How to Deal with Lawyer Burnout

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Lawyers, are leaving their jobs in droves. Pre-pandemic lawyers were exhausted. Now they face never-ending work life without the release of social interaction or adventure. It’s all a recipe for lawyer burnout.

What is Burnout?

Lawyerist defines burnout as follow:

[B]urnout develops when someone is dealing with a high level of stress but doesn’t have access to adequate resources, such as social support, helpful advice, feedback from friends of colleagues, or control over how they spend their time.

Professor Arnold B. Bakker, Ph.D., a burnout researcher

It’s a chronic process of unplugging and disconnecting from work, friends, family, and health. The most important part of this definition is the word ‘chronic.

– Paula Davis-Laack, an attorney and burnout expert

What Causes Burnout?

Research has identified three hallmarks of burnout: emotional exhaustion, a lack of personal accomplishment, and depersonalization.

Additionally, lack of attention is also a hallmark symptom of burnout, though that symptom could be caused by the other three hallmarks. Certain personality traits can also lead to more burnout than others. These traits include workaholism, people-pleasing, and perfectionism – all traits of a lawyer (and by people-pleasing, I mean conscientiousness). 

What Are the Symptoms of Burnout?

You may be suffering from burnout if you feel:

  • Every day is a bad day. The majority of your day is spent on tasks you find either mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming.
  • You’re exhausted all the time. A tiredness that goes beyond sleep deprivation—your whole body feels warn out.
  • Not caring about your work or home life.
  • A feeling that no matter how hard you work you’re not getting anything accomplished or that whatever you do is not appreciated.
  • An inability to focus (on your work or life) and decreased productivity.
  • Frequent headaches, digestive issues, difficulty sleeping. This can be accompanied by various forms of psychological suffering, such as panic attacks, increased anger and irritability, feeling of hopelessness, helplessness, and a general loss of enjoyment, depression, etc.
  • An increased desire to be alone or increased anxiety in social situations.

Misconceptions About Burnout

Many people think burnout is caused by working long hours or feeling underappreciated or underpaid. These misconceptions  make burnout seem stupid. Yes, law firms expect more billable hours than they have in the past. But people in previous generations worked incredibly hard in much more physically taxing and dangerous jobs than today.

In the 1890s manufacturing workers regularly worked 70-hour weeks. Between 1880 and 1995, work hours dropped in half and leisure time tripled.

Are we working as much as the people did in the Industrial Revolution? No. Further, people can work very hard and not be burned out and some people can work very little and still be burned out.

Can we really compare our levels of underappreciation to those of indentured servants or slaves? No.

Why is Burnout a Problem Now?

Burnout is a big problem, even though across the board we are working less than we used to. Lawyers suffer disproportionately from burnout – despite often earning prestige and high salaries. That is to say, lawyers are not so underappreciated.  Thus, burnout cannot only or primarily be about hard work or underappreciation.

I wrestled with what the difference is these days as opposed to the past. Is burnout real or are we just pansies? A few friends shed some light on possible alterations to our society that may contribute to burnout. Our modern culture evolved to mess with our brains, our emotions and our expectations (and what is expected of us).

More is Expected Of Us Now

My friend Robert of Stop Ironing Shirts points to “24/7 connectivity!” as the difference. Never before in history have workers been expected to be on call at all times. 

Further, people don’t rest anymore in a way that is restorative. One third to a half of all Americans report problems with insomnia. People go on vacation and don’t ever turn off. This is a recipe for endless emotional exhaustion. 

Our Accomplishments Will Never Compare

My friend Champ of Champagne and Capital Gains points to feeling “like you have no power or influence.” Because of the internet and social media we can constantly compare ourselves to others, and we will always find ourselves and our accomplishments wanting. Even though we accomplish things that our parents could never dream of, it’s never going to seem like enough. 

Distraction Is the Name of the Game

My friend Rich of MealPrepify says:

people spend so much effort trying to be everywhere, do everything, know  everything, etc., and we weren’t designed to be omnipresent, omnipotent, or omniscient. Trying to be that is exhausting though.

I know you’re tired of hearing about it but mindfulness is key. People struggling with burnout are actually neurologically disadvantaged when it comes to staying focused. Powerful companies are keeping us constantly distracted to help their bottom lines. But all these distractions are driving us crazy, hurting our productivity, and keeping us from the mindfulness that would save us. 

Furthermore, everyone’s attention span is decreasing. In 2000, the average human’s attention span was 12 seconds, but in 2015 that average dropped to 8 seconds. When you’re burned out, your brain is on survival mode. Yes, these changes correlate closely with the adoption of smartphones. 

We Feel the Weight of the World on Our Shoulders

Rich also writes:

I don’t think humanity is meant to know all of the ails and struggles and pains that are being experienced around the world, which is all the news tends to share.

It used to be that news from the next town over would take days to spread. Now we know instantaneously how many bad things are happening all over the world. And though we don’t have the capacity to actually care about all the 6 billion people on the world, we feel the suffering. We are inundated with it. 

Lawyer Lack of Personal Accomplishment

It’s difficult to get a sense of personal accomplishment in legal work these days. Litigation takes years or decades before resolution. In bigger law firms, associates can toil for years without being able to take ownership of a deposition or a brief.

Can we talk about hustle porn? It seems like everyone is bragging about how much they can accomplish and how little sleep they get. Sleep has such a bad rap. Over the past century, we adjusted our sleeping patterns to max out productivity. Arianna Huffington didn’t pay attention to sleeping until she nearly collapsed from exhaustion. 

Moreover, unemployed lawyers have the additional burden of paying off law school debt without being unable to find or hold down a job. Only 63% of law school graduates in 2015 were able to find full-time bar-passage required employment. 

Lack of Financial Accomplishment

I knew a lawyer who graduated a decade before I did, who paid for his law school tuition with his summer law firm earnings. That’s not feasible these days for the average student. Law school tuitions have risen precipitously. Law firm salaries have not kept pace. Though the salaries are still high, a lawyer’s standard of living is not nearly as what one may have expected decades ago when one first dreamed of becoming a lawyer. 

Lawyer Emotional Exhaustion

There are many reasons why lawyers might be emotionally exhausted. We are rewarded for working the most, not the most efficiently. Lawyers who give up their personal lives are lionized. and in the current culture, even after we are done working, we are inundated with stories of people who are hustling more. Lawyers can see very clearly their competition that is working more often. 

Furthermore, lawyers don’t trust each other. Law students and lawyers are often suspicious of each other, as if their fellow students or colleagues are out to sabotage their academic careers and success. 

Lawyer Depersonalization

Lawyers can be quite isolated. Of more than 1,600 professions, lawyers ranked as the most “lonely” with 61% of lawyers ranking above average on the metric. Lonely workers tended to report less job satisfaction, fewer promotions and more frequent job changes. 

Furthermore, lonelier people tend to lose social skills. According to Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, a psychiatrist and chief innovation officer for workplace consulting firm BetterUp: “You overshare or undershare. You’re hypervigilant to social threat. You’re less collaborative.”So when people need other people the most, they ironically can’t help but push people away. 

How to Deal with Lawyer Burnout

Even if you don’t think lawyer burnout is real, the cure for it is real. It involves improving your own mental and physical health, finding community and meaning in your life, and making changes to improve your work and life situations.

Know You’re Not Alone

There are no shortage of stories of lawyer burnout. Lawyers disproportionately suffer from anxiety and depression. Ours is the only profession with an entire industry devoted to helping them quit their jobs. 

Know It’s Not Your Fault

Plenty of excellent lawyers suffer from burnout.

[Burnout] tends to hit the best employees, those with enthusiasm who accept responsibility readily and whose job is an important part of their identity

Ulrich Kraft in Scientific American.

Burnout isn’t a sign that you are bad at your job. If anything, your conscientiousness and perfectionism (great attributes for lawyers) have led you down a path of self-doubt and burnout. 

Use Compassion

Empathy is the feeling and understanding of someone else’s pain or suffering. Compassion is the action that flows from empathy.

Compassion helps reduce one’s stress, aid with emotions, resilience, and well-being. Studies show that high compassion is associated with lower burnout, lower depression symptoms, a higher sense of personal accomplishment and enhanced quality of life; and low compassion is associated with high burnout. This holds true not just for the naturally compassionate but also for those who engage in compassion training

In studies of physicians, those who had the most dissatisfaction with the quality of their relationships with patients had a 22-fold higher risk of burnout. If you can improve your relationships by acknowledging how difficult you might be right now, acknowledging your loneliness, and being compassionate to others, this could go a long way to healing your burnout. 

Eliminate the Stressors

If you can, identify and isolate the stressors. It may be your job, but maybe it’s your boss, your team, certain coworkers. It may not be possible to quit your job or change bosses or coworkers, but you may consider figuring out a way to manage your bosses. Take a break to walk around. Take a break to take a vacation and truly unplug. Breathe.

Live a Healthy Lifestyle

It seems a little glib to say just be healthy, but it does help our bodies cope with stress. Eating well, limiting alcohol and drugs, sleeping, practicing mindfulness, taking breaks, exercising – all are important. It’s a good start to do things to help yourself where you can. 

Find a Cause You Care About

As a lawyer, you have such power to make a positive difference in the world. The American Bar Association, your state bar, and other organizations desperately need pro bono legal help. Don’t think what you do doesn’t matter – you definitely matter! You can make a difference!

Get Professional Help or Help from the Community

Talking to a therapist has been very helpful for me, if only so that I can devote time to talk about my thoughts and feelings. If you really don’t have time or money for that, you can still journal and find some release in that way.

But there are so many resources to help lawyers with burnout. Some to consider:

Lawyers with Depression

Lawyer Mental Health Resources

The People’s Therapist

Conclusion – How to Deal with Lawyer Burnout

The first step in solving any problem is acknowledging it. You can’t fix what you can’t see or identify. Just know that the physical manifestations of burnout are not normal and not to be tolerated. There are many things that you can try to do to help and always remember, you’re not alone. Good luck.

Author: Lisa

A Washington, DC attorney discusses the financial struggles facing women lawyers.

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