Unhappy lawyers are leaving their jobs and careers in droves. Pre-pandemic, lawyers were exhausted. Now they face never-ending work without the release of social interaction or adventure. It all culminates in a perfect storm for lawyer burnout. Here’s how to cope if you’re a lawyer, or know a lawyer, dealing with burnout.
What is Burnout?
Lawyerist defines the origins of burnout as follows:
“[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, describes the phenomenon as:
“a chronic process of unplugging and disconnecting from work, friends, family, and health. The most important part of this definition is the word ‘chronic.'”
What Causes Burnout?
Research has identified three hallmarks of burnout: emotional exhaustion, a lack of personal accomplishment, and depersonalization.
- Chronic emotional exhaustion is “a state of feeling emotionally worn-out and drained as a result of accumulated stress from your personal or work lives, or a combination of both.”
- Lack of personal accomplishment leads to cynicism about life and feeling that one can’t really make a difference/be effective.
- Depersonalization is the inability to make a personal connection.
The culmination of these three hallmarks is lack of attention, which makes climbing out of burnout even more difficult. 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).
According to Paula Davis-Laack, an attorney and burnout expert at the Stress & Resilience Institute,
“[M]any lawyers—and the rest of us, too—have too many job demands (the things that take our time and energy) and too few job resources (the things that help replenish us emotionally and physically). Often, that leads to burnout.”
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 like a silly, simple problem. 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.
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 and lack of compensation to those of indentured servants or slaves? No. That would be ludicrous. And yet burnout is still a massive problem in our society.
Why is Burnout a Problem Now?
Burnout is a big problem in the modern age, even though across the board we are working less than we used to. Lawyers suffer disproportionately from burnout – despite earning prestige and high salaries. Thus, lawyers are not that underappreciated. Thus, burnout cannot primarily be about hard work or underappreciation.
I wrestled with an explanation for this discrepancy. 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. Historically, workers weren’t 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.
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. We weren’t designed to be omnipresent, omnipotent, or omniscient. Trying to be that is exhausting though.
Those struggling with burnout have trouble staying focused. Powerful companies are distracting us in order to pad their bottom lines. All these distractions are hurting our productivity and keeping us from the mindfulness and connection that would save us.
Furthermore, everyone’s attention span is decreasing. In 2000, the average human’s attention span was 12 seconds. 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
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.
It’s difficult to get a sense of personal accomplishment in legal work these days. Litigation takes years before final resolution. In bigger firms, associates can toil for years without being able to take ownership of a deposition or a brief.
Can we talk about hustle porn? Everyone brags 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.
Lawyer 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 and Lawyer Anxiety
Lawyers are emotionally exhausted for many reasons. We are rewarded for working more hours, not more efficiently. We lionize lawyers who give up their personal lives. Even after we are done working, we are inundated with stories of colleagues who are hustling more.
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 anxiety is based on justified paranoia that they are in constant competition with their colleagues.
Lawyer Depersonalization and Lawyer Loneliness
Lawyers are often 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.
Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging talks to one veteran who describes his deployment as the first time in his life that he was in a community where “we could help each other without fear.” Pete Davis, in his book Dedicated, notes that it’s not just lack of community that people are craving but the “accountability that comes with being part of a mission-driven community.”
Soldiers are in extremely stressful environments but that community of helping each other without fear keeps them together. Lawyers have no such community. Further, lawyers are far disconnected from a mission-driven office, unless that mission consists of billable hours. It used to be that lawyers knew their clients and had more control over their work. Now it’s an elbows-out race to the top against your colleagues and you have no idea what you’re even ultimately doing day-to-day. This lack of community and lack of purpose is dispiriting.
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.
Lack of community may be part of the cause for burnout, but creating community may be one of the ways out. Consider a confidential support group of other burned out lawyers. Many local bar associations offer groups and you can even create your own. Also check out the the Lawyers Depression Project for more resources.
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
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.
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 You Can
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 every day. Take vacation and truly unplug. Breathe.
Absorb Yourself in a Hobby
Today, rest is often some form of passive activity like watching Netflix or scrolling through social media. Many high-achieving people in the past took rest from being active. That meant skilled and active physical or creative activity. It’s a great way to give your intellectual brain a rest and activate the brain’s other parts.
So go for a walk, or run long and far. Exercise in a group is even more powerful. Moving as part of a group or class can uniquely inspire joy and connection.
Live a Healthy Lifestyle
It seems a little glib to say just be healthy. But living a healthy lifestyle helps 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. It’s not a magic pill. Actually, it’s the least we can do for ourselves.
Find Meaning in Your Work
At least from the lawyers I know, they didn’t get into law because of the money or the prestige. Most lawyers started with altruistic aims, but those aims got sidelined due to enormous student loans. Remember those dreams!
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! You are uniquely qualified to change the world for the better.
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. Or you can talk to friends, family, or anyone you trust.
But there are so many resources to help lawyers get professional help with burnout. Some to consider:
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. Then you have to address the problem. The physical manifestations of burnout are neither normal nor to be tolerated. There are many things that you can try to do to help and always remember, you’re not alone. Good luck.