BP Perspective Insights from a Business Partner

How Staff at Small Law Firms Can Balance Legal Work and Mental Health

The past two years have been a time of great change — and great uncertainty — at small law firms.

Ruchie Chadha

This environment inspired attorneys, legal administrators, paralegals and other staff to stick close to their firms. In 2021, median attorney turnover was 6.7%, down from 16.7% in 2020; meanwhile, staff turnover dropped from 25% in 2020 to 13.3% this year.

But low turnover doesn’t necessarily show a firm is creating a healthy, supportive environment for its attorneys and staff. In May 2021, 37% of lawyers reported feeling depressed, up from 31% in 2019, and 71% experienced anxiety, up from 64% in 2019. Like everyone in our communities, legal professionals aren’t immune from the effects of isolation, burnout and an uncertain future.

Fortunately, this is one place where smaller firms have an advantage over the giants. When partners at the top create an environment where everyone’s voice is welcome, legal administrators, associates, paralegals and other team members have an opportunity to create a firm where mental health is prioritized and valued.


After going nearly entirely remote in March 2020, lawyers are returning to the office at a higher rate than many other professionals — as of August 2021, occupancy rates for law firms were back up to 56%, compared with 34% of companies nationwide. But only 28% of firms predict in-office work will return to prepandemic levels. Thanks to technology and employees’ desire for greater flexibility, in-office work isn’t a must-have for many firms.

But remote work isn’t just a duplication of in-office work and must be treated differently. Flexible work hours that accommodate a lack of child care or other personal needs can be a great start. But “always-on” expectations for staff are a sure path to burnout. Half of respondents to Bloomberg Law’s Attorney Workload and Hours Survey said they experienced burnout in Q1 of 2021.

“Remember that your mental health affects your ability to support your firm’s clients, who likely are retaining your services at one of the most important points in their lives.”

Technology that allows staff to share and shift tasks, clearly communicate, and see the entire firm’s work in one place is also critical for remote work. While it won’t perfectly replicate the in-person experience, technology can ensure that files are never lost, clients feel appropriately supported and staff are able to take the breaks they deserve.


While around 40% of law firm employees have unlimited paid time off (PTO), only 31% use all their vacation days. And COVID-19 has only made matters worse: Nearly all Americans (92%) canceled, postponed or entirely skipped booking a vacation in 2020 due to the pandemic. In fact, they worked an additional hour per day on average. Legal professionals reported taking just three days of PTO in Q1 of 2021.

Even if you’re not comfortable with the idea of a big beach vacation, it’s still important for legal professionals to use PTO for its intended purpose. Remember that your mental health affects your ability to support your firm’s clients, who likely are retaining your services at one of the most important points in their lives. By using your PTO and allowing for others at your firm to cover your work, you also give them permission to do the same.


Employees who are passionate about technology or culture often form committees or act as internal champions. The same tactics can be used to promote your firm’s mental health. These people help create and promote a safe space for conversation about mental health, fielding and implementing suggestions that work for the needs of all employees. Ideas can include no-call/email/text hours or “summer Fridays” that extend all year.

These mental health ambassadors also can work with your IT department or leadership team to find helpful technologies. For example, adding automated tools that improve your billing practices can free up hours for employees to spend recharging or completing fulfilling tasks instead of manually billing their time.

Most importantly, remember that your mental health is paramount to your professional satisfaction and success as at a small firm. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please reach out to someone you trust or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) at any time.