Attorney Burnout Is on the Rise. What Can You Do About It?

attorney burnout
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Attorneys are notorious for working too much—or more accurately, being overworked. But the last year’s crisis has added even more stress and workload to attorneys’ lives. Many in the legal profession are thoroughly “burned out” and looking for a way to bounce back and rekindle their professional lives.

Attorneys Already at Risk for Burnout

“Burnout” is best described as an enduring state of exhaustion that manifests mentally, physically, and emotionally and is caused by the stressors of the workplace. Attorneys are especially susceptible to burnout because of the competitive and demanding nature of practicing law. They are subjected on a regular basis to billable hours requirements, contentious opposing counsel, unattainable client expectations, aggressively ambitious colleagues, criticism of their quality of work, and guilt for missed family time. Through it all, attorneys are expected to overcome each challenge with professionalism and tact.

Attorneys’ risk of burnout is of course connected to the time they spend on work. The most recent Bloomberg Law’s Attorney Workload and Hours Survey reveals that attorneys work an average of 53 hours per week, but they can surpass 80 hours in a busy week. Working more than 55 hours a week dramatically increases your risk for a stroke and heart disease, as recently indicated in a World Health Organization study. It is little wonder that attorneys’ most reported symptoms related to work stressors are sleep disturbance, anxiety, and depression. Studies also suggest that lawyers demonstrate the highest risk for depression and substance abuse when compared to other high-stress, demanding professions.

The Effect of the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated attorneys’ burnout risk even further by making their lives more isolated and more sedentary.

Attorneys accustomed to client interactions and in-person litigation now see their days filled with email communications and Zoom meetings. For many attorneys, networking events provided a crucial lifeline to client referrals. With the pandemic, networking went virtual, making it much harder to mingle and create meaningful professional ties. The lack of human connection has made what was oftentimes an already solitary profession into one that is more isolated, even lonely.

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The lawyer’s life has always been largely sedentary, but remote work has stolen even the small natural breaks imposed by court appearances and depositions. Now that Zoom has replaced traditional courtrooms, there is no 10-minute downtown walk to court. There is no train or car ride to take a deposition. These short breaks often constituted forced relief, especially for attorneys who had difficulty setting boundaries. Now, attorneys remain at their desks for a Zoom appearance. Although this new way might increase billable time, it removes a natural break in the day and an opportunity to get some fresh air and basic exercise.

Work and home life have also blended into one, making an all-consuming job even more consuming. And in the remote work environment, the pressure to be reachable at any moment has only increased. Some employees have overextended themselves to prove they are at home working—and not binge watching a Netflix series. As a result, attorneys have had a harder time disconnecting and finding time off the clock.

These issues have resulted in various signs of burnout, such as:

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Exhaustion. This is more than simply needing increased rest. The entire body can feel physically fatigued and unsatisfied by sleep. Such fatigue can lead to other physical symptoms, such as body aches and pains.

Isolating behavior. Attorneys may feel unmotivated to engage with others. Feeling helpless under the weight of endless work, they may cease asking for input or help on a matter. Virtual team happy hours that were exciting earlier in the pandemic might no longer hold interest.

Decreased performance. Attorneys pushed to their limits will be unable to produce quality work. Their creative strategies and sharp analytical thinking may be replaced with brain fog and a sense of malaise. They might procrastinate and avoid responsibility. An increase of substance use, especially if used to cope with decreased performance, is a tell-tale sign of burnout.

What Can an Attorney Do?

Burnout tends to slowly progress until an individual reaches a breaking point. Typically, awareness of being at risk for burnout comes too late—several symptoms have already manifested. Establishing preventative measures can help avoid or catch burnout in its track. Consider the following:

Create a support network. A support group of peers or designating an individual you can go to for emotional support can help alleviate stress. The opportunity to simply vent without fear of consequences can be therapeutic.

Take care of your body. Putting your physical health first will not only boost your stamina so you can put in those extra hours, but it will help your body fight the harmful hormones produced by stress. It will also help maintain mental acuity and relieve stress. Eating lunch, establishing a consistent sleep schedule, and staying active will set you on the right path.

Build in set break periods. Our bodies and minds need regular breaks. Schedule walks or external lunches as much as you can. Make this as much a part of your day as client calls or brief writing. Break periods include vacations: plan time off in advance to create motivating markers to look forward to during a busy season.

Separate your home office from the rest of your home. Keeping your workstation separate from the rest of your home can help provide a refreshing feeling when stepping away. Keep all work-related items in your designated workstation. Set a cut-off time after which you are not allowed to return to your home work station. Close your home office door at 8 p.m., for example, and leave it shut until 8 a.m. the next day.

Establish meaningful boundaries at work. In this competitive profession it is hard to say no, especially as a new associate attorney. The need to prove your value can lead to over-extending yourself and risking burnout. Instead, focus on providing quality work versus quantity. Practice saying no, by amplifying why your focus on a current project is crucial for the matter. Or, request additional assistance to complete the project with less stress. Be sure to separate work from personal phone numbers and e-mail addresses and communicate to your team your desire to keep them distinct.

Request an accommodation if you are experiencing mental health issues. Review your employee handbook or company policies to request an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If there is no policy, reach out to the HR department or your supervisor. Rather than relying on the firm to offer a solution, make a request for a specific accommodation.

Consider therapy. Seeking therapy carries a negative stigma in this profession and is often perceived as a sign of weakness. However, therapy can provide clarity, authenticity, and self-awareness. Finding the right therapist for you might take some trial and error, and you should feel free to shop around for the right one.

Utilize a Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP): Your state may have an LAP that offers free assistance services for law students, lawyers, and judges. These confidential services may include mental health therapy, group therapy, substance use treatment, and referral resources for family members. Additionally, check if an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is available at your firm or consider seeking a career coach.

What Can Law Firms Do to Help?

The onus of preventing burnout should not rest solely upon individual attorneys. Law firms can form healthier workplaces by taking simple steps, including the following:

Allow flexible work schedules. Some attorneys thrive early in the morning; others do not. Consider permitting your employees to determine if their 10-hour workday begins at 5 or 9 a.m. Establish health leaves and encourage attorneys to use their sick days and time off. Refreshed attorneys are better attorneys, after all.

Promote positive mental health in the workplace. Group activities and quality time with co-workers provide an opportunity to pull back from the regularly stressful work situations. It can also help reduce animosity among colleagues created by stress. Consider creating a wellness budget to covers events such as meditation sessions, yoga classes, nutrition training, and team communication courses.

Ensure adequate healthcare resources. Ensure mental health resources and a broad network of providers are included in your firm’s group health insurance plan. Reach out to your insurance broker to obtain more information regarding your options. Also, invest in an EAP and encourage your attorneys to utilize these free services.

Celebrate even the small victories. It is easy for law firms to only recognize the big wins. Incorporate ways to provide recognition for other victories, such as winning a difficult motion or earning praise from a client. A simple email acknowledging your team has worked long hours can be motivating and encouraging.

If attorneys and their firms practice these simple steps, they can effectively respond to burnout—or even ward it off altogether.

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