Let’s take a close look at legal burnout.
If you’ve ever worked in the legal profession, then you are at least tangentially familiar with the concept of burnout. We’ve all witnessed (or experienced) paralegal burnout, legal assistant burnout, and even law clerk burnout.
Some people think that this condition is just the nature of the legal business.
After all, law is a profession driven by deadlines. The more clients you have, the more deadlines you have. And the folks who set most of those deadlines — judges, opposing counsel, and government agencies — don’t tend to take them lightly or forgive late filings.
As a result, we’re all forced to work too hard for too many hours sometimes. This is a perfect recipe for burnout.
In this article, we’ll take a look at what burnout is, share some stories of burnout, and, perhaps most importantly, we’ll talk about how to bounce back from this nearly-inevitable condition.
What is burnout and who does it hit?
According to one former attorney who has studied burnout for over 10 years, “[b]urnout is the experience of chronic exhaustion, chronic cynicism, and inefficacy, which is a sense of lost impact.”
It’s something more than stress, though stress is certainly a cause and a symptom of burnout.
Burnout can also cause physical symptoms. Things like increased blood pressure, unexplained headaches or stomach troubles, and lack of sleep are all part and parcel with classic burnout.
This common condition tends to be uniquely related to occupational stress. Nonetheless, the impacts of burnout can harm relationships and personal issues as well as one’s work life.
This is no small problem within the legal profession. A recent study revealed that the lawyer burnout rate in 2022 is hovering around 50% — a number higher than any prior examination of the topic has shown.
And, as noted, paralegals and other legal professionals are not immune from burnout’s reach.
The studies certainly are interesting, but they’re probably not much use to a legal professional who’s struggling with burnout right now. What does it look like in the real world?
Burnout war stories
Note: the burnout stories in this article are all based on real events that I witnessed during my 17 years of practicing law. Names and places have been changed to protect the innocent.
Story #1 – Lawyer burnout.
Our first legal burnout story involves a woman named Margaret. Margaret was a senior associate at our firm and, in fact, was being considered for partner.
The problem was, although Margaret was a brilliant practitioner, she was terrible at business development. As a painfully shy individual, she simply didn’t have the skills to bring new clients through the door.
Thus, she believed her only chance for making partner was to take on as much work as she could.
The partners in the firm knew this and, some would say, took advantage of her position. Because she could be trusted with just about every complex legal issue the firm faced, most new matters landed on her desk.
Since she thought her chances at making partner dwindled with every “no, I can’t; I’m too busy,” she never turned down a new case.
One year, Margaret billed 2,300 hours. She worked every weekend, never took a vacation, and spent between 10 to 14 hours per day at her desk. Then one day, toward the end of the year, she was informed that she did not make partner…and that the managing partner needed her to write a summary judgment opposition brief over the weekend.
Outwardly, no one knew it. Upon closer examination, however, it became clear she was burned out. Her work product quality declined rapidly. She was spending long days at the firm but only managing to bill two or three hours a day. Her once-friendly disposition was replaced with snarky cynicism and a heavy dose of negativity.
She was, quite understandably, burned out.
Story #2: Paralegal burnout.
Our next story involves a paralegal named Steve. Much like many paralegals, Steve worked at a firm during the day and was taking law school classes at night.
Like Margaret, Steve was known within the firm to be “the best of the best.” In fact, the attorneys quickly realized he could handle attorney-level work that could then be billed to their clients at paralegal rates.
Consequently, Steve’s workload was massive and unending. Although he managed to keep fairly normal business hours, he left work each night and headed straight to his law school. His studies often kept him busy until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.
Like many paralegals, Steve’s burnout was also compounded by the lack of control he felt with respect to setting boundaries around work and by the “office politics” involved in him being the “go-to” paralegal for the most successful attorneys.
Over time, Steve’s burnout began to take a toll on everything in his life.
His partner, who was tired of being last on his list of priorities, left him. His law school grades slipped and his work at the firm suffered. He was always angry and frequently had outbursts aimed at his colleagues. He was reprimanded for that several times before the firm decided to let him go.
Burnout got the best of the poor guy.
Spotting the signs of burnout
The symptoms and impacts of severe burnout occur gradually, so it’s easy to dismiss your irritability and performance issues as simple stress. Remember, though, that burnout is a much bigger problem than standard stress.
Are you feeling stressed out? Take a minute to answer these questions:
- Do you dread going to work each day?
- Are your energy levels consistently low?
- Do you feel cynical or critical about your work?
- Have you felt impatient with coworkers or clients lately?
- When you finish assignments or hit milestones, is it hard to feel accomplished and celebrate that win?
- Is it difficult to concentrate?
- Do you often find yourself working longer hours and getting less done?
- Have you been having trouble sleeping?
- Are you experiencing physical symptoms of extreme stress such as stomach pain, severe headaches, muscle aches, and digestive issues?
- Is it difficult to control your temper?
These are all symptoms of burnout that shouldn’t be ignored.
You don’t need to check off all the items on this list to take action. In fact, just two or three of these symptoms are enough to signal that you might be suffering from burnout.
How to bounce back from burnout
Fortunately, there are a lot of good ways to recover from burnout.
First of all, communicating about your burnout (or the burnout you see happening in your team) is a great way to make sure the issue is addressed within your firm. If you’re feeling burnt out, odds are good that other people at your firm feel the same way.
If possible, look for ways to delegate work and take some of your to-do list off of your plate. Don’t try to maintain an unrealistic workload.
In the meantime, take personal steps to improve your physical and mental health.
Starting an exercise routine can feel like one more commitment you don’t need, but recent studies show that aerobic exercise is actually a really great way to beat burnout.
Remember, exercise doesn’t have to be tedious. In fact, many different kinds of dancing are as effective as jogging for a whole-body workout.
Relaxation techniques like practicing mindfulness can also help overcome burnout.
It makes perfect sense if you think about it. Mindfulness helps you let go of your regrets about what didn’t get done today as well as your anxiety about what needs to get done tomorrow so you can simply live in the present. That has to be good for burnout.
If you suspect that too much exposure to screens is causing tech fatigue and contributing to your burnout symptoms, you’re a prime candidate for a tech detox.
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Ultimately, avoiding or bouncing back from burnout is about protecting yourself so you can continue to be effective in your work life, home life, and social life. We all deserve that level of care, don’t we?
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