You’re leaving the office at 8:30 p.m.—for the seventh day in a row. It’s the fifth day in a row you’ve had dinner while staring at your computer screen, alone. You can’t remember what you had for dinner, you didn’t really taste or savor anything, and you threw it away half-eaten anyway. As your ride approaches, you huff inside, slam the door, ignore the driver’s “hi” and try to shut your eyes. Your phone buzzes, sending a quick jolt to your heart and anxiety to your mind. Of course you check it right away—more work.
You start to list everything you have to do tonight, tomorrow, Saturday, the next week and forever. You haven’t seen your friends in weeks (maybe months), you’re avoiding your parents’ calls, and you might be hoping your kids are already in bed so you don’t have to expend more energy. Getting out of bed to go to work has become exceedingly difficult, if not emotionally painful. When you finally head to bed late at night, you lie awake, thinking maybe if you had an accident, you’d have to be hospitalized and you could take a break from your cases. Not a serious accident, maybe a broken arm or leg. You’ve become cynical, even by lawyers’ standards. People generally bug you and rub you the wrong way. Weekends aren’t long enough to recover fully (even when you don’t work), and vacations (when you take them) only provide temporary relief.
Does this sound familiar? You’re not alone. Seven in 10 lawyers in California said they would change careers if the opportunity arose, and, if they had to do it over, half would not have become lawyers. Forty percent of North Carolina lawyers said that they would not encourage their children or other qualified people to enter the legal profession.
So, what is burnout?
Job burnout is defined by three dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism and a sense of inefficacy. The symptoms of burnout include constant anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, changes in personality, irritability, pessimism, obsessive thoughts, feelings of inadequacy and dread, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, fatigue, disengagement, depression, a sense of helplessness, lost or diminished motivation and heart palpitations.
It’s important to distinguish burnout from general stress. Stress is short-term, with an end in sight. Burnout is stress built up over time that creates a cycle of negative emotions and withdrawal. While stress may have positive short-term effects (think “fight or flight”), burnout is only negative—it overwhelms you, drawing you deeper and deeper into exhaustion.
Burnout often occurs after a long period of high workload in combination with perceived stressful working conditions. Left untreated, burnout also puts you at risk for a subsequent psychiatric or physical illness.
Currently, burnout syndrome is not a medically recognized condition, and, given the lack of standardized diagnostic criteria, no clear diagnosis or treatment for burnout can be made. This means that thousands of individuals affected by burnout syndrome may be mis- or underdiagnosed as having generalized anxiety, fatigue or depression.
Burnout in the Law
Burnout is possible in every profession, particularly with today’s reverence for workaholism, where long hours are badges of honor. Technology also makes it much more likely that all of us across professions will experience burnout. But unique aspects of lawyers’ personalities, combined with the adversarial nature of the profession and the high-pressure, high-speed environment of a law firm, contribute to burnout affecting lawyers more severely.
Lawyers are hired to anticipate and shoulder other people’s problems and worries. In addition to the stress of the profession itself (stellar work product, standards of perfectionism, trained adversaries eager to undermine your performance, pressure to keep clients happy, ever-present deadlines, billable hours, networking, building a book of business and so on), lawyers have the additional burdens of responsibility for every client (the effect of a case on the client’s business and image, the client’s expenses and costs, the client’s stress and anger, and the client contact’s performance to his or her superiors).
Additionally, the work seems never-ending. Attorneys don’t have control over their time—deadlines are often imposed by external sources, including partners, opposing counsel, clients and the courts—leading to a sense of helplessness. That is, no matter how well an attorney can plan for a date, the weekend, family time or vacation, external forces are in control. For other attorneys, an unknown and uncontrollable career path may lead to a feeling of helplessness. The path to partnership may be unclear, or, for attorneys who do not want to make partner, the alternatives may be elusive. For still others, the actual practice of law no longer brings satisfaction because of the gap between the ideals and intellectual aspirations of those entering the profession and the reality.
Why Firms Should Care
In addition to the toll that burnout takes on individual lawyers, it also burdens law firms—their employers. Burnout syndrome leads to disengagement and fatigue, which results in unhappy and less-productive attorneys. The likely result is that an attorney struggling with burnout may leave the firm earlier than the firm and the attorney would have desired. The National Association for Law Placement has reported that losing a single associate can cost a firm between $200,000 and $500,000, which translates into several billions of dollars per year for top U.S. law firms, not to mention the hidden costs of loss of institutional knowledge, succession planning, continuity, team culture and project delays. For firms, the cost of retention is far less than the cost of recruiting and training a new hire.
Fortunately, there are solutions to preventing burnout and controlling its effects. Law firms and attorneys need to work together at promoting healthier and happier employees and thus more-successful law firms.
At the outset, firms and their attorneys should acknowledge that unless preventive measures are put in place, burnout is inevitable, given the challenges of the profession. The prevailing strategy of “keep calm and bill on” is not sustainable, because we are all humans with physical and mental limitations, families outside work and interests beyond our careers.
In that spirit, we offer some workable solutions for law firms and attorneys:
Don’t neglect the basics. Proper diet and exercise and sufficient sleep are fundamental to adding healthy years to your life and controlling burnout. Research even suggests a positive association between exercise in people experiencing burnout and the improvement of symptoms of depression, low self-esteem and anxiety. Law firms should facilitate these basics through employee wellness program offerings.
Know your limits. Boundaries are essential to all healthy relationships and a healthy life, including work life. Lawyers, especially young lawyers, must learn to say no sometimes. Set priorities, specify the help you’ll need and identify the constraints on your time. Law firms need to support boundary-setting by making sure that attorneys who do set healthy boundaries aren’t adversely affected. Law firms can also assign young lawyers a work coordinator with authority and ability to protect attorneys from additional work—especially those attorneys who have billed excessive hours over months. In addition, law firms and the leaders in law firms should be mindful not to promote and revere a workaholic culture.
Take time to unplug. Set a time each day when you completely disconnect and stop checking email. Law firms should encourage attorneys to unplug after hours and on weekends (barring true emergencies or acute deadlines).
Set minimum vacation standards. We all need vacation time to recharge and avoid burnout. Take personal responsibility for vacation time that you are entitled to and arrange for sufficient coverage so you can leave the work emails and laptop at home. Firms with unlimited vacation might consider establishing clear guidelines that encourage attorneys to take a minimum number of vacation days (two to three weeks) per year.
Ask for flexible work arrangements. Technology need not restrain lawyers; it can liberate you.
Invest in firm leaders. Strong leaders who work on employee engagement and set the culture of a law firm can reduce or alleviate burnout syndrome. Firms need to take seriously the fact that attorneys prefer meaningful work, responsibility, purpose, engagement and working in a supportive and collaborative environment over compensation. A critical factor in increasing engagement is coaching leaders and holding them accountable. That said, law firms should give leaders space to lead and compensate them for doing so because trying to be a full-time lawyer and a full-time leader is difficult. Losses in personal productivity can be offset by the profits flowing from a successfully led practice group, lower attrition rates, and more engaged attorneys.
Make self-care a priority. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, taking a bath, massage and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, which counterbalances the body’s reaction to stress. There are meditation courses available specifically for lawyers, including the Resilient Lawyer podcast.
Use bar association mental health resources. Bar mental health programs are available to assist attorneys with all types of physical, mental, and emotional stressors. Counseling is also available for behavioral health and substance-abuse problems.
Drop difficult colleagues or clients. If a particular boss, colleague or client is the root of exhaustion and helplessness, consider ways to reduce your time with them. Firms should encourage reporting of abusive or unreasonable bosses and clients to a mentor in the firm or human resources. Likewise, firms should take such complaints seriously and counsel their colleagues even when the person being complained about is a large institutional client or rainmaker at the firm.
Consider asking for a leave of absence. Vacations can still be fraught with impending deadlines and client needs. A leave of absence allows for an extended period to disconnect, readjust your priorities, and refresh your mindset. For firms, allowing unpaid leave may result in a loss of talent, but this loss is temporary and firms have more to gain when their lawyers come back refreshed and engaged.
Consider changing jobs. Sometimes the only thing you can do is leave your job and seek employment at another firm or in another industry. Big Law attorneys have several options, including lateraling to another firm, lateraling to small law, moving in-house or working in legal tech, to name a few. We’ll go into more detail on lateraling in our next editorial.
As lawyers, we have chosen a long career path. To ensure that it is a fulfilling one, lawyers and firms should prioritize mental and physical well-being.
The views expressed here are personal to the authors and do not represent the opinions of their employers.