For years, lawyer burnout has been growing and becoming a long-standing issue in the legal industry. Between heavy caseloads, demanding clients, and meeting tight deadlines, a lawyer’s work-life balance quickly gets put on the back burner. In a recent study conducted by ABA Journal, lawyer burnout has led to 26% of lawyers feeling anxious, 21% experiencing depression, and 7% having suicidal ideation. With a growing number of legal professionals now working remotely, establishing clear boundaries has become increasingly challenging, contributing to a surge in burnout rates.
Why Are Lawyers Burned Out?
Burnout is a form of exhaustion that is experienced emotionally, mentally, and physically. It can be caused by multiple stressors including work, family, finances, world events, and more. For an attorney, this could look like heavy caseloads, increased client demands, criticism over work quality, and spending time away from family. When all of these factors add up, you have a formula for burnout.
The year of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond have only exacerbated the stress landscape for many, further amplifying the likelihood of burnout. This, coupled with the relentless ambition and dedication commonly found among lawyers, has formed a ground for burnout to take root. Understanding the concept of burnout is one thing, but it is crucial for lawyers to actively recognize the signs and proactively take steps to combat it.
Identifying Lawyer Burnout
It is important to note that identifying burnout is not an instant process; rather, it unfolds gradually, making it challenging to recognize. This is why it’s critical to figure out what stressors trigger your burnout. Burnout is not a one-size-fits-all condition; it happens differently to lawyers at different levels or intensities. To pinpoint when burnout is building, lawyers should routinely do a pulse check on themselves and how they’re feeling.
Though everyone’s triggers are different, there are two early warning signs that everyone can use as a guide to identifying burnout.
This isn’t just your everyday exhaustion from work or lack of sleep. When you find yourself waking up feeling persistently fatigued, even after having had an adequate amount of rest, it might be an indicator that you’re burnt out. Having an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion can decrease your quality of work, and how you interact with others and can even impact your reaction time or response to danger.
Loss of interest
Another signal of burnout to be conscious of is the feeling of detachment or becoming disengaged. This manifests in various ways such as procrastination, pessimistic thoughts, canceling plans, missing important deadlines, and more. Typically, loss of interest piggybacks off of exhaustion and ultimately leads to burnout.
How to Combat Lawyer Burnout
Taking Time For Yourself
Finding time for yourself can be challenging for busy lawyers, especially those driven by a deep commitment to helping others and upholding the law. However, it’s essential for lawyers to recognize that they cannot effectively assist others if they neglect their own well-being. Being healthy and mentally alert is not just beneficial for personal reasons but also instrumental in serving clients, collaborating with colleagues, and nurturing family relationships. Allocating time for yourself and taking periodic breaks can prove immensely beneficial for mental health.
Get some sleep
The best place to start is with your sleep schedule. Sleep is essential and it allows you to “recharge your batteries” each day. Prioritizing a full night’s sleep significantly contributes to preventing burnout.
This principle also extends to managing emails before bedtime. For optimal sleep quality, close the email app and put your phone away at least an hour before bedtime. Additionally, it is crucial to disable blue light, which can disrupt your circadian rhythm. Answering emails during late hours not only adds to your stress but also establishes unhealthy boundaries.
Take a break
Taking breaks and creating clear separation from your legal responsibilities is important. Beyond your professional role, you have a unique personality and a world of interests and hobbies that deserve attention. This can be as simple as taking a walk, watching a movie, exercising between client meetings, golfing, or taking a long lunch — anything! The key is to prioritize these moments of enjoyment, as they serve as a vital counterbalance to the demands of your legal career, ensuring a well-rounded and fulfilling life.
Know your limitations
Just because clients think of you as a superhero, doesn’t mean you’re superhuman. As we mentioned before it’s essential that you set clear boundaries with your clients. This practice not only reduces stress for you but also ensures that your clients maximize the efficiency of their interactions with you. Creating boundaries can start with specific work start and end times. Every day for a lawyer is different, but you should aim to stick to these work hours the majority of the time to limit burnout.
Body and mind
Physical fitness plays a major role in mental wellness. It not only helps with lawyer burnout, but it can also help enhance your mental sharpness, concentration, mood, and more. Additionally, exercise actively combats the hormones produced by stress.
The good news is that finding time for exercise is achievable, and it doesn’t necessitate strenuous workouts. Taking just 30 minutes for a short walk before work, yoga, pilates, or fitness class can greatly reduce your stress levels.
How to Avoid Lawyer Burnout
Lawyers have long been known for their tendencies to overwork and grapple with stress. Nevertheless, there’s a positive shift in the legal industry towards recognizing and prioritizing lawyers’ mental health. As the industry continues to evolve, there’s hope for meaningful change. Although there’s still much progress to be made, one undeniable fact remains: burnout can be prevented when lawyers proactively undertake measures to identify and prevent it.
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