How Lawyers Can Survive When Feeling Emotionally & Physically Overwhelmed

March 21, 2018
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No matter how much you may love your job, no job is 100% fun. There are ups and downs, especially if you are a small law firm or solo practicing attorney. Burnout is more than just a result of long hours, which lawyers can definitely attest to experiencing. It can occur when you are not in control of how you carry out your job, when you’re working towards a goal that doesn’t resonate with you or your values, or when you lack any support. It is a state of chronic stress and frustration that leads to:

  • Cynicism
  • Depression
  • Physical and emotional exhaustion
  • A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

Gasping for air in a pile of huge law firm debt, long hours, unemployment, competition, ethical challenges, endless details, endless arguing, and the myriad other responsibilities attorneys tackle, getting burnt out almost seems a requirement.

Although the term “burnout” is not a medically recognized term, the chronic feeling of both physical and emotional overwhelm can alter your life in many ways. Any job can cause a person to become disengaged to the point it prevents any ability or motivation to do your job, connect with loved ones and focus on your health. But lawyers especially get hit a little bit harder. This is due, in large part, to the lack of adequate resources that could otherwise help lighten the burden of their job. Such resources include social support, helpful advice and continued feedback. And for solo-practicing attorneys, it’s a slippery slope. Feeling lonesome and lost in despair, it’s often too late when they realize they are getting burnt out.

As a result, the passion, dedication and enjoyment that a lawyer once felt, slowly dissipates into nothing.

How do I know if I’m getting burnt out?

There are multiple symptoms but the first thing all attorneys must do, even if you don’t think you’re burnt out, is to pause for a second and partake in some self-reflection. An attorney told me the time they experienced burnout. After a couple of years at an entry-level position as a lawyer, he was ready to advance his career and felt partnerships was the logical next step. Although his superiors agreed, they provided little to no clarification on the logistics and in fact, provided no feedback at all. As a result, frustration and apathy ensued. Thinking it was best to focus on finding a new law firm to work at, this attorney took another position at a different firm and momentarily felt a surge of excitement.

But it didn’t take long for dissatisfaction to creep up yet again. In fact many attorneys feel dissatisfied at times and only those that have an insatiable passion for what they do, can they truly never feel a sense of burnout and if they do, are beyond capable to push through.

If this sounds like you, rest assured, you are not alone. And there is help. If you’re experiencing:

  • Fatigue: a tiredness that goes beyond sleep deprivation. You may be getting enough hours of sleep, but still never feel fully rested.
  • Cynicism: a feeling that nothing matters. Often, people struggle to remember their passion and optimism that’s been driving their professional journey. If you feel your work doesn’t really matter or you struggle to remain excited about your work, you may be suffering from burnout.
  • Self-doubt: a feeling that no matter how hard you work, you’re accomplishing little to nothing. Feeling ineffective is a sign of burnout that typically goes unnoticed.
  • Inattention: an inability to focus and decreased productivity
  • Physical pain: frequent headaches, digestive issues and chest pain. Loss of appetite and inability to sleep or stay asleep.
  • Social withdrawal: an increased desire to be alone or experiencing anxiety in social situations.
  • Depression: periodic panic attacks, increased anger and irritability, feeling of hopelessness and general loss of enjoyment

Burnout is a very real phenomenon and when left unaddressed, can affect your life in shattering ways.

The Tough Environment Lawyers Are In

Attorneys and legal professions are especially prone to burnout due to their personality. Myers-Briggs tests show lawyers are detached thinkers. They think intuitively and abstractly rather than “sensing”.  They are also not empathetic feelers. And although they may constantly be interacting with people, they are more introverted than extroverted.

Worse, lawyers tend to make it tougher on themselves. Lawyers tend to have a particular type of personality that renders self-care much more difficult if not nearly impossible.  One of the most prominent characteristics of attorneys is perfectionism. The law demands acute attention to detail and making a mistake can be millions of dollars at best and someone’s life at worst. As a result, anything short of perfect isn’t an option. It’s your clients livelihood on the line as well as yours. Another interesting trait found amongst lawyers is alowered resilience.

By definition, resilience is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”

In general, life throws many curveballs and setbacks, both professionally and personally. Anyone who is low in resilience tends to have a harder time bouncing back from these inevitable setbacks. Solo practicing attorneys are even more prone to experience setbacks, which leads to a higher risk of burnout.

Not only do lawyers have a particularly different personality, they also work in a distinct environment. Lawyers live and work in a tough environment. Success is often measured by revenue and billable hours. Therefore, it’s only natural to put in long hours in this high-pressure and highly adversarial environment. The nature of the work as well takes an emotional toll on attorneys. Depending on the practice, attorneys often have to carry the burden of emotionally driven clients and situations.

Causes of Burnout

If you’re an attorney experiencing some phase of burnout, take a moment to examine your current situation and identify the source. The most common sources are:

  • Long, dehumanizing hours
  • Stringent deadlines
  • Fierce competition – from competitors and non-competitor players
  • Judgement and criticism of performance from judges, juries and others
  • Burdens of responsibility for someone else’s money, family, freedom and even life
  • Job security concerns
  • Constant interruptions and communication demands
  • Clients’ stress and anger taken out on lawyers
  • A gap between profession ideals and reality

It may be time to take a step back and look at where you are right now and where you want to go in your life and career. Many enthusiastic attorneys enter law hoping to “make a difference”, but sometimes, their work feels anything but that. The truth is, if you’re feeling burnout, it’s most likely due to a misalignment of your values. And it should be noted that values change. You’re not the same person you were when you entered law school. So what you valued then is naturally going to be different now.

The best way to determine whether you’re values are misaligned, ask yourself this simple question: when you’re alarm goes off, are you:

  • Pumped and excited to head to the office and tackle the day?
  • Indifferent and feel it’s just another typical day?
  • Dreading the day ahead of you while hitting the snooze button repeatedly to avoid it?

If you feel anything but the first point, it’s time to dig a little deeper. Those who are happiest and truly love what they’re doing:

  • Have reasonable goals and expectations
  • Feel accomplished in their jobs
  • Are challenged
  • Have a healthy work-life balance
  • Contribute to the community

Those that have a healthy balance of the factors above do not spend their lives at work, don’t replace work for family and don’t demand to be the top dogs thought aspire to be successful.

To a large extent, burnout is the result of an imbalance between demands and resources. Professor Arnold B Bakker, Ph.D, states that “burnout develops when someone is dealing with a high level of stress but doesn’t have access to adequate resources, such as social support, helpful advice, feedback from friends of colleagues, or control over how they spend their time.”

There’s also a typical “tough-it-out” culture where lawyers are under pressure to appear tough and invulnerable to both clients and colleagues. For clients, lawyers are often the rock of stability in a stressful situation. And for colleagues, most just don’t tolerate the discussion of burnout or stress.

Solo practicing attorneys are especially high risk at experiencing burnout. They have to do everything: billing, business development, and law themselves. Without a support group, burnout will almost be inevitable. According to Psychiatrist Ron Hofeldt, litigators also tend to burn out an especially high rate. Not only do they have little control over their schedule, their job is inherently confrontational which can be extremely stressful.

Solutions for Burnout

You have a variety of options and remedies you can implement but you first must understand the core cause of your burnout. Truly understanding the “why” will lead you to your “how”.

Incremental Changes

Get more skilled. Sometimes, unhappiness in a career can be due to a level of incompetence. It can be because of your education, your experience or simply a lack of continued education. For example, many prestigious law schools focus heavily on theory as opposed to practice. And if you’re a recent graduate, your lack of experience will obviously be a hindrance of sorts. If you sought out to own your own practice, consider first getting experience at an exceptional law firm with mentors who can guide and support you to become the best lawyer you envision yourself as. Continued education should be on everyone’s mind but it doesn’t necessarily mean continued law education.

Lawyer tip: Investing more time to learn about technology and tools that could help streamline your processes can remove a lot of those “dehumanizing hours” that lead to burnout. Investing time to learn about your clients and marketing can also help you implement strategic business tactics so you’re working more on the business instead of in the business.

Change bosses or tasks. Is it your boss or colleagues that cause an overwhelming and perpetual feeling of exhaustion? Having an awful boss is draining in many regards.

Change workplaces. Culture fit is critical in any industry but especially within the legal industry where long days turn into long nights. Some attorneys thrive in fast-paced, high-pressure environments whereas others prefer a slower and more casual workplace. Furthermore, there are various types of legal work beyond your typical law firm such as government, non-profits or in-house at a corporation. Finding the right fit may not occur from the get go so if you’re feeling burnout in your current situation, a change in your environment might do the trick.

Take a look at how the firm conducts business and treats its people. Does the firm try to ease stress or does it actually increase stress? Does it promote collaboration or competition? Does the firm treat you like a valuable employee or just another individual on payroll?

Other small steps. Sometimes, something as simple as developing time management skills or stress management skills can be a game changer. Getting an adequate amount of physical exercise with proper nutrition and sleep can help balance out your life and refuel the endorphins in your body that gets you excited to do meaningful work. Taming the chemical imbalances of caffeine, alcohol and drugs can also help balance your mental state.

Moderate Changes

Change Specialties. With so many practice areas to choose from, it can be a daunting and stressful task choosing which to specialize in. Worse, with the increase in new markets, how do you know you chose the right one? And do you have capacity to change? If you have years of experience as an attorney in a specific sector of law, it can be challenging to switch specialties. Especially if you’ve already invested in a brand and marketing initiative centered around a specific category. But when it comes down to your health and wellbeing, taking the time and additional investment to slightly maneuver your practice can be a game-changer.

Change Job Titles.  There are so many players in the legal industry. From hearing officers to administrative law judges and even higher-level judges. You don’t have to leave the entire legal profession if you’ve realized you’ve settled in a state of unhappiness as an attorney. Again, the most important thing is to understand why you feel the way you do before making any life-changing decisions.

Transition to Other Law Related Jobs. If changing your job title isn’t enough, perhaps you should consider doing other types of work within the legal profession but outside the realms of practice. For example, consulting, legal marketing or even legal tech. You can do software sales to law firms, investigative work on behalf of a law firm, or marketing for law firms.

Major Pivots

Sometimes, a drastic change is needed to escape the exhaustion of the legal industry. Whether you’ve realized you want to tap into your entrepreneurial ambitions and open up a restaurant, write a book, launch a tour operation or something else completely different than law, you should know it’s never too late to follow your dreams.

Burnout is a very real phenomenon, and addressing it may not be easy. It may be time to step back and take a long look at where you are right now and where you want to go in your life and career. You may come to the conclusion that working in law no longer fits with your present values and life goals. If that’s the case, don’t worry. Many lawyers make career changes and are very successful at applying their skills in new industries.

It’s important to realize that you can’t “cure” burnout with a few days. You need to understand that that are often deep-seated roots that have caused this perpetual feeling of exhaustion and to truly recover, you’ll need to invest the time to analyze your current situation and develop a strategy for a solution. For most lawyers, practical considerations like student loans can prevent them from jumping ship to one change. If this is you, consider creating a timeline. Perhaps right now isn’t feasible to change careers but set a deadline for when you will. Knowing a solution is in the near future will help you stay motivated to finish out what you need to. Reverse engineer and break down the steps you need to take to ensure you are not rushed throughout the process.

Ongoing Self-Awareness

Waiting for a burnout is already too late. You should constantly invest in yourself and put effort on focusing on you, building self awareness and protecting yourself so you can spot the signs early. The first thing you should always do is check the alignment between your values and your work. A lack of meaning is one of the key drivers in burnout. Seek meaning in your work. For many attorneys, it’s already there and just needs to be re-focused.

Ask yourself, why did you choose to become a lawyer?

Unfortunately, while most people attend law school hoping to “make a difference,” many end up doing work they don’t feel great about. Perhaps connecting with your clients more and focusing on how important your work is to them will remind you why you chose this profession and instill the fire you initially had. If you can’t engage more with your clients, take a small step and put a client’s photo in the file.

If you can’t find meaning, create meaning. Take a pro bono case, mentor someone or strengthen your network and develop deeper, more meaningful connections.

Become aware of your stress, your feelings and your triggers. And most importantly, be curious as to what these messages are trying to tell you.