Lawyer burnout is not just for wimps – it can strike anyone who takes their job seriously.
Even worse: it can flatten you before you even know it.
“Lawyer burnout [is] a phenomenon that’s all about denial,” writes lawyer-turned-psychotherapist Will Meyerhofer. “So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that by the time you realize burnout might be coming, it’s already here, and a whole lot worse than you think.”
Lots of factors make lawyers prime candidates for burnout: stressful work, killer competition, time and billing demands, client expectations. Not only that, but attorneys tend to be Type-A perfectionists.
Add it all up, and it’s easy to understand why burnout tends to hit good lawyers the hardest.
“The old pie-eating contest paradox (you know, the prize is more pie!) comes into play,” says Meyerhofer, who transitioned from being a hard-charging, Harvard-educated lawyer at Sullivan & Cromwell to reinventing himself as The People’s Therapist, who specializes in counseling and coaching lawyers in crisis. “The better you are, the more they use you. The more they use you, the more they keep moving the finish line so they can keep using you more.”
Burnout is Not New – Or is It?
Job burnout is nothing new. It’s been around as long as there have been, well, jobs. But in the legal profession, experts say things have steadily worsened over the last few decades.
Dan Lukasik, who runs the website Lawyers With Depression, says increased pressure and competition has led lawyers – such as his friend Tom – to take a “better-cheaper-faster” approach to practicing law.
“There was no end, no limits to the demands put on him to be better, to be cheaper, to run faster,” Lukasik writes here. “As if he were a machine. He hunkered down into a survival mode, had little positive energy to invest in himself or his family and ultimately burned out like a meteorite entering the earth’s atmosphere.”
Here are Lukasik’s 10 Milestones for Lawyer Burnout:
- Over-commitment (always in motion)
- Inadequate breaks and rest (continuous client involvement)
- Idealistic standards
- Constant low-grade stress (occasionally interrupted by crisis!)
- Lack of help and assistance
- Chronic fatigue from pushing oneself (“hitting the wall”)
- Strong sense of responsibility, even when others “dropped the ball”
- Guilty feelings about missing church events/activities
- Heavy job and family responsibilities/expectations
- Inability (or strong reluctance) to say no
7 Ways to Detect and Combat Burnout
Here are some suggestions for spotting the warning signs of burnout – and steps to prevent a crash:
- Watch for temper tantrums. “Are you kicking the wall of your office, throwing things, screaming in frustration?” writes Meyerhofer. “Could be an issue.”
- Anxiety attacks, too. “A lawyer recently texted me to say she’d fled her firm’s offices, panting for air, after receiving yet another long list of requests from a partner. She wound up in a pew at the back of a church, waiting for her heart to stop pounding so she could pull herself together sufficiently to contemplate returning to work. That’s burnout, too. You start to lose your resilience, so everything and anything can knock you off balance into emotional chaos.”
- Delegate, delegate, delegate. Use your team-mates. Don’t try to carry the whole weight on your shoulders.
- Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Don’t want to be getting emails and texts at 11 at night? Speak your truth. Fence off your private space and enforce that boundary.
- Learn to say no. This can be hard, especially for young associates eager to prove their worth. But setting limits is important. Nobody is well-served if you pile too much on your plate.
- Take time off. Recreation is not goofing off. It’s a time for renewal and re-energizing.
- Be alert for physical and emotional cues. Sometimes your body lets you know when you’re reaching the end of your rope, writes Joyce M. Rosenberg for the AP and Star Tribune. Exhaustion, insomnia, agitation, grumpiness and a general subpar feeling could be signs that you need a break.
Have you experienced professional burnout? How did you handle it?