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What to Do If You’re Suffering From Lawyer Burnout | Explore Law Firms and Legal Advice

When attorneys suffer from burnout, they may not know what to do.

On the contrary, they may look around at overworked colleagues and conclude that no one has time for well-being. That was the consensus of 4,450 Massachusetts attorneys surveyed for a 2023 study conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a nonprofit promoting attorney well-being. Of the attorneys surveyed, 77% admitted having experience with burnout.

These don’t seem to be fleeting experiences, either. According to Bloomberg Law survey data, lawyers feel burned out about half of the time. And it becomes more serious the longer it persists.

Workplace environments impact burnout, and law firms should do more to improve firm culture. But there are steps individuals can take on their paths to recovery, according to Stacey Best, executive director for Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

Burnout Is More Than Feeling Weary

Burnout has been linked to poor work performance, including less effective deliberative thinking. It has also been tied to reduced professionalism, which may lead to unethical behavior.

Burnout is connected to poorer physical health and mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. Law professionals with high burnout are five times more likely to abuse drugs than those with lesser burnout, according to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Symptoms of Burnout

Lawyers often miss signs of burnout because some are performance-based and others are emotional, says Tracey Meyers, staff clinician for Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

Burnout symptoms include:

  • Physical fatigue.
  • Emotional exhaustion.
  • Headaches, back pain and other physical soreness.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Increased cynicism relating to work.
  • Feeling overwhelmed.
  • Having a reduced sense of personal accomplishment.
  • Reduced effectiveness at work.
  • Anxiety and stress.
  • Depression and feelings of dread.
  • Hopelessness.
  • Increased aggression or reduced compassion.
  • Substance abuse.

Take Charge of Your Calendar (and Life)

If you’re experiencing lawyer burnout, begin by identifying what choices you can make that will impact your quality of life.

Set boundaries over relationships and activities. Be realistic about what you need to accomplish immediately and which emails can wait until tomorrow, Best says.

Analyze when you’re the most and least effective, then calendar the day accordingly. Block off your best time for priorities and use less productive time for administrative work, social media or a walk.

Take a Stressor Inventory and Start With Small Fixes

Those with burnout often think in all-or-nothing patterns, so lawyers often tell Meyers they are miserable and want to quit their jobs. But when you’re miserable is the worst time to make a major decision, Meyers says.

Don’t search for a drastic step or a magic wand to solve everything. Instead, track burnout symptoms and their variability. Classify which are situational and which are more persistent, Best says.

Then, brainstorm ways to address each – and don’t discount partial fixes, she says. An alternative for the kids’ carpool a few days a week won’t solve everything, but it could bprovide a helpful breather.

Take Better Care of Yourself

Prolonged burnout is related to a range of health issues including high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems and musculoskeletal pain. Studies show that those with burnout are more likely to miss work due to sick days because they’re physically ill or are taking days off to deal with psychological issues.

By contrast, exercise, nutrition and sleep are protective against burnout, Meyers says. So add to that new calendar workouts, midday breaks, lunches that don’t come from a vending machine and a hard stop time for the day’s end.

Take Time to Decompress

Billable hours are important. But 50-plus-hour weeks, which is the average lawyer workweek, according to a Bloomberg Law survey, may backfire.

Studies show those with burnout are less productive and less efficient. They’re higher in presenteeism – being at work but not getting anything done.

Allow time for recuperation. Take a decaf coffee break. Take a day off between cases. Take a vacation. Missing a few hours or days of work might seem unimaginable, but it pales in comparison to waiting until burnout is so severe that you quit altogether.

Get More Sleep

Stick to a regular bedtime and get more sleep. Most adults require seven to eight hours of sleep a night, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 3 American adults are sleep-deprived.

Symptoms of severe sleep deprivation include distractibility, irritability, depression, feelings of powerlessness, self-doubt and poorer cognitive functioning.

In other words, for some, burnout might be sleep deprivation in disguise. But it’s likely to be both. There is a vicious cycle between burnout and insufficient sleep, each exacerbating the other.

Get a Support Network

Those who report burnout often feel socially isolated at work. For example, of the burned-out Massachusetts attorneys, more than 90% also said they were not treated with kindness and respect at work, and they didn’t have supportive colleagues, a positive supervisor or access to a mentor.

Build a support network. Find a coach or peers who can help you achieve a new perspective, Meyers says.

Find Some Eagles and Ignore the Turkeys 

Studies have found that teachers are more susceptible to burnout if they spend more time comparing themselves with less effective teachers. However, when teachers spent time thinking about better teachers than they, it inspired them to improve.

Increase Productivity by Reducing Distractions

According to observational studies, office workers spend just three minutes on a task before being interrupted, and 40% of the time, it takes a half-hour to return to the task.

Studies have found that focus improves when by turning off email, stashing the cell phone out of sight and, when possible, working in a private office rather than an open floor plan.

Increase Focus With Mindfulness Training

Since mindfulness has been found to reduce burnout by teaching people to be more present in the moment and more attentive to physiological responses to stressors, Meyers recommends those struggling with burnout try mindfulness exercises.

Mindfulness training helps attorneys filter out noise, leading to improved productivity and focus, she says.

Be Kind to Yourself – That Is Part of Recovery

Attorneys looking for a quick way to reboot back to their old selves may be frustrated to hear recovery from burnout is not an overnight process. Developing self-awareness and learning how to address the issues takes time. But if you consider how long it took to get to this point, a longer recovery is reasonable, Meyers says.

Lawyers, bosses and clients need to remember that law is stressful. People’s lives are often at stake based on a case’s outcome. But lawyers are humans, too. If they don’t acknowledge that, Best says, they can’t be surprised when they crash and burn.

Sarah Goldberg
Sarah Goldberg

Sarah is a seasoned financial market expert with a decade of experience. She's known for her analytical skills, attention to detail, and ability to communicate complex financial concepts. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Finance, is a licensed financial advisor, and enjoys reading and traveling in her free time.

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