Gayle has been a business litigator for decades. She recognizes litigation was not the best fit for her personality, but she did it well and was a fine lawyer. It provided a solid income for her family, which she had cherished – even though her work pulled her away and played a role in her divorce.
The conflicting demands of trying to be the best mother and the best litigator took its toll on Gayle. Recently, whenever the phone rang, or an email or text arrived, she started feeling dread: more work to be done or maybe a criticism of her work. She felt less able to keep up, more ineffective, and less productive. She felt more cynical, isolated, forgetful, and less able to concentrate. Every problem – at work or home – felt serious, even if it was not. She felt exhausted constantly and had trouble sleeping. She dreaded going to work, and never felt recovered after a weekend or a rare vacation. While she had always felt like a successful, accomplished person, she had begun to feel she was failing, professionally and personally.
Most frighteningly for her, the anxiety attacks she first experienced in law school had returned with increasing frequency and severity – so terrifying that thoughts of suicide had even crossed her mind.
In addition to Gayle’s symptoms of burnout, other symptoms include: ongoing stress and crises; feelings of isolation and helplessness; irritability; excessive feelings of responsibility, inadequacy, and self-doubt; obsessive thoughts; guilt about missed personal activities; inability to balance heavy work and family responsibilities; reluctance to say no; sweating, heart palpitations, and feelings of panic; and self-medicating with alcohol and other substances.
While Gayle felt alone in her despair, she was not. As in other high stress fields, burnout is a serious problem in the legal profession, not only in terms of individual lawyers’ misery, but in the resulting harm to their firms and, sometimes, clients.
For lawyers, untreated burnout can lead to – or go hand in hand with – physical and emotional problems like depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. Compared to other professions, lawyers suffer very high rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide.
Lawyer burnout also creates real problems for law firms. Lawyers suffering burnout are unhappy, less engaged, less productive, and at greater risk for making errors that could result in malpractice claims or Bar complaints. Firms also risk losing good lawyers too soon, costing substantial amounts to hire, train, and make new lawyers part of the team.
Lawyers’ inherent personality traits, along with the adversarial, high pressure nature of the work, create a perfect incubator for burnout. Lawyers tend to be perfectionists, setting impossible to meet standards for themselves and the sense that nothing is ever good enough. Lawyers are also trained to be on the constant lookout for problems and to be responsible for taking care of clients. This inherent pessimism over what might go wrong creates a sense that problems are everywhere, the true urgency of which becomes exaggerated. Lawyers also often fail to seek out help when needed, not wanting to appear weak. They also face constant deadlines set by the courts, other parties, and clients, over which they have very little control.
Law firms, in turn, rarely foster an atmosphere where a lawyer experiencing burnout would feel comfortable exposing – and getting help for – what could be perceived as weakness. Law firms are competitive places, with increasing demands for greater productivity at lower cost, and with limited, highly competitive opportunities for advancement. New technologies also add pressure on lawyers, who feel constantly tethered to their work and client demands.
PREVENTION AND TREATMENT
Lawyers and their firms can work together to promote a healthier approach for lawyers and, in turn, greater success for firms. Individual lawyers (and firms, through wellness programs and thoughtful institutional changes to discourage a workaholic culture) should strive for: healthy diet; sufficient sleep; meditation; regular exercise, including yoga and walking; learning to say no, to set realistic work boundaries, and to protect time fully away from the demands of work, including regular vacations; dropping difficult clients; learning to express one’s feelings and concerns to someone who listens and cares; pursuing personal interests that bring satisfaction; and better protecting a healthy work/life balance generally. In serious cases, lawyers can ask to take a leave of absence, change jobs, or even change careers.
Arizona lawyers have very helpful resources available through the State Bar’s Member Assistance Program, including its Peer Support Network, Support Groups, and Crisis Hotline.
Burnout is a serious occupational hazard for lawyers. But, with the help of their firms, lawyers can strive to avoid feeling trapped and hopeless by taking the right steps to regain a healthy, balanced life. Daniel Hager