The announcement that Baker McKenzie Global Chairman Paul Rawlinson was temporarily stepping down to combat exhaustion prompted a lot of soul-searching.

With responsibilities spanning 78 offices and nearly 5,000 lawyers around the globe, Rawlinson’s case might be extreme. Other highly-placed figures in the firm estimated that he had visited more than half of Baker McKenzie’s outposts, which span six continents, in the last two years.

In addition to grueling schedules that pull them away from family and friends, firm leaders also have to worry about the increasingly destabilizing impacts of Big Law’s free-agent era. As the economics of the most successful firms pull away from the rest, today’s managing partners are more worried than ever about the threat of a high-performing group being lured to leave for a higher-performing firm.

“There is no question that there has been an erosion of partner and client loyalty and a degradation of cultural “glue” over the last decade, and these trends, unfortunately, are likely to accelerate in the future,” said Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison Chairman Brad Karp.

Through the middle of October, Am Law 100 lateral moves were on pace to top 2,000 for the first time since ALM Intelligence began tracking partner departures in 2011. The previous high, 1,851, was set in 2015.

On top of that, add smarter in-house departments and new competition from alternative legal service providers like Axiom and UnitedLex as well as the Big Four. “That’s terra incognita for law firms,” Adam Smith Esq. president Bruce MacEwen said.

“Hardly a day passes without news of some major partner or group of partners leaving one elite law firm to join another, typically for a more lucrative, guaranteed pay package,” Karp said. “It is difficult to overstate how destabilizing and demoralizing these losses can be, both for the law firm from which the partners departed and, ironically, for the law firm that added the partners.”

Leaders also have to square these external pressures with internal tensions within their firms. Marcie Borgal Shunk, president and founder of the Tilt Institute, identifies divisions between people who are driving for change and people who think everything is fine, those between profitable and unprofitable lawyers, and the generation gap, where millennials have dramatically different expectations for the workplace than their elders. Political fault lines have also opened within law firms.

“There is an overall loss of civility in our society and, based on my discussions with other managing partners, this loss of civility has seeped into law firm partnerships,” Karp said.  “Partners increasingly flash sharp elbows; battles over conflicts and compensation become more heated; de-equitization of underperforming partners has become commonplace; professionalism, support and collaboration are in short supply.”

Furthermore, technology ensures that there’s no escape from these stresses.

“You are connected all the time,” said Morgan, Lewis & Bockius chair Jami Wintz McKeon. “And if you’re running a global law firm with offices all over the world, there is literally no minute in the day where there’s not at least one office open.”


Given these new realities, firms need mechanisms in place to protect the well-being of those at the top, said attorney and mental health advocate Patrick Krill.

“If you just think generally about somebody who might get to the point of exhaustion and burnout from being completely overworked, their decision-making and mental health can be compromised,” he said, likening firm leaders to football quarterbacks. ”They need additional support. Their health and well-being have a significant impact on the health of the enterprise.”

One approach that can work is delegation, and having an infrastructure in place where leaders aren’t responsible for decisions on which they don’t need to have a say. That can involve putting greater trust in business professionals and trusting them to handle a greater proportion of the firm’s operations. That leaves the chair and other lawyer leaders more time for determining strategy and molding the firm’s culture.

“They can focus on bringing people together, compared to managing the nuances of what our new brand identity is going to look like,” Borgal Shunk said.

Even then, a focus on uniting attorneys and communicating with clients can be a heavy burden.

“This is the curse of a consensus-driven, not a top-down, command-and-control organization. There’s no substitute for seeing the managing partner. A lot of clients feel that way, and a lot of partners feel that way,” MacEwen says. “You can try to do all the usual things—video, virtual town halls, things like that. But at some point, it’s a contact sport. You’ve got to get out there.”

For McKeon at Morgan Lewis, her relationships serve as her coping mechanism.

“You have to make sure those relationships in your life, both at work and outside of work, are strong,” she said. “I have a huge extended family, and that’s a priority in my life. In some ways, you could argue that’s more stressful. In other ways, it reminds you about the things that are important in your own life that are personally enriching.”

In addition to these organic connections, it can’t hurt to build a new one—with a leadership coach. MacEwen said he knows a number of leaders who have found value in a professional who combines the functions of executive coach, therapist and even nutritionist. If improved mental and physical well-being isn’t enough of an inducement, there’s also the prospect of getting better at one’s job.

In making a proactive public statement about his condition, Rawlinson—whom Baker McKenzie expects to return soon, following close consultation with his doctors and family—may have taken an even bolder route.

Reporters Susan DeSantis, Brenda Jeffreys, Ryan Lovelace, Lizzy McLellan, Roy Strom and Meghan Tribe contributed to this story. 

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