What They didn’t teach you at the Law School
Law School prepares you to think, write and research like a lawyer, but once you’re at the door of a law firm or a courtroom, there’s a whole new set of skills you need. The present series of articles aims to enrich a new lawyer with all these skills in order for him/her to excel.
The term ‘burnout’ is used casually and frequently, but a formal definition describes burnout as “a disease of disengagement”. It’s a chronic process of unplugging and disconnecting from work, friends, family, and health.
Lawyers are at an especially high risk for burnout, both because of the job and the personality traits that we tend to have.
One of the key causes of burnout is that demands exceed the resources to meet them. The long and difficult work of practicing law can easily place too many demands on a practitioner. We work for long and stressful hours, which can mean that the demands of the job are intense. But our resources and support often fall short.
Lawyers usually work in environments where the policies are too work-centric. Combined with a pressure to appear tough and invulnerable to clients as well as colleagues, we often get stressed out.
This kind of culture can prevent us from acknowledging that we are burning out. We neither talk about it, nor seek help, which is essential to prevent serious burnout.
One of the key solutions to dealing with a culture like this is to develop high-quality relationships in which it feels safe to discuss burnout. But unfortunately, for many lawyers, there might not be any high-quality relationships in the workplace.
Solo practitioners may be another high-risk group. Solo practitioners lose the camaraderie and synergy that lawyers practicing in groups have. They tend to do everything from billing, business development, and law themselves, which could be a recipe for a big gap between demands and support.
Litigation is inherently confrontational, which can be stressful. Litigators also have little control over their schedules. Vacations and weekends are at the mercy of opposing counsel and the courts. The combination of lack of control over time, confrontation, hours, and high stakes can actually get the litigators seriously burned out.
Many burnout prevention techniques involve doing less or taking time off to recharge. But for a lawyer who survives by billing hours, taking significant time off to recharge can create its own stress. Yet remember, taking the time to recharge may be necessary in the long run and is likely to improve productivity in the short term.
In addition to the challenges of practicing law, lawyers tend to have personality traits that make them more prone to burnout; the most significant of such traits is perfectionism.
Law demands acute attention to detail, and the price for making a mistake can be huge losses in terms of money or a life in prison. Therefore, lawyers are served well in their profession by their perfectionism. But this same perfectionism can make us feel like our work is never good enough.
How to Prevent Burnout
Although our profession seems to foster burnout, there is a lot you can do to protect yourself, which does not necessarily mean huge changes like leaving your job.
One of the first things that you should do is check whether there is a serious conflict between your values and your work. A lack of meaning is one of the key drivers of burnout. You don’t need to be saving the world or fulfilling your life’s purpose every minute.
Lawyers change lives, so perhaps you can connect with your clients more and focus on how important your work is to them. Remind yourself of the good you do. Not only will this prevent a burnout, but you’ll also probably do a better job.
If you can’t find any meaning, try creating some. You could take on a pro bono case or shift your practice area to serve a cause or group you care about. If even that’s not feasible, mentor someone or strengthen connections with others at work.
Ease up on perfection. Women, in particular, suffer from a need to be perfect at everything — from looks to motherhood to career. And lawyers would be well served to compartmentalize their perfectionist tendencies.
You may need to turn on your perfectionism to represent your clients, but triage your life a bit, and figure out what really must be done nearly perfectly, and when good enough is, well, good enough.
You can’t solve a problem unless you acknowledge it. Learn to recognize the signs that you are being pushed to the edge.
Lawyers tend to be a tough, stoic lot, and can be very good at playing through the pain. An important part of protecting against burnout, though, is recognizing when it’s coming and when your life has become too much.
Humans are not machines; we all need breaks. Studies show that humans cannot really focus for much longer than about 90 minutes. After that, we get inefficient and less effective. So try taking a good, recharging break (like a walk, or listening to music) after 90 minutes. Try to do the tasks that energize you.
If you’re seriously burned out, you need to make serious changes quickly. You don’t necessarily need to quit your job, but consider new practice areas; take a sabbatical; find some work that adds meaning; or find additional support. Remember, the more severe burnout becomes, the harder it is to cure.
Keep in mind that burnout is not a personal failing. In fact, it’s a wonderful motivator !
*Executive Editor, Lawyers Update; Director General, Universal Institute of Legal Studies