One of the hardest things for a legal professional can be losing motivation. Many in the legal field hit the point where the cumulative stress and pressure lead to exhaustion and burnout.
The good news is there are ways for legal professionals to find that spark again.
It starts with understanding the basis for motivation and how it can change to burnout. Then, you need to take some basic corrective action through self-care and examining your attitudes. Finally, look for ways to motivate yourself by increasing your productivity.
Let’s get started.
Reasons legal professionals lose motivation
Legal professionals like you need to first understand where your drive came from in the first place. Then you can spot the reasons your motivation is depleted.
What motivates legal professionals?
Legal professionals experience the same basic types of motivation as the population in general, specifically extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation is based on external rewards such as money, possessions, and reputation. Wanting to succeed in your career so that you can give your family a comfortable lifestyle is an example of this.
Intrinsic motivation is based on internal rewards such as a sense of engagement or satisfaction when engaging in an activity or seeking a result. For example, if you love feeling like you’re making a positive impact in the legal industry, this is intrinsic or internal motivation.
A study found that three basic elements were necessary for lawyer motivation and well-being: autonomy, belonging, and competence.
Autonomy means that you have the opportunity to take initiative, make decisions, and exercise discretion in how and when you perform your work tasks.
Belonging refers to a sense of connection with others and building meaningful relationships.
Competence refers to your sense of being effective at work and moving closer to goals that matter to you.
Each of these things may look different for you. Maybe you identify strongly with your career, or maybe your job is just a means to an end. Take some time to reflect on the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators that have pushed you to do more.
Motivating factors can change over time
Both external and internal motivators can evolve and change.
If you are strongly motivated to make enough money to afford living in a certain neighborhood, but the prices go up so much that it doesn’t seem practical anymore, you will lose motivation.
Working towards the betterment of the legal industry might have been a driving factor when you first started. However, maybe you’ve become more passionate about community outreach and impacting the legal system doesn’t feel as important.
Life changes. Your job and your priorities evolve.
Over time, you might lose your connection with the things that used to be important to you. Maybe you can reconnect, or maybe it’s better to find new, relevant intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.
How does motivation change to burnout?
To see why legal professionals are so susceptible to burnout, we can examine the common stages of the burnout process.
Burnout often starts with excessive drive leading to an internal push to work harder — a common phenomenon in the practice of law. This can lead to neglecting vital self-care practices such as sleep, exercise, and diet, and not allowing time for non-work needs such as friends, family, and hobbies.
Eventually this road can lead to withdrawal, even greater anxiety, and potentially even depression.
Burnout is classified as an occupational disease; it is both a mental and a physical illness. If you are experiencing symptoms of burnout, take them seriously. It can have long-term impacts on your health and wellness.
Those in the legal industry are even more prone to burnout because of the basic nature of the profession. You probably work long hours, have a high degree of responsibility, and deal with constant looming deadlines.
On top of that, many areas of law are adversarial by nature such as litigation.
Legal professionals are constantly subject to judgment by others, whether those others are superiors, colleagues, clients, judges, or juries. And legal clients often take out their stress and anger on their attorneys or other legal staff.
All of this stress adds up.
How to get your groove back
Fortunately, there are ways legal professionals can regain their motivation without retiring or leaving the profession.
Physical and mental self-care
One of the most basic elements of preventing burnout and regaining motivation is to focus on self-care. The better your overall health, the more easily your body and mind can respond to stress.
In terms of physical self-care, focus on optimizing your exercise, diet, and sleep. Even light exercise can be beneficial, and sleep routines are also helpful.
Practice mental self-care by not being afraid to ask for help during stressful times, whether from family, friends, or even mental health professionals.
Keep in mind that self care isn’t all bubble baths and pedicures. Sometimes, self care means having difficult conversations that you’ve been avoiding, putting in the work in your personal relationships, or tackling a task you’ve been dreading.
Examine your values and goals
It is important to clarify your values so that you can avoid a sense of overwhelm by focusing on what is most important to you in life.
This will also allow you to adjust your goals based on your core values.
You should cultivate the joy of small wins and incremental progress. Don’t underestimate the value of acknowledging your wins, especially if you have big goals.
Large goals can be intimidating and lead to a sense of overload. Combat this tendency by setting intermediate goals that will lead to your large-scale goals.
For example, instead of stressing about that lengthy summary judgment motion, set a mini-goal instead such as drafting a certain number of pages by Friday. When you meet that goal, dwell on the victory for a few moments before moving on to the next thing.
Meanwhile, take inventory of your current goals. Are you aiming for a partnership? Do you want to open your own firm? Is there a particular client you want to represent?
Most importantly, make sure that those goals align with your values. Decide whether those things honestly matter to you and adjust as needed.
Find the right work environment
Beyond focusing on yourself, you can also take steps to ensure your work environment sustains your motivation.
Ideally, your law firm should provide you with autonomy and recognition for a job well done. It should also provide opportunities for personal and professional growth and be generally supportive of attorneys and staff.
For solo attorneys, those things still matter. You can celebrate your own good work and prioritize growth both personally and professionally.
Perks such as catered lunches or fee gym memberships can also be motivating factors. Anything that creates a better work environment and makes you feel appreciated and rewarded can contribute to better motivation.
You may be able to influence your current firm to make these changes, or you may be able to move toward an employer who already practices these principles.
Tackling those to-dos
Increasing your productivity is one of the best methods for creating and maintaining motivation. Don’t you feel accomplished when you cross items off of your to-do list?
Sometimes, powering through your backlog is necessary. Here are a few productivity tips for legal professionals.
Planning and making lists
Legal professionals have many tasks and deadlines to keep track of, so proper planning is crucial.
Map out your entire week with time blocked out for appointments, meetings, and any other time-bound tasks. This is a technique called time blocking. It’s a great tool if you struggle to manage the volume of tasks that need your attention in a day.
Simple to-do lists work, too. Keep lists of all your matters, projects, and tasks so you are not trying to juggle everything in your head.
Managing priorities is often easier said than done. When everything is important, how do you decide what gets your attention and what doesn’t?
Try the Eisenhower Matrix to help you sort out all the items on your task list. Basically, this system classifies tasks by urgency and importance so you can decide what to do now, what to do later, what to do never, and what to delegate to someone else.
Minimize distractions to avoid interrupting your workflow.
Turn off or ignore email and phones for set blocks of time.
Keep your work area organized to avoid visual distractions.
Every time you are distracted while working on a task, it takes 23 minutes to regain your focus. That means that if you are distracted just 5 times during your workday, you will lose almost 2 hours of productive time. That’s a quarter of a typical working day wasted with just five interruptions.
Take breaks when you need them so fatigue does not lead you to distractibility. Try the Pomodoro technique to train yourself to manage your energy well and take effective breaks.
Avoid multitasking by focusing on one thing at a time, even if you move quickly from task to task.
Studies show that the vast majority of people cannot juggle two demanding tasks without pauses or errors. It’s far better to focus and accomplish one thing well instead of task switching and struggling through two things poorly.
The temptation to multitask is often a symptom that you haven’t clearly defined your priorities. Start there, then work from your highest priority down.
Legal professionals can also use modern legal technology to ease their load.
Digital tools and platforms can automate administrative tasks, help manage legal matters, and maximize your speed and efficiency.
Project management tools like Trello, Asana, and Monday are becoming more popular with legal professionals. These systems help you manage tasks and visualize your workflow so that you can easily see what’s most pressing.
Save time with specific legal technologies like case management systems.
InfoTrack will integrate directly with your case management system or document management system to help you finish common legal tasks faster.
The big picture
Although a loss of motivation may seem insurmountable, it can actually serve as an opportunity for a legal professional. By examining your values and developing tools to get back on track, you could potentially set yourself up for even more long-term success.
Remember that there are times in every career when it takes a little extra willpower to get things done.
If you’d rather be enjoying the nice weather or sleeping in today, that’s a normal part of being human. Be kind to yourself. Decide what really must get done today and let the lower priorities wait until tomorrow.
There will be days when you need to flex your will to get through work, but at the same time, please take burnout seriously.