Keeping the Fire Burning: Stopping Lawyer Burnout

John Smith (a fictional lawyer) should be ecstatic. An email from the court shows he’s just won a major motion in a case he once cared about. But instead of eagerly reaching for the phone to share the news with his client, he wants nothing more than to crawl under his desk and sleep. He is tired, so very tired.

John is burned out, a non-medical term used to describe people who have no fuel left. No matter how much they rest or vacation, they feel exhausted, cynical, disengaged, and like nothing they do really matters. At its core, says Paula Davis-Laack, an attorney with a master’s degree in positive psychology, burnout is a “process of disengagement.” It stems from a mismatch between demands and resources. Burnout occurs, she says, when there are “too many job demands, too few job resources, and too little recovery.”

This is undoubtedly a familiar equation to lawyers, who notoriously work long, stressful hours and exist in a culture of toughness. To make matters worse, burnout may be becoming more prevalent because we are increasingly unable to unplug and recharge. Gone are the days when attorneys left work at six o’clock for dinners with their families.

Burnout is a problem for everyone. First, the lawyer suffers the simple human misery that accompanies burnout:  the loss of energy, the loss of enthusiasm for things that once brought joy, the loss of feelings of value. The lawyer’s clients may suffer, too, as the attorney’s quality of work may begin to drop. Law requires intense cognitive focus, something that burned out attorneys may have difficulty doing. The colleagues and families of a burned-out lawyer lose something as well, as the person they care about becomes increasingly distant and disengaged.

Are You Burning Out?

The first step to preventing burnout is to admit, at least to yourself, that burnout is a possibility. Many attorneys work in cultures where it is a sign of weakness to admit that the job—or life—is becoming overwhelming. A stigma is associated with conceding that the stress is getting to you, especially when it seems like everyone else is handling late nights, no vacations, and eternal client demands without batting an eye. The apparent toughness of the culture can erect a formidable barrier to acknowledging that burnout may be happening.

Davis-Laack recommends starting by mapping out specific job demands, resources, and recovery practices (if there are any). Sit down and write down what you have to do, what resources you have to help you, and how you recharge. Figuring out the demands is generally simple: it’s your to-do list, the tasks you do every day. Resources can be anything from a housekeeper to technology to the moral support offered by friends. Social supports, in fact, are critical resources to consider. Do you have friends and family with whom you can honestly talk?  When it comes to recharging practices, be honest and inclusive about how you refill your tank. Include both the healthy habits (like going to the gym) and the less healthy ones (like 4 p.m. cookies or nightly Jack Daniel’s). In short, figure out how you’re spending and replenishing your energy.

If you realize that the demands exceed the resources, especially if you don’t have healthy, effective ways to recharge, you’re a likely candidate for eventual burnout. Lawyers may be especially prone to burning out because of the combination of our personalities, training, and job duties. We’re an intense, skeptical lot, trained to be cynical, and we spend our days dealing with difficult problems. We’re also paid to be perfectionists: our clients depend on it. Yet perfectionism is a major driver of burnout.

The symptoms of burnout vary and can look like other illnesses. Core symptoms include fatigue, cynicism, a sense of inefficacy, and difficulty focusing. People also may experience sleep difficulties, anger, digestive issues, or headaches.

So, what can you do if you discover that you are burning out? You will have to make changes, potentially big ones. The worse it gets, the harder burnout is to cure, says Davis-Laack. “That’s why I’m such a proponent of prevention,” she notes. Here are some suggestions to consider.

Preventing and Curing Burnout

Job Crafting and Infusing Meaning

Burnout experts recommend taking control of your job, to the extent possible, to make it more your own and more meaningful. The content of the work itself and the way that it is accomplished can be restorative, experts say. Finding positive meaning can generate feelings of vitality: the antidote to burning out. When you craft your tasks, you try to alter your responsibilities by altering the tasks you do and how much time you spend on each. Are there tasks you can delegate? Can you do more of what you love? Try to prioritize the tasks you enjoy and do less of the ones you dislike.

The challenge for many lawyers is that they have minimal latitude to alter their tasks. The case requires what the case requires. If that is true, try adding meaning in other ways. Forging deeper relationships with your clients and colleagues may help. Connecting with why you are doing the work in the first place—the value to the client—may also help even if you cannot change the nature of the work. One study found that, by putting a patient’s photo in the file, radiologists made 46% more accurate diagnoses. Likewise, your clients will likely benefit if you can connect your work to their well-being and success.

Manage Your Energy

Time management is becoming obsolete; managing energy may be more effective and important, particularly as technology extends our work around the clock. It’s no longer possible to recharge outside of work; we need to do it within work. As Tony Schwartz, journalist and founder of The Energy Project, has reported, continuously working and staying connected is “completely contrary to everything we know about what makes it possible for human beings to perform at the highest level.” What humans actually need to perform optimally is a cycle of rest and activity: about 90-minutes of work followed by a period of rest. So we need to integrate periods of rest—true recovery—into our workdays. Researchers recommend taking breaks that do not require high levels of self-control (that may rule out exercise for some of us), that limit distractions, and allow us to truly detach from work. Listening to music, talking to a friend, reading a novel, or taking a walk may be good options.

 Check for a Serious Conflict Between Your Job and Your Values

Preventing or healing burnout will never be permanent without a serious check of values. Psychologist Dr. Amiram Elwork works with the legal profession, and he says that, “some lawyers experience burnout [because]their core values are not aligned with their own behaviors.” Ask yourself if you see a fundamental conflict between your personal values and those of your organization, or with the nature of your work. If there is, says Elwork, you may suffer from “chronic feelings of guilt and unhappiness.” If you are truly at odds with your organization, “a separation may be in order,” writes Elwork.


What if You Suspect Your Boss or Colleague is Burned Out?

Burnout is usually discussed as though it’s an isolated, personal problem. It’s not. It’s contagious. When one team member is burned out, especially if that person is the boss, the whole team suffers lost enthusiasm and engagement.

Davis-Laack says that burned-out bosses are common, and they, more than anyone, may feel they need to be stoical and quietly bear the problem. Davis-Laack suggests beginning by prioritizing trust. Trust, she says, is built with a combination of common values and goals, consideration, and predictability. Without a trusting relationship, burnout issues will be tough to solve.

Before going further, consider whether your boss is truly burned out, or whether a temporary problem (a family matter, particularly pressing work issue) is at fault. Be fact-based and diplomatic here. Personal issues may not be appropriate for you to know about, says Davis-Laack.

If you have a foundation of trust and are confident that your colleague is really burning out, a conversation is likely in order. Davis-Laack suggests starting by having informal conversations about burnout generally. It’s a common problem, and talking about it generally takes the focus off one person. A simple thing like asking your boss how she’s doing might open the door.

Burnout is a serious and growing problem. Taking steps to recognize and prevent it is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength—a necessary one—if lawyers are to perform at their best.

About the Author

Kate Mayer Mangan is an attorney and is the founder and owner of Donocle, an educationand consulting company focused on helping people work at their highest potential. Follow Kate on Twitter @KateMayerMangan.

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