What is Lawyer Burnout?
Unfortunately, burnout is something that affects nearly every attorney at some point in their career. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” (Source)
In other words, burnout is physical or emotional exhaustion that happens when there’s too much work stress that isn’t being managed properly.
The WHO also characterizes it with three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from your job, or negative feelings or cynicism related to your job
- Reduced professional efficacy
Though burnout is a common word associated with mental health issues, the WHO maintains that it’s not classified as a medical condition. Regardless, it’s a huge problem in the workforce, and lawyers certainly aren’t exempt from this.
In fact, the legal industry is affected by burnout more than most other industries. Perhaps one reason for this is the significant increase in demand for attorneys, with demand being up 6.6% in 2021 compared to the previous year. (Source)
This growth in demand mostly came from mergers and acquisitions, litigation activity, and finance and capital markets. As reported in the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal on legal works, productivity for law firms increased by 6.1% in 2021, but of course that came at a cost—lawyers began to report higher incidences of burnout in response to the high influx of workload. (Source)
What Causes Lawyer Burnout?
According to Forbes, burnout can actually be measured using the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) as well as the Areas of Worklife Survey (AWLS), which is an assessment that can evaluate specific causes of burnout.
Most lawyers report burnout after experiencing one or more of the following:
- Heavy workloads, including too many meetings and emails. Sometimes this is caused by a lack of personnel and teams, which causes more of the workload to fall on the attorney.
- Lack of recognition is also a key factor that contributes to burnout. When employees don’t feel appreciated, they tend to be less productive.
- Lack of autonomy also plays a big role, as this can lead to lawyers feeling like they don’t have a sense of control over tasks and decisions at work.
- Lack of leader or colleague support can cause more stress in the workplace as well. This can cause legal professionals to feel alienated, with no sense of belonging.
- Feelings of unfairness that could be due to favoritism or wrong decision-making can also lead to an attorney feeling burnt out.
- And last but not least, different personal values have also been cited as a reason that lawyers experience burnout.
How to Avoid Burnout as a Lawyer
So the question becomes, how do we avoid this?
Attorney burnout sometimes happens before a career in law even begins, and it’s not uncommon for law students to experience chronic stress during their studies. Before being a full-fledged lawyer, law school students get to experience what many lawyers experience in the workplace—stress and burnout—which often doesn’t disappear after they pass the Bar Exam.
On the contrary, there are usually new stressors waiting just on the horizon for new lawyers, such as waiting for law placement and adjusting to their new career.
Whether lawyer burnout is being experienced by someone new to the legal profession or an attorney who’s been around for awhile, the following are small steps that can be taken to avoid burnout as a lawyer.
1. Don’t Take on Too Many Cases at Once
As one might guess, taking on too many cases is one of the leading causes of burnout for attorneys.
While lawyers and firms have the option to choose their cases, some people go into the legal practice to help as many people as they can, which sometimes results in taking on too many clients with too few lawyers.
Thankfully, many law firms are now aware of the risks of burnout and many are putting plans in place which avoid giving too heavy of a workload to attorneys.
It may seem tempting to juggle a lot of clients at once, especially during the initial stages of a legal career, but taking on too many cases almost always leads to a lack of control over what you can actually deliver to your clients.
A corporate lawyer interviewed by Business Insider mentioned that “law firms are very goal-oriented” and usually focused on results more than they’re focused on the wellbeing of their employees. (Source) When lawyers sacrifice their family or personal life for the sake of their law firm or their career, severe burnouts are typically to follow.
With this in mind, it’s imperative that lawyers set boundaries and don’t take on too many cases at once. This is the best way to maintain a healthy balance between work and home life and, ultimately, to avoid burning out.
2. Set Realistic Goals for Yourself and Don’t Overwork Yourself
Setting realistic goals for yourself is one of the best ways to avoid too much pressure in the workplace.
When you give yourself realistic expectations, it allows you to focus on what your clients need, which in turn can help with retaining and even increasing clients.
Sometimes putting in long hours is unavoidable as an attorney, but, as previously mentioned, it’s crucial that you set boundaries for yourself as a lawyer. After all, you can’t operate at your best if you’re physically or emotionally drained.
It’s also important to understand that it’s okay to slow down and not answer every email right away.
Another way to avoid overworking is to prioritize what’s urgent and important, and take care of those tasks first. It also helps to accept that not all things will be done perfectly and that some things both in life and in your legal career are out of your control.
Take care of the urgent and important tasks first, and don’t over-exert yourself trying to complete the rest.
3. Take Breaks Throughout the Day, Even if it’s Just for a Few Minutes
As you may have experienced since graduating law school, putting in long hours studying doesn’t quite compare to the much longer work hours that are sometimes required of you in your career. Just like it was important for you to take frequent breaks while studying for classes and the Bar Exam, it’s essential to take breaks while completing your legal work.
These breaks can be as simple as resting your eyes for a few minutes, or taking a five-minute stroll around the block.
Some other ideas for short breaks include stretching your muscles to release tension, engaging in breathing exercises, or even grabbing a quick snack.
When you start to take short breaks throughout your day, you’ll be amazed at how much more productive you are.
Besides, everyone deserves a short break—especially lawyers!
4. Eat Healthy and Exercise Regularly to Keep Your Energy Up
The practice of law can be mentally exhausting, which can eventually take a toll on your physical health.
Unsurprisingly, there are many studies that show how quickly your energy can improve when you engage in regular exercise and eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.
As a lawyer, it’s imperative to incorporate daily exercise into your routine in order to keep your body functioning at its best while also boosting your energy levels. Just 30 minutes to an hour each day, or even every other day, will have you feeling less exhausted in no time.
Consuming a healthy diet and choosing to not skip meals will also improve your mental state and boost your energy over time. It’s important to not skip meals, as this can trigger changes in mood, which can increase your stress levels.
5. Get Enough Sleep Every Night — Aim for at Least 7-8 Hours
Partner your healthy lifestyle with getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep at night, and you’ll be
primed for success in both your career and your personal life.
Even if you’re someone who can operate without a full night’s sleep, your body and mind will
always function better when you give it the rest it needs.
Sleep is essential for your overall health, including your mood, so you’ll be able to take care of your clients as well as your family members better when you’re getting enough sleep. Getting plenty of rest also helps your immune system function better, which means you’ll be able to avoid more illnesses, too.
A good night’s sleep doesn’t solely depend on the total hours you’re asleep, but also on the quality of sleep that you’re getting. It’s important to keep a routine with consistent bedtime and waking hours so that your body can get the quality sleep it needs.
If you still feel tired even after getting plenty of rest, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor, as sleep problems can affect your overall health in many different ways.
6. Talk to Someone About How You’re Feeling, Whether it’s a Friend, Family Member, or Therapist
A lot of stressful events have happened during the last few years, and it’s undeniably taken a toll on many peoples’ physical and mental states.
If you’re feeling out of sync, you’re certainly not alone.
Mental and emotional exhaustion are clear signs of burnout, and if you’re experiencing this it can help tremendously to talk to someone about it.
Burnout affects all aspects of your life, from your career to your personal and family life to even your social life.
While it may seem scary to be vulnerable to another person, opening up about what you’re experiencing and the emotions you’re feeling is actually a sign of strength.
If you don’t have a trusted friend, colleague, or family member to confide in, finding a therapist is a great place to start. As you help others for a living, it’s important to let others help you out, too.
7. Find a Good Work/Life Balance & Make Time for Things That are Important to You Outside of Work
Finally, one of the best ways to avoid burnout as a lawyer is a concept we mentioned previously—simply having a good work-life balance.
At first glance, this may not seem simple for lawyers to achieve, but it’s entirely possible to incorporate having a good time into your routine in a way that actually helps you succeed in your career rather than hindering you.
Here are some things you can add to your routine to improve your work/life balance:
- Plan out vacations with your family every year. This is something that can get you excited every time you begin to suffer from symptoms of burnout. Even if you’re only able to take a few days off, a weekend getaway is a great way to escape from client demands. Plus, with Destination CLEs, you can earn your mandatory continuing legal education credits while on vacation! Imagine spending time with your family in a beautiful, exotic location while completing your required hours. That’s what’s possible with Destination CLEs! Plus, the Eduvacation℠ of Destination CLEs may qualify as a tax write-off. Talk about a win-win! Click here to browse destinations and to book your next vacation.
- If you’re in a relationship, plan out weekly date nights with your significant other and try to not talk about work while on these dates. Even something as simple as watching a movie or grabbing take-out can help alleviate burnout from your career.
- Whatever you do, don’t sacrifice your social life! Enjoying yourself with people who you can be yourself around helps tremendously with reducing stress. Try game nights with your friends, go out for drinks, or even put together a sports team to bond with your companions.
- Make time for your hobbies and the recreations you enjoy. If you don’t have any hobbies right now, don’t be afraid to try something new! You never know—maybe you’ll find that a new activity such as painting or fishing will help you relax and keep your mind off work stress.
- Join a club or organization that isn’t work-related. Your life doesn’t start and end with just being a lawyer. Make time to explore other passions you have and to meet people with your same interests, and you’ll feel refreshed rather than burnt out.
- Enjoy the simple things in life. Explore nature, listen to music, or finish that book you picked up ages ago. The little things in life often bring us the most joy, and taking the time to enjoy these things can boost your mood significantly. In fact, a simple hug with someone you love can help your brain release oxytocin, which produces a sense of relaxation. Give it a try!
- Practice self-care. This is a multi-faceted way to ensure you build up resilience to work stressors and attorney burnout. Do things every day that nurture you physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, and you’ll be able to withstand the demands of your career much easier than if you don’t take care of yourself first.
No matter how successful your legal career is, your life is not all about work, and you do not live
to work—rather, you work to live!
Always make sure that your health and wellness are at the top of your priorities, and you’ll be
able to function better both in your career and in your personal life.
You’ve made a lot of sacrifices to get to where you are, and it’s important that you protect yourself mentally and emotionally so you can have a long, happy life as well as a long, happy legal career.
Life is too short to be crippled by lawyer burnout!
Prioritize you, and in the end, your clients will be much happier, too.
Davis, P. (2021, April 27). How To Address Burnout In The Legal Profession. Forbes. Retrieved February 6, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/pauladavis/2021/04/27/how-to-address-burnout-in-the-legal-profession
Weiss, DC. (2021, December 21). Lawyer Burnout Is ‘A Real Issue’ As Demand For Legal Work Outpaces Growth In Lawyer Head Count. American Bar Association Journal. Retrieved February 6, 2022, from https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/lawyer-burnout-a-real-issue-as-demand-for-legal-work- outpaces-growth-in-lawyer-head-count
Why I Fled My Dehumanizing Corporate Law Firm And Never Looked Back. (2013, March 9). Business Insider. Retrieved February 6, 2022, from https://www.businessinsider.com/what-its-like-to-work-in-corporate-law-2013-3
World Health Organization. (n.d.). Burn-out an “Occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. World Health Organization. Retrieved February 7, 2022, from https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases