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How Firms are Upping the Fun Factor to Battle Burnout

The long hours, high standards and fierce competition that accompany a career in BigLaw can heap immense amounts of stress on attorneys, but law firms are making an effort to push back against burnout by coming up with creative ways for lawyers to blow off steam.

Beyond offering competitive pay and perks, law firms are fostering liveliness in their ranks with things like movie nights, table tennis tournaments, and even an original sport involving the Code of Federal Regulations.

According to Diane Rifkin, founder of legal recruiting firm Rifkin Consulting, novel and playful activities in a law firm setting may boost morale and combat burnout, if they are carefully and strategically planned.

She says that such programs are more likely to be successful if firms find a balance between sports endeavors — such as intra-firm basketball or softball games — and the activities that involve the arts or other less physical forms of socializing, such as movies or museum experiences.

Firms should also take care that a work perk doesn’t become just another office obligation.

“In [my] experience, firms must also be aware that if an attorney is burned out, then adding an extra activity that applies any pressure to participate may be self-defeating,” she said. “For example, a person may prefer perks such as a more flexible schedule or pre-designated personal time. If such activities are implemented, they should be minimal, but meaningful.”

An unofficial “shenanigans committee” implements fun activities at Arnold & Porter LLP, according to the firm. The committee periodically puts together large events that draw participation from all parts of the firm.

One such event occurred in both 2012 and 2014 and was called the A&P Olympic Games, where hundreds of “athletes” represented their color-coded team in competitive events like office chair basketball, mini-golf and a discus-like sport that involves tossing bound volumes of the Code of Federal Regulations.

“We believe our many activities for staff and attorneys alike not only help maintain Arnold & Porter’s tradition of collegiality, but reflects its commitment to diversity and celebration of the human spirit,” Arnold & Porter co-managing partner Anne Davis explained.

Attorneys at Cooley LLP can participate in several get-healthy initiatives such as office-vs.-office step challenges, in which participants track the number of steps they take in a day, and office running clubs, the firm reported.

“The Cooley NY running club and FitBit step challenges have brought together people in the office who might not normally interact during the workday,” said Jim Fulton, a partner in Cooley’s New York office. “Our sense of camaraderie has certainly strengthened, allowing us to be an overall stronger, not to mention healthier, team. A small group of us even completed a half marathon together recently.”

WilmerHale spokeswoman Molly Nunes said the firm’s D.C. office organizes table tennis tournaments in the summer for lawyers and summer associates. The games are played over two weeks, typically during lunch breaks, and the entire office is invited to watch the final matches in mid-July after work while enjoying fries, wings and beverages.

“The Ping-Pong tournament gives summer associates a chance to meet lawyers at the firm in a fun, nonwork context,” D.C. partner Jonathan Cedarbaum said. “We encourage players of all skill levels to join in. If a summer associate gets a chance to beat a partner, all the more fun.”

However, some lawyers may not be interested in the office softball team, or athletics in general, Rifkin warns. Including those attorneys in office activities means tapping into their interests, whether that is volunteering, the arts or other low-key affairs. These activities provide many of the same benefits to law firms in terms of boosting morale and firm unity, she says.

“Enjoyable activities are not one-size-fits-all, and a firm should do some research to determine the types of interests that the attorneys have,” Rifkin advised.

To represent those interests, some law firms offer their employees film screenings, beer tastings, an associates’ gala, ice cream social, improv comedy day, office Thanksgiving dinner, mock Academy Awards, crab feast and a children’s harvest festival.

To mark LGBT History Month, Kirkland & Ellis LLP hosted a screening of “Codebreaker,” the story of Alan Turing, firm spokeswoman Olivia Clarke said. Turing broke the German naval Enigma code, which turned the tide of World War II, but was nonetheless persecuted because of his homosexuality.

“It was a wonderful way to bring different groups of people together to learn about an important person in history,” Kirkland partner Cedric Van den Borren said.

The perks of offering fun activities for attorneys can go beyond just blowing off steam.

“A unique setting may present an opportunity to get to know others outside of one’s practice area with whom they might not typically interact,” Rifkin said. “There’s a certain level of sharing of experiences that can be helpful no matter what department you work in … talking about it can encourage a feeling of unity."

One event at Kirkland & Ellis aimed at bringing people together, encouraging connections and reducing stress is an annual associates’ gala put on by the firm’s Chicago office. All of the office’s associates are invited to come, and they can bring a guest for a night of dinner and dancing.

Kirkland associate Kimberly McGrath said that the gala is “a wonderful event” for morale and camaraderie among the associates in Chicago.

“With so many associates, it’s rare that we are together all at once, and the gala helps make us feel much more connected,” McGrath said. “You have the opportunity to interact with associates across various practice groups and meet associates’ significant others. It’s also a great reminder that our firm leadership values its associates and its associates’ interests outside of the office.”