To battle depression, we changed how we work

Meet the Melbourne lawyers who took on the career risk of mental health issues

Depression rates are high among lawyers and law students in Australia. A 2015 survey of NSW barristers reported nearly 40% of respondents acknowledged they had suffered depression during their career.

Lawyers Weekly article last year stated one in three lawyers contemplate suicide at least once per year. About 30 per cent suffer from clinical major depression.

Given such staggering statistics, imagine my surprise upon meeting a career lawyer who is passionate and positive about his work and his firm.

David Wells is at the helm of Moores, a Melbourne law firm founded by Christians more than 40 years ago.

In an inner-city coffee shop, Wells pointed to a change Moores implemented during the past six years. A change so significant it has had the unexpected benefit of improving the wellbeing of Moores lawyers and support staff to such an extent that stress leave has all but disappeared.

What was the change that transformed not just this law firm but also its managing principal, whose evangelistic fervour is palpable and intriguing?

Perhaps a clue is contained in Wells describing himself as Ambassador and Chief Enabler even though, 12 years ago, he was elected Moores Managing Principal. This was a new role in the firm at that time and it turned out to be a watershed moment for Wells and his colleagues.

“What we decided to do was to run a bit of an experiment …” – David Wells

“I realised that I had been unaware of my greatest gifting for the majority of my professional life and that gifting was to work with teams of people and to help them understand their gifting and to develop them,” Wells explained about the changed approach to nurturing staff members.

“I developed enough self-confidence to be able to appoint myself as ambassador and chief enabler rather than a managing principal!” grinned the former managing principal.

But Wells changed approach to his team was just a start to changing a workplace for the better.

One of the practices law firms are renowned for is their billing process, charging clients in six-minute increments. Some challenging words from a consultant led Moores chief enabler and his team to radically rethink their ingrained systems.

“We were doing the same sorts of things in the same sorts of ways as was happening 50 years ago but society is moving on. The consultant said to us: ‘Think about becoming a legal firm of the future.’”

“He wasn’t prescriptive about how we might change; he just challenged us to do something differently. What we decided to do was to run a bit of an experiment with a new pricing model called value pricing.

“We didn’t have any vision at the time but we were bold enough or perhaps naïve enough to give something quite different a red-hot go.”

“We don’t have nearly as many incidents of mental health issues being experienced by our team members …” – David Wells

We are now chatting in the new bespoke offices of Moores. Part of the Moores makeover has been the relocation to a light-filled open-plan environment looking over a park in the inner eastern Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn. It is trendy, inviting and somehow relaxed; not a bad way to feel when visiting a lawyer.

Wells is of the view that the new location, along with their new pricing model and changed vision, led to a whole new way of engaging with clients – and also transformed their employees.

“Value pricing is one way to revolutionise a knowledge practice. No longer do we sell time. We sell our intellectual capital,” Wells explained.

“This enhances lawyer self-esteem. It gives price certainty to clients and builds relationship because clients realise that when we price everything up front, we are sharing risk with them.”

Moores undertook a significant change process. It changed its name, its vision, its appetite for risk. It even questioned its reason for being, and refined who its likely clients were. Throughout this process, its staff were at the centre. One notable outcome has been a turning of the tide when it comes to the occupational risk of depression.

“My experience in this practice over the last six years or so, since we changed our business model, is that we don’t have nearly as many incidents of mental health issues being experienced by our team members as we had probably in the previous three or four years.”

“And I would attribute that to a large extent to the different business model that we are now operating under. The lawyers understand that they are actually achieving results for clients. That’s what they are here to do. Not to get 75 units on a time sheet every day.”

These statements are not just marketing spin. Moores has measured the levels of alignment and engagement of its people during the past six years, and they have improved.

Wells explained that the firm was recently awarded a trophy by InSync Surveys for being in the top 10% of all their clients (for staff alignment and engagement), both big multi-nationals and smaller operations like Moores.

Wells and his wife worship at One Community Church in Blackburn. He explains that his faith is an integral part of all that he does.

“I bring my Christian faith into the practice. But I think we need to bring our Christian faith not only into our workplace but every aspect of our life. I think the other Christians who work at Moores operate the same way.”

“We have learned not to fear change.” – David Wells

Our time is up, not that Wells was keeping count. No six-minute increments for this former lawyer. But he did have a few final words to share.

“We are a very different practice to what we were when we launched our vision in 2013.”

“We have learned not to fear change. These days, we are less risk averse. We are more agile, less bulky, more optimistic and more healthy; spiritually, mentally, relationally and financially.”

And how wonderful is that…not just for the staff, but also for their families who are enjoying the benefits of happier more engaged loved ones, at home and at work.

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