Avoiding attorney burnout

The practice of law is one of the most rewarding professions in the world, but it is also one of the most stressful. As an attorney, you have the fate of your clients in your hands and this reality can place a lot of pressure on your shoulders. Dealing with these heavy responsibilities on a daily basis can lead to negative feelings and thoughts about the profession you have chosen to spend your life pursuing. This experience is often called “burnout” and it is all too common among legal professionals.


What is burnout

As explained by the website Lawyers with Depression, the term “burnout” refers to the emotional exhaustion and diminished sense of accomplishment that many professionals in service-based industries experience. You may feel that your best efforts are not good enough and inadequate to handle the responsibilities of your job. As we will discuss later in this post, burnout can manifest in a number of ways, but it often results in negative behaviors towards clients, colleagues and staff members, as well as yourself.

While burnout is not a clinical psychological diagnosis, it can have significant effects on your mental health, often resulting in depression and/or anxiety. These are disturbingly common challenges among lawyers. Research has consistently found that lawyers suffer from depression at significantly higher rates than other professions. Here are some of the disturbing statistics, as reported by the Davenee Foundation:

  • Only about 50% of all attorneys report feeling satisfied or very satisfied with their work
  • Lawyers are more frequently depressed than any other occupational group
  • Attorneys are more than three times more likely to experience depression than non-attorneys
  • Lawyers rank 5th in incidents of suicide when compared to other occupations
  • A study of lawyers in North Carolina found that 25% experience extreme anxiety at least three times per month, while 37% suffer with depression, and 11% experience suicidal ideations.

These startling numbers exemplify the seriousness of burnout and how dangerous it can become if ignored. You may find yourself making irrational and self destructive decisions that negatively affect you, your family and your law firm.


What causes attorney burnout

The practice of law comes with numerous demands. Client expectations, court mandates, ethics requirements, financial gains… attorneys are expected to handle voluminous responsibilities on a daily basis. When you add in time limitations and overloaded work schedules, you have a recipe for burnout. Take a look at this list to see if you are dealing with any of these stressors in your professional life:

  • Competition with other law firms
  • Worries about malpractice or ethics violations
  • Client unwillingness to pay for services
  • Overhead expenses
  • Dwindling profits
  • Unreasonable billable hour expectations
  • Inability to balance personal and professional responsibilities

The adversarial nature of law is another stressor for many lawyers. Yes, you go into the profession knowing that there will be conflict involved, but some new lawyers find themselves ill-prepared to deal with the level of competition and adversity that they find within the profession. Even seasoned attorneys, who are used to the culture of legal practice, may eventually find themselves put off by daily opposition. They may feel conflicted about the their role in the legal process and question whether their work truly promotes justice.

Further complicating these circumstances is the fact that the legal profession tends to attract people who are perfectionists by nature. An article in the ABA Journal points out that the character traits most prevalent within the legal profession are perfectionism and pessimism. Taken together, these characteristics create a perfect environment for high levels of anxiety.

I remember sitting in a lecture room on my first day of law school. The professor told us that we will never look at the world the same way again… and he was so right. Your legal education trained you to recognize problems and potential risks in every situation. As explained in the ABA article, this perception often expands outside of an attorney’s professional life and into their personal matters. As perfectionists, these lawyers feel obligated to fix these problems, even when they simply are not fixable. This can snowball into obsessive thoughts of failure and feelings of inadequacy – eventually leading to depression.


Recognizing the signs

Burnout is usually a progressive problem that starts with small signs and escalates into a larger problem. By recognizing and addressing the problem early, you may be able to avoid the serious consequences that may follow. Some early signs of attorney burnout include:

  • Consistently waking up with feelings of dread about the day ahead
  • Mental exhaustion
  • Inability to concentrate on tasks or feeling “fuzzy brained”
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Feeling inadequate to practice law
  • Longer work hours with fewer tasks completed
  • Increased irritability
  • Less time spent on activities you enjoy
  • Avoiding communication with colleagues and clients
  • Missing case deadlines and appearances

If these signs are familiar to you, you may be on the verge of burning out, particular if you are experiencing several of these symptoms consistently. Don’t wait for things to get worse before seeking help. Confide in someone you trust, whether it’s a colleague, family member, friend, or mental health professional. Talking about your feelings and thoughts can be extremely useful in preventing complete burnout. Some other strategies for avoiding burnout include:

  • Do what you enjoy. If there are areas of your practice that you find particularly stressful, stop doing them. Delegate those tasks to a staff member or a colleague who does enjoy them. Concentrate your efforts on the areas of practice you find more enjoyable and satisfying.
  • Reduce your workload. If an overstretched workload has you stressing out, lessen your responsibilities. Consider bringing a new attorney on board or adding a support staff member to handle more of the administrative tasks. You may even have to turn away a few potential clients, which is absolutely worth your health and wellbeing.
  • Speaking of dropping clients, get rid of the ones who cause you the most grief!
  • Separate work from home. Many attorneys take home an armful of client each files and work well into the wee hours of the morning trying to get tasks completed. This puts your in a situation where work consumes your entire day… and night. This is completely unhealthy. You need time away from the stress of your profession. Commit to working a specified number of hours each day and commit to some personal time for yourself.
  • Take a vacation! You deserve it and more importantly, you need it. If you can’t act on this one immediately, at least block the time off on your calendar and get to planning. Studies show that even the planning of a vacation has calming effects.
  • Take care of your body. Depression and anxiety is often exacerbated by poor diet and inadequate exercise. Take the time to get to the gym. Take a spin class or try kickboxing to get out some of your frustrations. Yoga is a great way to build your strength while also quieting your mind. Your physical health is vitally important to avoiding lawyer burnout.
  • Talk to a professional. There are a variety of professionals out there who can help you cope with the stress of your job. From psychiatrists and behavioral counselors to chiropractors and massage therapists, decide what you are comfortable with and seek assistance. Just as your clients need you to navigate the complexities of the legal system, you may need some help navigating the complexities of your mental and emotional health.
  • Utilize your Bar’s law assistance programs. Most Bar associations acknowledge how stressful the practice of law can be for some attorneys. They also recognize the high rates of depression that exist within the profession. That’s why they offer assistance programs to their members. Find out about what is available through your Bar and take advantage of these services. They are confidential and none of your colleagues have to know that you are receiving assistance.

Attorney burnout is a real problem within the legal industry, affecting far too many lawyers. Don’t let burnout lead you down a dangerous and self-destructive path. Learn the signs and address them as early as possible, so you can have a long and productive legal career.

About Erika Winston:

Erika Winston is a freelance writer with a passion for law. Through her business, The Legal Writing Studio, she helps legal professionals deliver effective written messages. Erika is a regular contributor to TimeSolv and a variety of other publications.