liberated syndication

The Resilient Lawyer with Jeena Cho

RL 66: Mike Ethridge — Wellness in the Workplace

The Resilient Lawyer with Jeena Cho
Released on Nov 27, 2017

In this episode, I am excited to have Mike Ethridge back on to discuss wellness in the workplace. For those that haven't listened to the previous episodes with Mike (which I would highly recommend,) Mike is an attorney from Charleston, SC, and a champion of wellness for lawyers.

Topics Covered

  • Mike defines and breaks down what wellness means to him personally and the importance to lawyers of keeping its definition expansive (i.e. physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological, etc.)
  • The need to restructure our viewing of wellness in the law firm setting and seeing wellness as an investment rather than focusing on hours billed as a unit of productivity.
  • How to begin structuring and implementing a wellness and well-being program in the workplace, how to fight the culture that puts wellness on the backburner, and the weight of being the change you want to see in the workplace.
  • Talking on the importance of measuring the effectiveness of wellness programs, what could be metrics of measurement, and if it could be measured in the first place.


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Jeena Cho: [00:00:02] Today's show is sponsored by Spotlight Branding. Spotlight Branding works exclusively with solo and small law firms to brand them as trusted, credible experts and help them stand out in a crowded marketplace. Their services include web design, social media, video marketing, and more.

Mike Ethridge: [00:00:27] If that becomes truly the measure of productivity (simply how many hours that you spend on something) and 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.

Intro: [00:00:44] Welcome to The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this podcast, we have meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs, and change agents. We offer tools and strategies for creating a more joyful and satisfying life. And now your host, Jeena Cho.

Jeena Cho: [00:01:10] 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, and on this week's show, we have Mike Ethridge back on the show. Mike, welcome back.

Mike Ethridge: [00:01:36] Thanks Jeena, it's good to be back.

Jeena Cho: [00:01:38] And so today we're going to talk about wellness and the workplace, specifically at places where lawyers work. And I guess to start off, Mike can you explain what you mean when you say wellness? Does that mean running, does that mean exercising? What does that mean?

Mike Ethridge: [00:01:56] Well, let's start with that word. Wellness this is 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 that. But it's, I think it's important for it to remain a pretty expansive concept for us. 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 you know emotionally, psychologically, spiritually to be more present to our life and more present to our work.

And those concepts I think are very much part and parcel of each other. And 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 can 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 requests to admit that might need to be responded to, and trying to survive off of four or five hours of sleep. And 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. So I think it's a mistake to try to separate them.

[00:03:54] So 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.

Jeena Cho: [00:04:04] Yeah.

Mike Ethridge: [00:04:04] And it needs to be by necessity.

Jeena Cho: [00:04:08] And so we don't just mean sort of the absence of illness. 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." We mean something more comprehensive than that.

Mike Ethridge: [00:04:22] That's exactly right, that's a great point. And I think that is a mistake and I think our culture is oriented so much toward treating illness that we that we define things like well-being in exactly the terms you just used, which is 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 Cho: [00:04:59] Yeah, I think about it as all of these sets of practices that we do on an ongoing, regular basis so that we can be our best selves. And the other interesting thing is that some people think about wellness or well-being as something that they do on occasion. Like, "I go on vacation twice a year, and that's how I'm caring for my wellness or well-being." Like no, you have to do it on a regular, ongoing basis. It's not so much about how hard you exercise, it's like meditation. You can 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.

Mike Ethridge: [00:05:43] Right. There is 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 engagement with employees and improve how firms function. And they talk about it in the concept of energy, and they really base it on what's a fundamental principle of the universe, which is to really function at your best, you have to balance energy expenditure with energy renewal. And 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 we do, there has to be space in our life to be re-energized. And so 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 know 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. And there is not this intentional, institutional structuring of opportunities for you to rest and recharge, and get that renewal of energy that is necessary for you to really be the lawyer that the firm and your clients need you to be.

Jeena Cho: [00:07:45] Yeah. Well maybe we can talk about this from a top-down approach, and maybe we can talk about it from bottom-up. So for, well I guess let's start here. What's the business case for why managing partners in a law firm should even care about wellness or well-being? I mean, don't you just want your attorneys to maximize their billing and bill as many hours as possible? And 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 Ethridge: [00:08:28] Well, you've put your finger on I think the crux of the issue as it relates to firm management and firm operation and what firms struggle with. One of the difficulties I think we have as a profession right now is that we define our productivity in terms of billable hours. And the reasons why we need to do that, I understand that and I have a practice that is very much oriented toward the billable hour. So it's not this demonic thing, but it really does create a problem if that becomes truly the measure of productivity, simply how many hours that you spend on something. And that is I think antithetical to what essentially we're about as a profession.

[00:09:17] Our most valuable commodity is not time, but its attention. I could spend four or 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. And 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. And when you think about it that way, is a really rather absurd way to think about servicing your clients.

But we live in the 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 we get from it. So I think again, shifting what we want to try to produce, what we want our result to be for our client away from X number of billable hours is the first step.

[00:10:55] 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 Cho: [00:11:16] Yeah and of course that's how lawyers are often measured, is by their billable hour. And it seems like that's probably the most important metric in terms of when they're deciding who's going to get the bonuses, or who is going to stay or go. And every single billable hour is created equal, but it's not. Because sometimes just like you were 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 it may only take you 10 minutes. But somehow that 10 minutes is valued equally as if you just spent ten minutes half-way distracted and half-way focused. So I think talking about our billable, or how we generate income is a whole nother conversation about alternate billings and all of that good stuff.

Mike Ethridge: [00:12:09] Well it is, and we don't need to go down that road now, but I do think that is something that lawyers certainly need to explore for the 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 and we need to generate as many billable hours as possible to increase our revenue, and that becomes the primary measure of value for the lawyers that work in our firm - that is incredibly short-sighted.

[00:12:43] And it may be true over some limited period of time. But overall, I mean after a while a client is not going to stay with a law firm that churns the files or that prioritizes billing hours over getting results and early resolutions. So ultimately, you are going to be measured on how well you do your work for clients. And the measure is 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 toward some kind of resolution.

Jeena Cho: [00:13:26] Yeah, it's interesting because I recently met someone that works at Google. And of course, Google is radically different than big law or just law firms in general. But they were talking about how not only are the productivity of every employee at Google closely monitored, 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 this 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 are presumed to be. There's almost this macho culture where you sit around and talk about how hard you worked and how long you stayed at the office, and how many all-nighters you pulled. And when you start talking 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, why are we so backwards thinking, despite all the science and all the evidence that's contrary?

Mike Ethridge: [00:14:41] 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?" Boy, 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 starts engaging in this, "My life sucks worse than yours," kind of back and forth that's really present in all firms. And it's fascinating when we look, when we go outside the legal profession. When we go to companies like Google and other companies too, where they have all kinds of metrics that they will use to measure productivity. So metrics are not the cause of the problem. Businesses all over the world have metrics they use to measure how well the folks that are working there are doing. But there are businesses that, even with those metrics there, they have very happy employees really engaged in their work.

[00:15:45] I think the difference with law firms is that we equate really value and meaning with those metrics and with the productivity. So they become, you are how many hours you bill and how much money you make or are able to make is directly related to that. And 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. And the revenue we generate is that fuel, and we need to be good stewards of that; and the way we do that is by measuring. So we're real careful about how we measure, and we're going to talk a lot about what that looks like.

[00:16:58] 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. But 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. And 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.

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[00:18:41] So 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 clients, where do you start? Because it also feels kind of overwhelming you know, because we started by talking about the definition of wellness and well-being and we specifically talked about the fact that it's all-encompassing. So what are some suggestions you have for how to implement some type of wellness or well-being programs?

Mike Ethridge: [00:19:21] Well ideally, it starts at the top. Ideally you have firm management, the equity partners or 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 what we've been about as a profession. And 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 firm managers that begin to think about importance of engagement and well-being, and the relationship between that and productivity. And then they can from there explore you know what does that look like in terms of how we run this firm, and what we offer the people and make available for people at 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 or it might be a young lawyer, who says there's something wrong with this culture and I want to do things differently. And 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 taking it on.

Jeena Cho: [00:21:05] Yeah. I am 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 bottom up. So no one on the top said, oh we need a mindfulness program at Intel. Intel tends to also be a little bit of a more traditional tech company. And he is a meditator himself and this is something that he values in his life personally, and he just decided you know what; I am just going to reserve a conference room on every Wednesday from 12 to 12:30. And then 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. And he said you know at first one or two people showed up, and then it continues to grow.

[00:21:55] And then the manager started to see the impact that that short practice was having. And so then the manager started to adopt the idea and the program, and started to spread it to other departments. And then finally the upper managers at Intel really saw the value of offering such a program, and gave them a budget to be able to really roll this program out, and now it's a company-wide program. So I think it can 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. 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. And that rarely seems to work. I think that saying, be the change you want to see in the world, is so true in this context. And often I'll get these e-mails from young associates in these big law firms, and they're just miserable. And they'll tell me things like, "I work with this partner and he's so not receptive to these type of ideas and you know, I want the firm to change," and I'll say, well the only thing you can change is yourself. And I think we also sort of underestimate the value of changing yourself right, and the ripple effect that that can have.

Mike Ethridge: [00:23:18] You're absolutely right. And I think that the model that you talked 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, as 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 you're going to one day maybe totally transform the culture. You might not, but it doesn't matter. What really matters is, is this practice and 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 with others and invite others to do it with you? I love this idea of reserving a conference room and having meditation. There are all kinds of things that you can do; you can organize a walk to lunch one day a week. Or a lot of law firms, particularly in larger law firms, will have empty offices. And 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 in cushions and lamps and candles, and just have it be a place where people can go and relax. And create wellness challenges inside your office, organize monthly get-togethers. There's all kinds of things we can sit here and brainstorm about what's available that's doesn't 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.

[00:25:20] And I think inevitably what happened at Intel does happen. I think that people begin to see that there is value in this, and there is a certain kind of enthusiasm and engagement by the people that are participating that's very helpful to 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 an openness to it that's started to develop because you're trying to do it at your office as well. And so that's how that change is going to happen I think, it's going to be just grassroots.

Jeena Cho: [00:26:09] How important do you think it is to measure the impact of these types 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 Ethridge: [00:26:25] That's a great question, because for a long time I just thought it was not important that you measure that. The measure is your experience of it and your deciding that it's meaningful, and people are going to decide if it's meaningful or not. But it was just to get bogged down in measuring something that really can't be measured, you can't measure thriving, you can't measure happiness. That to me seemed to be a waste of time. However, I have changed how I think about it.

[00:26:56] And a lot of that had come from my meeting Anne Brafford, 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." But she's done a lot of writing on this idea of how can firms create engagement in the workplace. And what Anne, who is a scientist (she's a lawyer who is going back to school); she is all about measuring everything. And the more that I talk to Anne about this, I began to understand it's so important that this 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.

[00:27:55] Now I'm not a scientist, Anne is a much better person to answer the question about how you measure it. But I think it's really important that it 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 Cho: [00:28:22] Yeah. And I guess this is also 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. And 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? So having a little bit of a metric is not.. And 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 subcommittees to decide on that. So I think action over planning perhaps is too much planning.

Mike Ethridge: [00:29:26] No, but I think there's real value in doing some of that measuring. And I confirm it very differently, from a very different place than you do Jeena, trying to measure it somehow diminished or cheapen the event and I wanted it to be 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 every day I don't measure how long I meditate, but I measure whether or not I meditate or work out, or whether I eat a low-carb diet. And it is remarkable how much more consistently I will do those things just because I'm going to 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. So I think what you're talking about is important. Just for a long time I just never thought it was that important, but I began to understand it really is. And we have all kinds of things with our phones and there are easy ways to measure a lot of this stuff without any effort.

Jeena Cho: [00:30:45] 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 in little doses. And also it's a good way to not cheat yourself. I think there's this tendency if you just say, oh 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 will typically end up on the bottom of the list.

[00:31:14] And maybe that's another question that we can chat about just very briefly, is how do you of prioritize these wellness or well-being practices, when there is 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 you know maybe not more important but as important?

Mike Ethridge: [00:31:39] I think that question is going to be answered differently by different people. I can talk about what for me, how I do that. I will say that it is really hard, and 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 workday may hold. 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 times to step away for a couple of hours at lunch and come back, and sometimes I do that.

[00:32:24] 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, and for me that's early morning. I get up about five o'clock and I'll go work out, I'll come back and I'll meditate and have coffee and my breakfast. I'm real conscious about how that morning gets structured and how I move into my work; that works the best. But there are also seasons in my life where carving it out in the morning for me is what has made the biggest difference, in terms of having it available and being able to engage in it every day.

[00:33:07] We're so programmed in this culture that you know, Monday morning you go to work and you work all day long. And if you stop in the middle of the day then you're being lazy. And I will try to, on days where I'm not in deposition or a hearing or something like that. But I have the ability to pause, 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 re-energize myself.

[00:33:52] But those are things that I pretty much insert into my day on a week-by-week basis, because it's hard to really create or structure a day around those kinds of events when you do what we do for a living. There are days, we don't always get to choose how our days unfold when you practice law.

Jeena Cho: [00:34:14] Yeah, definitely.

Mike Ethridge: [00:34:16] I think the need for law firms to address this issue of well-being 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 Brafford cites it in her work. But it identified an associate in a private law firm as being the most miserable job in America. There is just such dissatisfaction, particularly among young lawyers in our profession. The level of attrition that we're seeing with lawyers and the amount of distress (I know you've talked about it in another podcast), the level of distress that lawyers experience; we need to begin 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 Cho: [00:35:25] Yeah. So true. Well Mike, thank you so much for joining me on another episode of The Resilient Lawyer podcast.

Mike Ethridge: [00:35:34] Thank you Jeena.

Closing: [00:35:39] Thanks for joining us on The Resilient Lawyer podcast. If you've enjoyed the show, please tell a friend. It's really the best way to grow the show. To leave us a review on iTunes, search for The Resilient Lawyer and give us your honest feedback. It goes a long way to help with our visibility when you do that, so we really appreciate it. As always, we'd love to hear from you. E-mail us at Thanks, and look forward to seeing you next week.