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Legal tipsNovember 26, 2020

Legal Burnout: How to Spot, Conquer, and Recover From It

Our current reality is blurring the boundaries between work and personal life by cultivating intense labor and productivity. In such an eternal race, burnout is not surprising, especially in law firms. An old saying remains applicable in the 21st century: “Burnout is nine-tenths of the law.”

Before writing this article, we ran a survey among practicing lawyers and legal operations managers to identify current problems and gauge how they’re handling them. After evaluating the results, we can see there is still plenty of room for improvement. So in today's post, we’ll attempt to break down these issues and come up with ways to mitigate them.

An old saying remains applicable in the 21st century: “Burnout is nine-tenths of the law.”

As a practicing lawyer, if you feel you have reached the point of lawyer burnout and have no idea what to do, this piece can help you.

What is lawyer burnout?

“I retired and liquidated my law firm at the age of 43 to go sailing offshore. I stayed out for seven years. I never regretted it; now, I write about legal issues and have terminated all of my licenses. I felt I was burning out; I didn’t want my favorite clients to call me.”

First, let's define burnout as it relates to lawyers. Burnout of lawyers is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion, resulting from excessive and chronic workplace stress. It is more than simply coping with a bad day; it’s having one bad day after another – a continuous feeling that won’t go away. Legal burnout is when you face more daily stress than you can manage.

ALM surveyed 3800 legal professionals for its Mental Health and Substance Abuse report. The researchers found that 31.2% of participants feel depressed, 64% have anxiety, 10.1% face alcohol addiction, and 2.8% experience drug abuse. In total, according to the recent WHO-led study, over 264 million people suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, costing the global economy nearly 1 trillion U.S. dollars per year in lost productivity. Harvard Business Review states that for the U.S. economy alone, burnout-related healthcare outlays amount to more than 500 billion U.S. dollars each year, which equals around 550 million workdays.

These impressive but unfortunate figures make workplace stress a key challenge of the 21st century. But it can be tricky, as burnout doesn’t happen overnight.

Reasons why lawyers are under so much pressure and stress

“The billable hour and client expectations are probably the biggest things. When your only performance metric is how much you bill, and the work expectations are fundamentally an “if you say “jump,” you ask “how high?” kind of setup, it’s not hard to see why burnout and dissatisfaction are common, at least in law firms.”

Commonly, a combination of factors, like those we list below, often go hand in hand to create overwhelmed, stressed-out, and burned-out attorneys.

1. Perfectionism

The law practice demands acute attention to detail, and the price of making a mistake can be quite high. Here is where perfectionism is seen as a positive trait that serves lawyers well when dealing with complex legal cases. But perfectionism may also lead to self-defeating thoughts and behaviors, causing workplace stress, anxiety, depression, and severe mental health issues.

2. Responsibility for others’ wellbeing

Being a legal operations manager means dealing continuously with people's problems. If you're helping someone through bankruptcy, divorce, driving under the influence (a DUI), or whatever else, sooner or later, you might take some of that residual stress home.

3. Billable hours

When a law firm is hyper-focused on generating profits and billable hours, it can overlook lawyers' wellness. As for efficiency and performance indicators, billing hours can lead to high-stress levels, creating an overwhelming and intimidating environment. Often, lawyers must work until a particular legal case is complete, thus, many attorneys usually refuse to leave assignments unfinished, even for a short period of time

4. Tendency to overachieve

A tendency to overachieve can become dangerous when lawyers start playing with fire to reach their goals. For example, to get the job done, they might engage in risky or unethical behaviors. When law firms set unrealistic targets, overachievers may be willing to do almost anything possible to avoid failure.

5. Competition within the industry and company

A competitive environment, where grades, numbers, salaries, and materialistic accomplishments measure success, can become poisonous and harm lawyers in the long run. In an attempt to outdo one another, employees face immense stress and burnout.

6. Getting praised for overworking

Law firms often cultivate a competitive environment, prompting attorneys to wear dark circles under their eyes like a badge of honor. Therefore, in such a tradition of overtime, it can be challenging for lawyers to seek help when they need it.

Complimenting an employee’s sacrifice when their result is due to overworking can be counter-productive, triggering the first signs of burnout.

What are the first signs of lawyer burnout?

“You start by dreading work each day. You start to feel increasingly unproductive, and the urge to procrastinate on even simple tasks grows.”

Legal burnout does not appear suddenly out of thin air; it builds up gradually. To deal with lawyers' stress, and ideally prevent it, you should be able to recognize the first warning signs when someone is on the verge.

1. Declining motivation

There comes a time when it’s hard to find motivation anywhere. You no longer feel enthusiastic about anything, and your usual work energy is zapped. If you encounter this, you’re likely experiencing lawyer burnout.

2. Productivity drops

You start to feel increasingly unproductive. Not only do you feel disconnected from your job, but the urge to procrastinate grows, even on minimal tasks. Work that was once enjoyable now feels like a chore you want to avoid.

3. Cynicism

Cynicism is another significant symptom of lawyers' stress. This condition can be defined as increasing mental distance from your current position while feeling negative or cynical towards someone else’s job.

4. Social withdrawal

If you are close to burning out, you don't feel the need to spend time with people or do the things you used to love. You start to withdraw socially and see social invitations or activities as an invasion of privacy.

5. Headaches

Physical symptoms may include frequent headaches, dizziness, back pain, sleep disorders, nausea, vomiting, muscle spasms, and fatigue when you are experiencing legal burnout. Emotional symptoms may also develop – irritability, feeling tense, and decreased motivation.

6. Attention to detail suffers

Disengaged employees usually experience a lack of interest in their daily routine and pay less attention to details. Managers should watch closely for these red flags as well, so they can help prevent further damage.

7. Exhaustion

Physical and emotional exhaustion can occur, particularly during demanding times. Lawyers start seeing deficient energy levels, high anxiety, and early signs of depression. Even more, people may start losing or, on the contrary, gaining weight.

Now that we’ve discussed the initial signs of lawyer burnout, let’s move to tasks that might increase workplace-related stress.

Tasks that intensify legal burnout risks

“I sure did. The reason it happened was that I was doing three people’s jobs, or rather attempting to. I succeeded only in the barest sense of the word since, necessarily, there were things done without sufficient care or at least the level I would have preferred. This was done to accommodate a not-particularly-grateful employer in his perceived “time of need,” when what I should have done was insisted we obtain more help at the outset.”

Burnout-related healthcare risks seem to be a natural consequence of the tough legal culture. Employers often praise all-nighters and reward high billable hours with hefty end-of-the-year bonuses.

1. Hectic schedules

First of all, a hectic schedule contributes to the burnout of lawyers more than any other area. When your trials are stacked on top of one another, your workload spirals out of control. Your work schedule, projects, and the amount of work you currently manage take precedence.

2. Heavy workloads

Attorneys tend to overwork. Clio’s Legal Trends Report shows that three-fourths of lawyers frequently work outside regular business hours, averaging 140 extra hours, or 3.5 weeks, of unplanned work yearly.

3. Thinking outside the box

To be effective, lawyers should have adequate time to think outside the box. Naturally, however, with more work comes less opportunity to utilize your mind in the way your job requires. This is exacerbated by the fact that there is no end to legal work.

4. Drafting pleadings

Drafting pleadings accelerates legal burnout. Lawyers are working with so much evidence, exhibits, and information that must be processed for a written pleading. And tons of administrative tasks cause lawyers to lose focus on direct obligations, which spurs frustration.

5. Routine work

Doing the same thing over and over decreases the job’s emotional and intellectual feedback and lays the foundation for loss of interest, stress, and lawyer burnout.

While burnout of lawyers may result from chronic stress, it isn't the same as severe stress. Let’s uncover the difference between being stressed-out and burnt-out before we move further.

Stress vs. burnout

“This is a huge issue, and the problem is fueled by the reluctance of lawyers to admit that they have a problem, are stressed out, burned out, etc. I am not a lawyer myself, but I lost a relative, who worked as a lawyer, to suicide - he never showed any signs that gave the slightest hint.”

Neither is healthy, but you should know how to identify lawyers’ stress from actual legal burnout. Stress can lead to burnout and, when uncontrolled, it usually does. But it’s still a bit easier to deal with.

Lawyers’ stressLawyer burnout

Feeling overly engaged

Feeling disengaged

Energy levels drop

Motivations and hopes decrease

Hyperactivity

Productivity falls

Increased emotions

Emotionless

Causes physical damage

Causes mental damage

Causes emotional instability

Causes depression

If you think you’ve reached the early stages of burnout, you should act quickly. Below, we will guide you through the steps you can take to overcome it.

How to prevent legal burnout or address it early-on

“Taking a step back and prioritizing time for myself, getting more support staff to handle the non-billable tasks, firing problem clients. And yoga/meditation.”

First and foremost - you still have a body that needs your care just as much as you need it to function well. Don’t neglect sleep, healthy meals, or rest. Lawyers’ bodies are exposed to unhealthy lifestyles more often than many other professions, so make sure to take care of it before it fails you.

1. There is life outside the office walls. Savor it!

Heavy workloads and the urgent need for overtime hours go hand in hand for most legal professionals in their daily routine. Yes – work's all well and good, but there's far more to life.

2. Technology for legal process optimization

To liberate you from routine tasks, use tools like AXDRAFT document management software or other solutions for case management, litigation, legal research, etc. These are sure to make your work less monotonous and more enjoyable.

3. Set boundaries and learn to say no

It’s not okay to reply to emails at 3 AM, even if your company or supervisor feels otherwise. There is nothing shameful about building convenient work schedules and rest periods. If it helps, you can try setting an alarm until you build a new habit. This will ensure you finish your workday on time. And most important – be comfortable saying no.

4. Take time to relax in healthy ways

Yes, you are replaceable, but so is everyone else. You can compete well while still focusing on your health. Think of yourself as a sustainable resource. Overachievers will only beat you in the short run, but investing in your mental health gives you a tremendous advantage in the long run.

5. Be aware of what causes lawyer burnout syndrome

Watch out for the patterns that make you feel emotionally devastated or physically exhausted, then try to address their triggers.

6. Turn vacay mode on

Don’t skip vacations; take the minimum amount your company allows. Even a three-day weekend can help reduce stress levels at work. Every once in a while, try to take a Friday or Monday off to prolong your weekend.

7. Don’t be afraid to delegate

Your legal business will never grow beyond what you can personally handle, especially if you work too hard and insist on doing everything yourself. Try to take steps towards delegating your work. You can start with smaller, less important tasks and assign larger, more complex projects over time as you feel more comfortable.

8. Demand flexible work arrangements

Flexibility is healthy and should be encouraged. Decide what hour you want to begin work, where to work, and when you should stop work.

9. Find inspiration

Make sure to find something that excites you about your work every day. If this requires a certain degree of change, then go for it.

While these are great steps to take early-on, severe cases of burnout from lawyers' stress can be immense, significant, and grave.

What to do in later stages?

“Legal burnout was a big problem for me until I decided to let loose and get serious about relieving stress after work by doing some of my favorite things. Self. Care. Is. Crucial!”

If you’re burnt out completely, here are a few tactics we can suggest to get a handle on your mental wellbeing.

1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Resources like ABA Mental Health associations and niche recovery groups dedicate their work to helping lawyers. It’s okay to not be okay. If you can’t bear the pressure and stress, reach out to a healthcare service provider.

2. Take a long vacation

Or, even better, a sabbatical if the company allows it. The extended time off is a great way to take a break, recharge, travel, and spend time with family, as well as an opportunity for self-discovery.

3. Make sure to communicate your state to the supervisors

Try to work out a recovery strategy together. If they don’t relate, it may be a good time to consider switching companies. If the burnout of lawyers is part of the company culture, you can’t change it, but you can change your workplace.

4. Try adjacent areas of work

Anything that would break the concept of conventional. If you feel fried and need a change, ask your supervisor to move you to a new practice group, possibly giving you more autonomy over caseloads and increased practice in diversity.

5. Restructure your work completely and prepare a recovery plan

Demand the tools you need to help you address the problem’s root. If it’s routine work, then use solutions for legal process optimization. If it’s the amount of tasks and/or long hours, then minimize them. Outline clear and actionable steps to help you recover and review them with others. Get rid of as many stress factors as possible.

6. Avoid working with overly complicated cases or clients

If you have received a request to do something you don't think you can deliver, never allow yourself to feel trapped. Over-promising and under-delivering will only drive clients away. To avoid unrealistic expectations, be transparent and authentic.

7. Triumphs matter

Small wins matter too. Celebrate every achievement, big or small, as if it is a million-dollar success. And make sure to claim the victory. Every accomplishment impacts your success and deserves to be acknowledged!

8. Lessen your caseload

If you find yourself in a vicious cycle, where the expectations are extremely high, reducing your cases makes sense. It is no surprise that high salaries can't keep some lawyers from leaving for a greener, albeit less well-paying, pasture.

Anyway, legal burnout doesn't go away on its own. Rather, you’ll feel worse until you address its primary causes.

How to recover from lawyer burnout and regain your passion for legal work

”In order to regain passion, I have had to explore other aspects of my life before returning to it. If you truly love legal work, or at least did in the past, it will call you back when the time is right. Something will remind you why you love it, and your passion will be renewed. I wish you the best, and I hope that you find your passion for legal work once more.”

If you ignore legal burnout, it may only lead to further harm. Therefore, you should start the recovery process as soon as possible. And this is how.

1. Change perspectives and priorities.

Make sure you do what resonates with you, even at your workplace.

2. Reflect on your passion.

Why did you choose to be a lawyer? What inspired you to go into this line of work? Try to recall what brought you into this field and bring it back to the forefront.

3. Do what makes you happy.

Make sure you dedicate an adequate amount of time to your hobbies. These times will refresh and refuel you for returning to work.

4. Stick to your values.

You have every right to adhere to what you feel is right, and the same goes for your work. Don’t compromise your values.

5. It’s not your fault!

Legal burnout was caused by self-doubt and perfectionism, not your lack of skills. It doesn’t mean you’re bad at what you do, and you didn’t fail. It’s actually just the beginning of a much healthier path.

6. Embark on a journey of a good cause.

Most lawyers feel they are already doing work that makes a difference in this world by doing what they do – bringing justice. Maybe you should try to be part of something inspiring outside of work? You can also use your skills for a charitable project. As a lawyer, you are already equipped with decision-making power and tools to do so.

7. Be sure your identity is outside your profession, as well

Are you a musician? A painter? Do you craft? Do you brew beer? Life is more fulfilling when you are identified for more than what you do at work.

Bottom line

As you can see, you’ll be far better off if you slow down a little to recover versus pushing yourself to the point of no return – total mental and physical exhaustion. If you’re feeling burnt out, you should act quickly. As soon as the risk of lawyer burnout arises, take a step back, evaluate your current situation, and explore methods to overcome the issue. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. Remember, you’re not alone in feeling the way you do. Cheers to your future success!

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