Like a spent fire or candle, burned-out people have no more fuel. They cannot continue. A burnout is, as one lawyer described it, a “certified charred hulk.” The problem is serious. “Technology makes it much more likely that we’ll experience burnout,” says Alessandra Wall, a clinical psychologist.
In fact, Paula Davis-Laack, an attorney and burnout expert, believes we live in a culture of disconnection, distraction, and overload that is a perfect breeding ground for burnout. And the law, with its unforgiving culture, long hours, and billable time, presents especially acute risks for burnout.
What Burnout Really Means
The term burnout is used casually and frequently, but a formal definition is surprisingly elusive. Burnout is not an official medical diagnosis. Davis-Laack, who has a master’s degree in positive psychology and frequently works with lawyers, defines burnout as “a disease of disengagement.”
“It’s a chronic process of unplugging and disconnecting from work, friends, family, and health,” said Davis-Laack. “The most important part of this definition is the word ‘chronic.'” Burnout arises slowly, like a frog in a slowly boiling pot who does not realize he is getting cooked.
“A disease of disengagement.”
To a large extent, burnout is the result of a mismatch between demands and resources. Professor Arnold B. Bakker, Ph.D., a prolific burnout researcher, stated: “[B]urnout 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.”
The core symptoms of burnout include:
- Fatigue, no matter how much someone rests or sleeps. This is an exhaustion that runs deeper than sleep deprivation, and it cannot be cured with a few days off.
- Cynicism about life, or a feeling that nothing a person does really matters. Burned-out people are not excited about their work, even major successes in things they once loved, and they feel generally disengaged.
- A sense of inefficacy. Burned-out people feel like they are exerting significant effort, but are not making any progress or gaining any recognition.
- Lack of attention. Inability to control your attention is a key symptom of burnout, says Davis-Laack.
Many people—and their physicians—have a hard time recognizing burnout because its symptoms are not unique to the condition of burnout. Although symptoms can look like a lot of other ailments, Davis-Laack writes that there are clues to watch for. Physical clues can include frequent headaches, digestive issues, difficulty sleeping, and chest pain. Psychological indicators can include panic attacks, anger, irritability, hopelessness, helplessness, and a general loss of enjoyment.
People heading toward burnout may also experience a drop in productivity and an increased desire to be alone. If you suspect you may be developing burnout, Davis-Laack recommends telling your healthcare provider about chronic stress and mentioning burnout specifically.
Our Personalities and Our Profession Put Us at High Risk
Lawyers are at especially high risk for burnout, both because of the job and because of the personality traits we tend to have.
“One of the key causes of burnout is that demands exceed the resources to meet them, and the long and difficult work of practicing law can easily place too many demands on a practitioner.”
Lawyers notoriously work long and stressful hours, which can mean that the demands of the job are intense. One of the key causes of burnout is that demands exceed the resources to meet them, and the long and difficult work of practicing law can easily place too many demands on a practitioner. Our resources and support often fall short.
Our tough-it-out legal culture also creates burnout risks. Very often, lawyers work in environments where the credo is something like “you can sleep after you’re dead” or “work hard, play later.” Combined with pressure to appear tough and invulnerable to both clients—for whom lawyers are often the rock of stability in stressful situations—and colleagues, lawyers often exist in cultures that just don’t tolerate the discussion of burnout or stress.
This kind of culture can prevent lawyers from acknowledging that they are burning out, talking about it, or seeking help, all of which are essential to preventing serious burnout.
“You can sleep after you’re dead.”
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, says Davis-Laack. Cultivating relationships with people who won’t deem the stress and burnout a sign of weakness can make a huge difference. Unfortunately, for many lawyers, there might not be any high-quality relationships in the workplace. If that’s the case, seek out non-work relationships.
Solo practitioners may be an especially high-risk group, says Linda Rudnick, a former solo lawyer who experienced burnout. Solo practitioners “lose the camaraderie and synergy” that lawyers practicing in groups have. Solos also tend to do everything from billing, business development, and law themselves, which can be a recipe for a big gap between demands and support.
Psychiatrist Ron Hofeldt, who works with attorneys, has observed that litigators also burn out an especially high rate. Litigation is, of course, 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, who have no incentive (and potentially a disincentive) to respect much-needed downtime. The combination of lack control over time, confrontation, hours, and high stakes can run people ragged.
Many burnout prevention techniques involve doing less or taking the time to recharge. For a lawyer who survives by billing hours, taking significant time off to recharge can create its own stress. Time not working means taking a revenue hit. Yet taking the time to recharge may be necessary in the long run and will likely improve productivity in the short term.
The impact of the billable hour goes beyond simply crowding out time to exercise and rest. As Scott Turow has written, selling time diminishes the opportunities for lawyers “to pursue the professional experiences that nourish a lawyer’s soul.” Providing free and reduced-cost services can infuse practices with exactly the kind of purpose that can stave off burnout, yet the billable hour erects an imposing obstacle to doing so. There’s simply no easy way to reconcile the billable hour—especially if you work in a place that demands a high minimum number of hours—with preventing burnout.
In addition to the challenges of practicing law, some contend that lawyers tend to have personality traits that make them more prone to burnout.
Perhaps the most significant such trait is perfectionism.
Law demands acute attention to detail, and the price for making a mistake can be millions of dollars or a life in prison. Thus, lawyers are served well—at least professionally—by their perfectionism. But this same perfectionism can make them feel like their work is never good enough. This sort of perfectionism is a major risk factor for burnout, said Davis-Laack. Lawyers need to take a close look at their own core beliefs. Do those beliefs include ideas that prevent you from admitting there’s a problem or from seeking help?
Lawyers also tend to score low on resilience: as many as 90% of lawyers score in the bottom half on resilience. People who are low in resilience have a harder time bouncing back from life’s inevitable setbacks and are at high risk for burnout.
How to Prevent Burnout
Although our society and profession seem to foster burnout, there is a lot you can do to protect yourself, and you do not necessarily have to make monumental changes like leaving your job.
Find or Create More Meaning
One of the first things you should do is check whether there is a serious conflict between your values and your work, says Dr. Amiran Elrick, a psychologist who specializes in working with lawyers.
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 with every minute. Rather, Dr. Ron Epstein (PDF) found that doctors who found a mere 20% of their work meaningful burned out significantly less than others, even when the rest of the work was draining.
So, seek meaning in your work. For many lawyers, it’s already there and just needs to be noticed more. 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 help stave off burnout, but you’ll also probably do a better job, too. One study found that, by putting a patient’s photo in the file, radiologists made 46% more accurate diagnoses.
If you can’t find any meaning, try creating some. You may be able to take on a pro bono case or shift your practice area to serve a cause or group you care about. If that’s not feasible, even mentoring someone or strengthening connections with others at work can help. For some people, even these changes may not be possible. If you cannot find or cultivate meaning in what you are doing, bigger changes may be in order.
Let Go of Perfection
Easing up on perfection is critical. Women, in particular, suffer from a need to be perfect at everything — from looks to motherhood to career. And lawyers, Davis-Laack remarks, would be well served to compartmentalize their perfectionist tendencies.
“Perfection is the enemy of good enough.”
You may need to turn on your skepticism and perfectionism to represent your clients, but perhaps dinner can be frozen pizza, or your house can remain a mess. Recall that old saying “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Triage your life a bit, and figure out what really must be done nearly perfectly, and when good enough is, well, good enough.
Build Awareness of Your Stress, Your Feelings, and Your Triggers
You can’t solve a problem you do not acknowledge. Learn to recognize the signs that you are being pushed to the edge, whether they are headaches, anger, irritability, or something else. Lawyers tend to be a tough, stoic lot, and we 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.
Try to identify precisely what is stressing you, especially if there is a chronic mismatch between demands and your resources. Are there activities you can cut? Can you hire someone to help you or delegate something?
Manage Your Energy
Davis-Laack recommends managing your energy, not your time. 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 a bit fried and less effective. So try taking a good, recharging break (like a walk, or listening to music—not checking CNN or personal email!) after 90 minutes. Try to do the tasks that energize you first, when your energy is likely to be high.
Many of these changes sound simple—and they are—but they are not easy. Taking stock of where things have gone wrong and changing them requires the kind of honest introspection that most of us avoid. Yet if we don’t, we may end up spending a year on the couch watching reruns.
What to Do if You Suspect You Are Burned Out
If you suspect burnout, you can take the Maslach Burnout Inventory-General Survey. This well-researched survey can give you evidence to share with your healthcare provider. You should also consider obtaining professional help. Tell your doctor that you suspect burnout, and don’t be afraid to use that phrase.
“[Burnout] tends to hit the best employees …”
Davis-Laack advises that if you’re seriously burned out, you likely need to make serious changes quickly. You don’t necessarily need to quit your job, but consider new practice areas, taking a sabbatical, finding some work that adds meaning, or finding additional support. Unfortunately, the more severe burnout becomes, the harder it is to cure.
Keep in mind, too, that burnout is not a personal failing. “[Burnout] tends to hit the best employees, those with enthusiasm who accept responsibility readily and whose job is an important part of their identity,” says Ulrich Kraft in Scientific American. And there may be a silver lining. “The good news [about burnout] is that it’s a wonderful motivator,” says Hofeldt.
Burnout is a huge problem. About 70% of American workers feel disengaged, which is a major symptom of burnout, and there’s little reason so suspect lawyers are different. In fact, lawyers may be suffering even more than others: ours is the only profession with an entire industry devoted to helping its members quit. Nobody knows how many lawyers experience burnout, but there’s no doubt it’s too many.
For more information on finding a balance, read Chapter 6 of our Complete Guide to Managing a Law Firm.
Originally published 2016-09-09. Republished 2019-08-01. Updated 2022.
Last updated October 7th, 2022