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  • Writer's pictureCynthia Sharp

I’m So Tired...But Not of the Law: Innovative Strategies to Address Attorney Burnout

By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp


I'm so tired

I haven't slept a wink

I'm so tired

My mind is on the blink

I wonder, should I get up and fix myself a drink?

No, no, no


The Beatles, “I’m So Tired,” 1968

 

If those lyrics resonate with you, you’re not alone. This scenario was all too familiar to Jonathan P., a seasoned trial lawyer, who found himself perched precariously on the precipice of burnout after 17 years in practice. Jonathan had initially been drawn to the unique intensity of taking a case to trial. As a young associate, he thrived in the “war room” amidst his team forging long days and nights with little sleep. His colleagues became like family. Early on, he knew he had found his calling.


But the exhilaration he once felt in the courtroom had begun to wane in recent years. His once razor-sharp focus had grown dull, scattered among a seemingly endless stream of cases and unrelenting trial deadlines. Jonathan felt overwhelmed not only by the demands of serving his individual clients, but also the pressures of leading his practice group and running a law firm. As a leader, he felt he had to “keep a stiff upper lip” and couldn’t acknowledge his feelings.


Over time, Jonathan found himself lashing out at his colleagues and staff over the most minor things. Despite how generally exhausted he felt, Jonathan found himself barely able to sleep. He daily questioned why he even became a trial lawyer and developed feelings of cynicism toward his clients–whom he had fondly and faithfully represented for many years. 

The added uncertainty of the pandemic seemed to push his stress levels over the edge. And Jonathan started regularly relying on wine and beer to numb his feelings. Even though the pandemic was finally declared over and things eventually returned to “normal,” Jonathan did not return to his old self. Instead, his ill will toward his colleagues and clients, unhealthy reliance on alcohol, and feelings of low self-worth were worse than ever.


After hearing about the suicide of a prominent trial attorney that he knew and respected, Jonathan realized he faced a crucial choice. Would he ignore these glaring warning signs or confront them and seek help and support before it was too late?


Understanding and Recognizing Burnout in the Legal Profession  


Unfortunately, Jonathan’s story is not unique. Data confirms what lawyers know deep in their bones—burnout and mental health concerns are widespread in our profession. According to a 2021 Bloomberg Law study, more than half of attorneys reported burnout—nearly double the burnout rates for U.S. workers in general.


A 2023 Mental Health Survey of the Legal Profession found that the majority of the surveyed lawyers are currently struggling with the following burnout symptoms: Increasingly cynical or negative outlook (52%); Lost motivation (54%); Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment (57%); Moody or irritable (60%); Physical or mental overwhelm or fatigue (66%); Trouble concentrating (62%); Exhausted (70%).


Another 2021 study found that, on average, 20 percent of attorneys considered leaving the law because of burnout, stress, or mental health concerns. Commonly cited factors that contribute to burnout include being younger than 34, having few years in practice, lack of boundaries for down time, as well as not feeling comfortable taking time off to address well-being concerns.


Signs and Symptoms of Burnout


Although its effects have long been felt by legal practitioners, it is only within the last several years that burnout has been formally recognized. In May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” Burnout is now treated as a medical condition and is said to “result from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 


Each case of burnout is unique and may develop gradually over time. Some classic signs of job burnout include:


  • Feelings of chronic fatigue or exhaustion;

  • Difficulty focusing and staying motivated;

  • and becoming highly cynical or critical toward one’s job.


Sufferers also experience professional inefficiency and inefficacy—tasks take longer and seem to require more effort than before; there is a sense of always working hard, yet making little to no progress. One may feel disillusioned or dissatisfied toward work—even if it was once your “dream job!” For lawyers, one might feel disconnected from or even negative about cases, colleagues, or clients. An attorney who once felt energized to take a case to trial may now dread it and feel anxious, avoidant or detached from their work. 


Although burnout begins in the workplace, the negative effects are likely to be felt far beyond our work environment. Those suffering from or at risk of burnout may notice they have lost enthusiasm for the hobbies and activities that once brought them joy. Relationships with family members, including our spouses and children may also be negatively affected.


Burnout can manifest in a variety of physical symptoms, including insomnia or difficulty getting or staying asleep, gaining or losing weight, and frequent headaches or bowel issues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those suffering from burnout are also at a higher risk of developing other stress-related medical conditions, such as obesity, heart disease, and substance use disorders. 


Burnout in the Legal Profession


For a variety of reasons, attorneys are uniquely susceptible to developing burnout and related mental health concerns. Here we highlight a few of the unique factors as to why lawyers are at heightened risk of burnout.


High-Achieving Nature of the Legal Profession. Ironically, the very characteristics that may draw us to become lawyers—high-achieving nature, ambition, and perfectionist tendencies—may be the very traits that elevate our risk of burnout. Many lawyers—driven both internally and externally to consistently perform at a high-level—are likely to find that this way of being contributes not only to their overall professional success, but also their eventual downfall to burnout. 


Because burnout is something that develops slowly, our constant dedication to our jobs can leave us worn down and susceptible to burnout over time. On the whole, the legal profession has long held overworking and “toughing it out” as badges of honor. Couple this with an ambitious trial attorney with a penchant for perfectionism and you’ve got a recipe for burnout in the long run. 


The Slippery Slope of Work, Work, Work. Lawyers can easily get caught in a cycle of not taking adequate time to rest and recharge, leaving us chronically exhausted and sitting ducks for developing burnout down the line. Especially given our constant connectivity and the rise of remote work, it can be particularly challenging to draw a distinction between our work and home life. According to a 2022 Legal Trends Report, 86 percent of lawyers work outside normal business hours (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and 73 percent work on weekends. Notably, this trend holds for attorneys of all ages.


Indeed, the correlation between working outside of normal business hours and reported lawyer burnout is extremely high. According to November 2022 survey of New Jersey attorneys, those who worked seven or more weekend days a month were six times more likely to report burnout compared to those who worked less than one weekend day per month. Lawyers who worked 15-20 hours a week outside normal business hours were eight times more likely to be burned out than those who rarely or never do. 


Once the long hours kick in, it’s easy to observe the slippery slope that can quickly erode our overall health and well-being. Working on evenings and weekends means less time for basic self care, less quality time with family and friends, as well as less time for non-work related pastimes and hobbies. Critically, long, irregular work hours can wreak havoc on a healthy sleep schedule, meaning many lawyers are chronically sleep deprived.


Substance Use Disorder and Stigma. Given the high-stress nature of legal work, it is unsurprising that many legal professionals turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with stress. Compared to the general population, attorneys are three to five times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. Unfortunately, pandemic times have only worsened rates of substance use disorder in the profession, especially among female attorneys. According to a 2021 study, male lawyers reported a fourfold increase in risky or hazardous drinking, compared with a sevenfold increase among women lawyers. 


Despite these epidemic rates of substance abuse within our profession, lawyers are not getting help. According to the 2016 ABA lawyer impairment study, 93 percent of attorneys did not receive any services or drug or alcohol addiction. Unfortunately, the same trend holds for mental health concerns as 63 percent of surveyed attorneys did not seek professional support for reported mental health concerns.


Lawyers hesitate to seek support in large part because of the perceived stigma, which is reinforced early on in legal education. CNN Health reports that 45 percent of law students were discouraged from seeking mental health treatment for fear it could negatively impact their admission to the bar. 


Managing and Preventing Lawyer Burnout  


A self-assessment is an easy way to gauge whether you are suffering from or at risk of burnout. No matter how you are feeling in this moment, meet yourself with radical compassion. From a place of acceptance and non-judgment, examine whether you are exhibiting any of the signs and symptoms of occupational burnout discussed here.


As a starting point, take this burnout questionnaire from the Mayo Clinic. Ask yourself:


  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?;

  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?;

  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers or clients?;

  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?;

  • Do you find it hard to concentrate?;

  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?;

  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?;

  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?;

  • Have your sleep habits changed?; and

  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?


If you answered yes to any of these, you may be experiencing job burnout. Please seek professional help and support, such as talking to a doctor or mental health practitioner, as these symptoms may be related to other stress-related health conditions.


If you are struggling to answer these questions objectively, you may want to ask for a third-party opinion from a trusted friend or mentor. It can be all too easy to stay in denial—even with outside input. Above all, meet yourself with compassion wherever you are. You didn’t get here overnight and your journey toward wellness won’t be overnight either. Be gentle with yourself.  


Prioritize Your Health. Repeat after me: self care is not selfish. Rest, relaxation, and play do not have to be earned. These are basic human needs essential to our health and happiness. There will always be another “fire drill” that requires your attention—another court deadline, another brief or motion to draft, another client call to field. But you can’t pour from an empty cup. Schedule in time for yourself no matter how brief (pun intended) and honor that commitment to yourself.


Would you postpone a meeting with your most significant client? Of course not! You would do everything in your power to show up on time, fully prepared, ready to rock. Reframe time for self care as an appointment with your most important client—YOU! So set aside the excuses, set aside the guilt, and put your oxygen mask on first. 


Make a Plan and Take Action. Make a decision to take charge of all aspects of your life today. We recommend drafting written action steps to form more productive lifestyle habits. Consider small steps you can take to support the essential aspects of your health and well-being, such as clean eating, exercise, and good sleep hygiene. 


For example, if you are struggling to eat nutritiously on a regular basis, perhaps start by keeping a cache of healthy snacks at your office or workspace. If you are struggling to make time to exercise outside of work hours, “feed two birds with one scone” and schedule a walking meeting or do some stretches while you’re on a conference call. There are many ways to climb a tree. Implement a sustainable path forward that works for you. 


To manage stress and protect ourselves from burnout, it is essential to prioritize our daily self care needs—no matter what our schedules look like. As we like to say, there is no such thing as “time management,” only activity management. We can’t control how many hours there are in a day, but we can dictate how we choose to spend our time. 


Take a serious look at your work habits. Do you rest and take restorative breaks during the day, after a trial concludes, or when you’re feeling particularly stressed or rundown? Do you spend quality time with friends and family without being tethered to your cellphone or laptop? Consciously examine whether you are setting yourself up for success or burnout over time and where you can make small, yet significant adjustments to protect your health and well-being. 


For a deep dive on further practical ways to promote your health and well-being, including taking time off, setting digital boundaries, and the importance of physical movement, see our GPSolo article on Healthy Lifestyle Tips for Lawyers.


Seek Professional Help and Support


Whether you are profoundly struggling or feel you could use some extra support, know that you are never alone. Admitting that you need help is a sign of strength, not weakness. A good starting point is to contact the lawyers assistance program (LAP) in your state, which offers confidential services and support to members of the legal profession. Your firm may also have an employee assistance program that provides mental health counseling and other free resources. 


Remember that moments of intense stress at our jobs and in our personal lives are inevitable. By taking a proactive approach and implementing a strong support system in advance of challenging circumstances, we can help prepare ourselves to successfully weather hard times. 


Practice Mindfulness Meditation


Mindfulness meditation is a science-based tool lawyers can use to help us effectively cope with stress, as well as prevent the mental and physical dysfunction associated with burnout. Indeed, the neuroprotective effects of mindfulness are cumulative, so the more we practice, the easier it becomes to train our minds and bodies to be relaxed, calm and focused. Among its many positive benefits, regularly practicing meditation can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, strengthen our immune function, improve sleep quality and reduce chronic pain. 


While there are countless ways to cultivate mindfulness, the most effective means is by regularly and consistently practicing mindfulness meditation. Keep an open mind and try various forms and styles of meditation to find a method that resonates with you personally.  Indeed, the “best” meditation is the one that you’ll do! Once you find a meditation practice that you enjoy and look forward to, set aside time in your schedule every week and honor this commitment. 


Remember that successfully developing mindful awareness is a skill set that takes time, dedication, and consistency. Especially as a novice meditator, sitting with our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations may be challenging, uncomfortable, or even overwhelming. Be gentle with yourself, take it slow, and always listen to your body. 


If you are interested in further strategies to incorporate mindfulness into your everyday life and law practice, please email us at cindy@legalburnout.com, and we will forward you a copy of our Mindfulness Resources Guide for Attorneys.


Jonathan’s Recovery from Burnout


After learning of the death of his friend and colleague, Jonathan said he had a moment of realization that that could be him. It was such a wake-up call that he could no longer ignore his own burnout and substance misuse. “I knew I had to take bold action. My life literally depended on it.”


Jonathan confided in a close colleague at the firm about feeling overwhelmed and using alcohol to cope. This friend had also struggled with substance abuse in the past and together they talked through some initial action steps. Ultimately, Jonathan took a formal leave of absence from work and checked into a 31-day rehabilitation program.


Throughout his recovery process, his colleagues rallied around him. While he was at rehab, they sent letters of encouragement and support. When he returned to the office, colleagues regularly checked in and asked how they could continue to support his recovery.


In rehab, Jonathan learned and practiced many tools to cope with stress in healthy ways, including interacting with animals, art therapy, and journaling. A consummate skeptic, Jonathan even tried some mindful breathing exercises, but he found they made him feel anxious.


Instead, he found he was most drawn to movement and the outdoors, activities he had long abandoned when he entered law school. Jonathan dug out his old golf clubs and resolved to hit the driving range at least once a week. He found that hitting balls was a meditation in and of itself! He has happily kept up this hobby and even met a few new friends who he golfs with once a month.


Jonathan says that a huge key to his success has been scheduling in time for relaxation and play. Beyond hitting the driving range weekly, he also takes at least a few days off to rest and recharge after trials conclude. Overall, Jonathan reports that his mood and energy levels have improved, his focus and concentration have returned, and he also celebrated one year sober from alcohol. 


Moving Forward  


We believe that each of us is responsible for taking charge of our own mental and physical health, which includes learning to recognize the symptoms of burnout and incorporating self-care strategies into our daily lives. We commend Jonathan not only for the proactive approach he has taken to reclaim his health, but also for sharing his story so that it may inspire others to do the same. 


By laying a strong foundation of healthy habits that promote stress resilience, lawyers can proactively support their recovery from burnout, as well as prevent the ill effects of burnout from taking hold in the first place. Our hope is that conversations about burnout and other mental health issues become normalized and de-stigmatized so that people can feel comfortable seeking the help they need early on. 


As Jonathan’s story illustrates firsthand, our colleagues, workplaces and the profession at-large can play a crucial role in supporting us individually, as well as fostering healthier work environments. By building a culture that values individual and organizational health, workplaces can become healthier, happier and ultimately more productive. 


Indeed, this discussion has inspired us to produce an in-depth article on how legal organizations and law firms can proactively address burnout and promote a sustainable culture of wellness for our colleagues, employees, staff and our clients. So stay tuned!


Ultimately, burnout does not have to be a right of passage for attorneys. Legal burnout is both treatable and preventable. But we must be willing to take action to prioritize our health and well-being. The choice is ours.


Rebecca Howlett, Esq. and Cynthia Sharp, Esq. are co-founders of legalburnout.com, which started with a simple idea: help attorneys manage stress by healthy means. Since launching The Legal Burnout Solution at the height of the pandemic, they have led well-being programs for more than 10,000 attorneys in the United States and Canada. Check out their podcast The Legal Mindset Corner, for interviews with subject matter experts on healthy strategies to address the unique challenges of the legal profession.


Originally published in the ABA Litigation Journal, Winter 2024 Issue (Vol. 50, No. 2) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

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