I look back again on it now, I found that it worked. While there were some hurdles, the greatest benefit I found was bringing associates like myself into the management room into the discussion of how the firm is going to operate, and that gave me a sense of this is my firm too, right. It’s not just a partner’s firm, it’s an associate’s firm too and I have a say in how the culture is going to go at the firm.
And so that is one example of something that I found in my career that really early on drove me to start thinking about this topic a lot more as my career progressed. And when I arrived at Barnes & Thornburg thankfully, those structures were already in place. There were wellness initiatives. Barnes & Thornburg had already been a member of the ABA Wellness pledge.
So thankfully those things were in place but it’s not institutional everywhere that was important for me early on in my career to have those discussions about wellness.
Molly Ranns: It sounds like that really promoted inclusion, Anthony. So, thank you so much for sharing. Let’s give this question to you again Anthony and Stacy, please feel free to jump in if you have anything to add here. But what role do you see law firms and in-house legal counsel playing to improve wellness and mental health for the overall profession.
Anthony Sallah: Thanks Molly, and Stacy and I have actually talked about this issue as well. I think to answer it’s important to understand at least from my personal perspective, why you might think the legal profession can be so stressful and have such a history of mental health and wellness issues.
As I mentioned before, you have both internal and external clients and the key driver in my experience for a firm is delivering for your clients. There are lots of big law firms and there are many great lawyers out there and law firms, I’ve found try to differentiate themselves by results, the speed at which they deliver those results and cost.
And so there can be tremendous pressure on a relationship attorney, for example, to deliver for their business clients that in turn drives pressure downward to associates to help deliver for the client. So I think that is where, at least for me, traditionally a lot of the wellness discussion stems from at law firms. So to me, I think clients, external clients, whether it be individuals, big companies, they can really be the driver of the wellness discussion.
And I think that they have been and you’re seeing that in the last couple years. I think it’s crucial for external clients to take a leadership role in the wellness discussion even as it relates to a firm’s internal culture. Wellness is important and I think we’re all here today because we know that, but for me if it’s important to clients then I think firms are really going to prioritize it and then I think everyone else in the legal ecosystem will prioritize it. And that’s legal vendors, expert witnesses.
For firms and in-house teams, it can range from bigger initiatives, we’ve all heard about instituting formal wellness programs, parental leave policies, providing career coaches for in-house and other attorneys at law firms to even smaller initiatives. And so I think you’re finding that associates are starting to ask for these things as they come out of law school. But again, I think that the client really needs to be the driver of this discussion.
Another example that I’ve thought about is oftentimes when a firm might be solicited for work by a client, they will do so through a request for a proposal or an RFP. One criteria that clients could include in those requests for proposals to law firms to do work is that the firm described its own internal wellness initiatives.
I’m pretty sure that there’s not a firm out there that will not want to leave that question blank. And so, I think wellness is always going to be part of the discussion in the legal profession just because of the way it is structured and so some of these things that we talk about, about wellness initiatives, at firms and companies to me are meant to counterbalance what is traditionally can be so difficult about the practice of law, but if there are synergies between the law firm and the client regarding attorney wellness with the client driving it, then I think that can really benefit the legal profession overall.
Stacy Sampeck: Yeah, Anthony I’ll jump in here. I fully agree with everything that you said and do believe as well that the clients really have a crucial role, a crucial leadership role here to play to set good examples and as you spoke to insist on a commitment to wellness from their firms. We are partners in that relationship and so we want both sides, the firms and the people who are in them as well as the people who are in-house counsel like myself to prioritize their own well-being for external firms and external — the attorneys and professionals in them. We are paying for their ideas and further their thoughtful advice.
And so it is a benefit to us to have people who have prioritized their well-being. And one other thing I would add to your comments as far as a way to help create a positive wellness impact on both sides, it’s really interesting, I recently saw a survey that talked about one of the biggest stressors for law firm attorneys is the billable hour. Not surprising, I felt that stress myself being at a law firm, and what’s interesting is there’s a lot of huge benefits to in-house counsel with alternative fee arrangements. I’m a big proponent of those.
And so, when I think about the benefits that I receive from an AFA in terms of certainty and understanding of expectations early on, on the flip side, the law firm, and the attorneys in them have the benefit of not being tied to that billable hour, which has been such a stressor for them.
So I think that’s a great example, where wellness can be a benefit not only just for the individual but for the broader organization on both sides.
Molly Ranns: These are such great suggestions and before we hear more from Stacy Sampeck and Anthony Sallah, we are going to take a short break from our conversation to thank our sponsors.
JoAnn Hathaway: Welcome back. We are thrilled to be here today with Stacy Sampeck and Anthony Sallah, discussing lawyer well-being in big law. Stacy, let’s start with you on this. What recent wellness initiatives have you found impactful on a broader scale for those in the legal field?
Stacy Sampeck: Well, as part of that well-being committee that I spoke about earlier and some other groups I’m involved with, I would say I agree with a lot of the comments Anthony has said that thankfully we as a legal profession are more focused on this wellness topic and there’s a lot of people thinking about how we can have a broader scale impact for those in our field. I know there’s great groups, State Bar Assistance Groups as well as the ABA and many others that are thinking about how do we equip people in this profession to really thrive?
How do we develop practical tools, structural solutions that can help address the problems not just solutions focused on addressing the symptoms of the problem? What tools can really get to the heart of the issue. And so those are things that I like to spend time thinking about as part of the groups. I mentioned earlier those meeting guidelines as an example.
Anthony has talked about a lot of the great initiatives as well. The other group that was mentioned at the beginning that I’m a part of is called the Mind-Budget Connection. And this is a volunteer group that was formed to examine the connection between contractual relationships, and mental health in the eDiscovery space.
Christine Payne, Amy Sellars, Kevin Brady, Chad Riley, Logan Cornett, Mary Kostick, those are just a few of the names of the folks that are involved in that initiative. They are ranging from law firm, attorneys and legal professionals, vendors, in-house teams and that team really said, you know, budget constraints can often result in folks being forced to do more with less.
So, how can we work to develop relationship models that improve mental health outcomes in this space?
And so last year, we conducted a wellness survey to analyze the rate of burnout and stress in this eDiscovery field which exists in this larger legal profession field. And we’ve collected information and working on presenting some concrete solutions hopefully for eDiscovery professionals to utilize. So I think there are initiatives out there and there are groups out there beyond even in an in-house environment or a law firm that people are working collaboratively together to try to get to some solutions.
As Anthony said, this is really an ecosystem and so we can’t just look inward and try to fix only what we think of is within our walls. But one thing I would say because I feel like I’ve talked a little bit about kind of the broader initiative and I know that’s really what the question is about. But we all know that it can also be the little things that make a big difference in our own personal well-being. And so, I really tried to myself and encourage others to think about how their interactions impact others’ well-being and to be thoughtful in that and only in the way of just being respectful.
But little things, you know, an example I’ve used before is at the beginning of a new working relationship I had an attorney asked me if I minded emails at night. He said he found that he was more productive at night, worked late but he recognized that receiving an email late at night might make me feel compelled to respond. And so just having that conversation really demonstrated to me that this individual was thinking about me and how that might impact my work/life balance.
So that was just really a tremendous moment for me and I gained a lot of respect for that attorney. I also do believe in the importance of prioritizing your own well-being, but I feel like putting all the expectation on the employee is not getting at the heart of the issue. The focus should be on creating an environment where employees thrive not pushing employees towards self-help tools to manage their negative experience that they’ve had in that work environment.
And it’s not maybe a great analogy, but something that comes to mind as we’re about to enter summer here in Texas is I think about it as pushing people out into the hot Texas sun without sunscreen, but promising them aloe vera if they get burned, it’s great to have the aloe vera and that can be helpful, but having the sunscreen would have been helpful or even better having a broad tent that they could be outside under and not subject themselves to that hot Texas sun.
So that’s sort of how I think about the tools. You know, what can we do to create that safe space for us to really do our best work in.
Molly Ranns: I love that analogy Stacy. I couldn’t agree more. Anthony, how important is it to emphasize attorney wellness as you take on more managerial type responsibilities on your legal teams?
Anthony Sallah: I think it’s extremely important. I found you won’t always succeed but modeling good behavior is important and it’s going to build trust among your teams. As I found as a lawyer that has worked as an associate and now partner as I’ve generated my own clients, you can very easily start to slip into the mentality of I had to work long hours and I had to work on the weekend when I was an associate.
So you do too. I consistently have to remind myself to resist that temptation and I think lawyers should similarly do the same as they progress in their career that is really going to just further facilitate the issue of the problems that we face with attorney wellness. And I think that is starting to happen because I also think that firms are starting to see that wellness in the legal profession doesn’t just mean that you work less. Those are not the same thing.
Lawyers should know as before they go to law school and if they go into legal profession it is a profession where you will work long hours at times and there can be stresses as there can be in any job. There are wins and there are losses in litigation, you are going to deal with difficult personalities at times, that is the nature of practicing law.
But as Stacy has really talked about a lot of the initiatives that she has going on with the Mind-Budget Connection and some of the other things that we’ve talked about principles that I think and the things that we put in place about wellness are meant to counter balance those things. And so, I do really think it’s important to stay away from the mentality of this is how it was done before. So this is how you have to do it. It shouldn’t be that way just because I have clients now and I did it before.
The other thing that I think is important as I begin to work with young lawyers is approaching those on my team with their capacity to take on more work in mind. The traditional norm was the client asked for it, we deliver it as fast as we can, but you can’t always expect now, you’re a younger lawyer at a law firm to willingly turn down work if they’re too busy.
Lots of lawyers will still just say yes even though they may not have the capacity to do the work and that can be an issue. As I mentioned before, I think there’s just a natural tendency to always say yes. And so I think it’s important as a lawyer now is I delegate work to others to be transparent about what is expected from the client but also gain a full understanding of what that lawyer already has on their plate.
Because again, you can’t always ask your stars lawyers to do more with less because that is not a good mix and eventually you will — the client may suffer because of that. The other thing that I think is important is giving lawyers at law firms or in-house an ownership or a role with the direction of the firm. As I talked about with the Associate Development Committee I sat on, giving younger lawyers a role in the culture discussion at the firm, whether it be through associate committees, pro bono committees, and then having more senior leadership at the firm buy into that will really be important.
You’re going to allow lawyers to survey their peers or upstream to firm management. How they think the firm culture among the younger lawyers is proceeding that is similarly going to increase your retention. You’re going to have lawyers that aren’t going to want to leave the firm because they’ve helped build a positive culture at the firm that they’re at. So those are just a few things that I think is important to emphasize attorney wellness as a lawyer progresses in their career.
JoAnn Hathaway: Great information. Well as we wrap up today, starting with Stacy and then hearing from you Anthony, what are some tips for attorneys and other legal professionals just starting out in the industry to help prioritize the professional’s individual well-being?
Stacy Sampeck: I think I would start by saying as has been mentioned here today that it is really encouraging that there is a greater recognition of well-being challenges in our community now in 2023. The fact that there are surveys being done, podcast like this one, the profession is really recognizing the importance of their work. So I think that’s a really positive thing for those who are new to our industry and our field.
The flipside of course is that there isn’t always will be work to be done in this space and from an in-house perspective, a recent survey found that still a vast majority of people say that the legal profession has had any negative impact on their mental health over time, and they feel exhausted and overwhelmed. So I do think as I’ve mentioned before, it’s important for new legal professionals and attorneys to help prioritize their own well-being.
For me, some tips I would say is, first and foremost, learn to recognize signs in your own life that can help you tune into where you are in your own well-being from a physical standpoint, mental standpoint, spiritual, all of those aspects. For me, when my exercise routine, my sleeping habits, my eating habits start changing, that’s kind of a first sign that and when friends and family start commenting, that is something else that I encourage you to listen to, it’s a very easy to push especially friends and family aside.
I was fortunate myself to one time when I was really pushing myself too hard, I had an awesome manager who gave me the permission essentially to focus a little bit more on myself for that moment which was just really a wonderful experience. So recognize what you have going on in your own life, be attuned to that.
And I fully agree with Anthony’s recommendation about not immediately saying yes to everything that is very difficult to do for a lot of us especially when you’re starting out but that is one way that you can help, really make sure that you are able to get to all of the commitments that you’ve made.
And at the end of the day, it’s a benefit to not only you, but your client and your co-workers when you aren’t overwhelmed by the amount of things that you’ve said yes to. And then, finally, I would say give yourself some grace and permission to take a break when needed to step away, whether that’s 10 minutes outside or for an extra day on the weekends, you don’t always have to power through and for me, that’s important to hear.
So that would one of my closing tips but also to extend that same grace and understanding to your co-workers and your peers, your law firm clients, your vendors, anyone that you interact with in the field.
Anthony Sallah: I really agree a lot with what Stacy said. Taking ownership over your own wellness is really important because as a lawyer going into looking for a place to work, you’re certainly going to want to find a place to work that emphasizes what Stacy has talked about and what we’ve talked about here, asking questions to see if there are wellness programs in place, are their institutional wellness initiatives. Is it something that the company or the firm focuses on and prioritizes?
These are questions that lawyers could be asking in their first interview or in their first few interviews. But again what Stacy said, I think is really important is also taking ownership over your own wellness. If at times if I prioritize my own wellness early on in my career as much as I did prioritizing the work I had to do, perhaps, I could have learned lessons earlier than that took me some time.
And so again, staying engaged — for me staying engaged and networking with others in my firm, staying engaged in the community, physical activity these are things that I would say prioritizing your own personal wellness and then combined with that, finding a place to work that prioritizes it also.
JoAnn Hathaway: Great information. Well, it does look like we’ve come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank our guest today, Stacy Sampeck and Anthony Sallah for a wonderful program.
Molly Ranns: Stacy and Anthony if our guests would like to follow up with you, what is the best way for them to do so?
Stacy Sampeck: Sure, I am on LinkedIn so feel free to reach out to me there and my contact information is listed and happy to engage or discuss any of these topics.
Anthony Sallah: And I’m also on LinkedIn. And also if you go to the Barnes & Thornburg website, you will be able to navigate to my bio and my email is on my bio.
Molly Ranns: Thank you again so much for being here with us today. This was an excellent conversation.
This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I’m JoAnn Hathaway.
Molly Ranns: And I’m Molly Ranns. Until next time, thank you for listening.