How/Why Law Firms are Applying WELL to Advance Employee Well-being
Submitted by International WELL Building Institute
There are a lot of things I miss about working at a law firm – contributing to deals covered by leading financial media, collaborating with brilliant colleagues and starting each day with perfectly prepared steel-cut oatmeal from the firm’s onsite cafeteria. Providing nutritious food options was one way my firm helped to support my health and fuel my energy during long workdays. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the office cafeteria also provided a sense of community for all of us at the firm, sparking interactions among associates, partners and staff that helped us build a culture and bond as a team.
Among the many lessons gleaned from the pandemic, law firms and corporations alike learned that health-first factors (healthy food options in the cafeteria being just one of many) are more than just perks – they are essential ways to support employee well-being. We also learned that employees can be productive while working at home. In-office “face time” (as it’s often referred to in law firms) does not need to be an uncompromising part of the culture. These lessons, along with previous calls from the legal industry to prioritize well-being and clients’ growing focus on ESG initiatives – are sparking law firms to take action to improve well-being within their organizations.
The legal community commits to well-being with the ABA Pledge
This focus on well-being by law firms predates the pandemic. In 2017, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-being published The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, which highlights studies showing that too many lawyers and law students experience chronic stress, high rates of depression and substance abuse, threatening the success and sustainability of the profession. In 2018, the American Bar Association launched the ABA Pledge and Campaign for promoting well-being in the legal profession, as organized by the ABA Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession. The ABA pledge called upon legal employers to recognize and acknowledge these challenges and take action to support the campaign.
Currently, over 200 organizations including law firms, law schools, corporate legal departments, government agencies and bar associations have signed on to the ABA Pledge. U.S. state court systems and associations have also taken action to promote well-being in the industry. The Colorado Supreme Court Well-being Recognition Program promotes its mission “to formally recognize and incentivize legal employers seeking to adopt significant, ongoing and purposeful lawyer well-being strategies and initiatives within their organizations.” The Massachusetts Recommendations for Legal Employers Post-Pandemic encourages legal employers to improve well-being by considering flexible work arrangements and rethinking organization culture.
Return to office, ESG and client interests further drive people-first strategies in the legal sector
In addition to addressing challenges of substance abuse and overly high stress levels in the workplace, firms are motivated to adopt lessons learned during the pandemic about flexible hours, working remotely and digital connection to help recruit new talent and retain their employees. Law firms are also working to advance their ESG initiatives as well as demonstrate leadership in ESG when advising their clients. Many law firm clients, as part of their vendor and supplier compliance practices and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, are pushing law firms to take tangible steps to promote DEI and other ESG initiatives.
Many of these drivers have led law firms to the International WELL Building institute’s (IWBI) WELL Building Standard as a guide to meet their well-being and other organizational goals. IWBI has seen an uptick in law firms pursuing WELL Certification, WELL ratings for individual offices and other WELL programs and promoting their enrollment and achievement as a demonstration of innovation and leadership in their respective regions. In fall 2022, Shearman & Sterling became the first global law firm to participate in WELL at scale, enrolling all 25 of its global offices in the program. This trend among law firms coincides with growing evidence that health strategies can benefit larger company goals. A recently published peer-reviewed study in Building and Environment found that occupants in WELL Certified spaces report improved workplace satisfaction, increased levels of productivity and gains in their health and well-being.
How the legal workplace and way of working has changed from the perspectives of a tenant, landlord, broker and attorney
Given the momentum among law firms, IWBI hosted a webinar earlier this year focused on the legal sector, with speakers representing viewpoints from a landlord, broker, an ESG attorney, a tenant law firm and WELL at scale participant, Shearman & Sterling. The panelists noted the ways that implementing health and well-being strategies and pursuing WELL programs can and have impacted their business and the ways they advise clients.
One panelist, Arsha Cazazian-Clement, who at the time of the webcast was Shearman & Sterling’s Director of Global Real Estate, explained that during Shearman & Sterling’s New York City global headquarters renovation, the firm took a human-centric approach to design. The renovation factored in firm values when deploying strategies to enhance air quality, understand water quality, select artwork from diverse global artists, facilitate movement within the space, engage with the landlord and enhance overall well-being and safety, accessibility, diversity and inclusion. The design also looked at ways spaces within the office could facilitate collaboration and bring in the community.
According to Michael Daschle, Senior Vice President, Sustainability at Brookfield Properties, incorporating well-being features in Class A offices buildings was important before 2020, but now third-party certifications in health and well-being are even more important to their tenants to demonstrate and verify how health and well-being are prioritized in the building. Daschle explained that incorporating health and well-being in the property adds value to tenants and in turn adds value to property owners and investors. There has been a “fundamental shift in the competitive landscape” such that “we’re not only competing with the office building across the street, we’re also competing with that home office,” explained Daschle, leading office building operators to incorporate more health and well-being features to help bring people back to the office.
In fact, when evaluating real estate, tenants including law firms are intentionally looking for buildings with sustainability and health promoting attributes, according to Wendy Feldman Block, Executive Managing Director, Savills North America, who advises many law firms evaluating real estate. She noted that while corporate and other sectors have embraced health and well-being, the legal community has been slower to adopt these strategies.
But the pandemic proved a disruptor. Recognizing that how people work at law firms is radically different from before the pandemic and that organizations are looking at how to bring their “most important asset”, their employees, back to the community emotionally and physically, law firms are employing strategies to rethink their spaces by enabling flexibility, designing collaborative zones, supporting physical and mental health, incorporating biophilia and leveraging technology. The change in how people work has altered how Savills advises law firms, which now increasingly evaluate a space’s sustainability and health and well-being features and how those spaces can help measure and report on important metrics such as an office’s carbon footprint. Following the webinar, Savills recently issued a report addressing law firm leasing activity in the first quarter of 2023, finding that a rise in leasing activity mostly comprised of law firms staying in their current buildings (although in some cases reducing the amount of space), and that landlords are actively working to retain tenants prioritizing quality spaces by implementing updates such as enhanced outdoor space. The 2023 first quarter results contrast with the fourth quarter of 2022 where Savills found “tepid” leasing activity but with a retained search for quality as evidenced by law firm tenants looking to relocate to buildings with WELL, LEED or other sustainability certifications and active landlord investment.
Danielle Reyes, Partner and Co-chair, ESG & Impact at Goodwin Procter, shared the many ways that health and well-being certifications and interest in ESG are impacting how they advise clients. The certification process can help clients gather data needed to make sustainability disclosures, and sustainability certifications can be referenced in disclosures made in ESG, sustainability and corporate social responsibility reports. Investor engagement and interest in ESG initiatives has increased as investors review public disclosures or send surveys focused on ESG to assess target companies’ ESG performance, and third-party certifications can be part of a response to investors. Further, firm fund clients may recommend their portfolio companies pursue third-party sustainability certification. Responding to many companies’ concerns around constrained capital, she is hearing that rather than turning away from ESG initiatives, many investors are only investing in sustainable projects and are looking at sustainability and well-being of people when evaluating investments. Clients are also interested in taking their DEI efforts to the next level.
Impact of implementing well-being strategies on ESG performance
I spoke about similar themes at the Fourth Annual Employee Wellness for Legal Professionals Virtual Summit in February, when I presented how implementing human health and well-being strategies can impact ESG initiatives. I explained the role of examining nonfinancial indicators to identify potential risks and opportunities by recalling my own experience working at a law firm and conducting comprehensive due diligence exercises for private equity firm clients, going beyond financial statements to how target companies ran their business. I shared perspectives IWBI has learned about the various business motivations to pursue health strategies in the WELL Building Standard to support their people, meet retention and recruitment goals and support their ESG reporting and performance.
Based on internal reviews, IWBI has found alignment between the WELL Building Standard and several ESG frameworks. Because the WELL Building Standard takes a comprehensive approach to health and well-being across 10 concept areas, many WELL strategies can support companies’ larger ESG goals. For example, WELL strategies address ESG indicators such as diversity, equity and inclusion; employee health and safety; sustainability and resilience; and employee engagement and performance. The relationship between WELL strategies and ESG performance is further illustrated by the growing number of IWBI customers referencing WELL achievements in their own reporting and disclosures. To help gain support within their organizations, law firm staff and others advocating for implementation of well-being strategies at their offices may look to the newly issued Investing in Health Pays Back report, which summarizes research findings that investing in health strategies can benefit companies through enhanced performance and increased financial returns.
This year’s gathering of well-being professionals from legal employers at the summit demonstrated the growing priority of health and well-being at law firms. The fact that many firms, including some of the largest law firms in the world, have dedicated roles focused on well-being, such as a Chief Wellness Officer, is encouraging.
As an attorney, health and well-being in the legal industry is personal. When I joined IWBI, I learned the evidence backing up some of the things I had come to notice instinctively during previous roles, such as how access to nutritious food helped to fuel my day. Digging into the 10 concepts of the WELL Building Standard, I started to think about some of the workplace strategies at former employers and how they impacted my own well-being, thereby impacting my loyalty to the company, sense of purpose and overall productivity. It led me to wonder why more legal employers were not taking more tangible steps to enhance the well-being of their people. Now with a host of internal and external motivations driving more definitive action, I’m thrilled to see my profession taking a larger leadership role in enhancing the health and well-being of its people.
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The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) is a public benefit corporation and the world’s leading organization focused on deploying people-first places to advance a global culture of health. IWBI mobilizes its community through the administration of the WELL Building Standard (WELL) and WELL ratings and certifications, management of the WELL AP credential, the pursuit of applicable research, the development of educational resources and advocacy for policies that promote health and well-being everywhere. More information on WELL can be found here.
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