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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Howlett

The Legal Burnout Solution: A Guide to Self-Compassion for Lawyers

By Becky Howlett and Cynthia Sharp


The relationship with yourself sets the tone for every other relationship you have. 

—Jane Travis, counselor and psychotherapist


Most attorneys get into the profession because they want to help people. Indeed, an intrinsic part of legal work is service to others. While our client duties necessitate that a competent lawyer approach the practice of law with care and empathy for those we serve, many of us find it difficult to extend this same level of compassion to ourselves.


Brianna V., a 28-year-old family law attorney in California, shared with us her story of how a lack of self-compassion ultimately contributed to burnout and depression early in her legal career. A dedicated advocate for children and families, Brianna shared that as a fledgling attorney, she was so committed to her work that she quickly found herself neglecting her own daily self-care needs.


As her hobbies and self-care regimen gradually dwindled, Brianna soon found herself feeling depressed and burned out. Ironically, the seemingly endless capacity for empathy that Brianna had for her clients didn’t extend to herself. Working frequently with clients who had experienced intergenerational trauma, Brianna would compare their circumstances with her own and feel she had no right to complain or take a break. “Even though I was mentally and physically exhausted, I didn’t cut myself any slack. My internal monologue was always, ‘Stop being a baby and suck it up.’”


When we lack self-compassion in such a high-stakes environment, we easily slip into negative self-talk, which can further exacerbate burnout and mental health concerns. Given the inherent risk factors of practicing law, it’s crucial that attorneys develop the necessary tools and skills to protect their overall health and well-being and their ability to practice.

Here, we explore the fundamentals of self-compassion, how it can positively benefit our relationships with others and ourselves, and practical strategies to cultivate self-compassion and positive self-talk.


Understanding Self-Compassion and Benefits for the Legal Profession


According to professor, author, and leading compassion expert Dr. Kristin Neff, practicing self-compassion involves meeting ourselves with kindness, understanding, and support, especially during times of failure or difficulty. Neff identifies three central components of self-compassion:


1.     Self-kindness vs. self-judgment (being gentle with ourselves rather than harshly critical);

2.     Common humanity vs. isolation (recognizing that suffering and temporary feelings of inadequacy are normal parts of the human experience); and

3.     Mindfulness vs. over-identification (being mindful of our negative emotions without over-identifying with them).


A common misconception is that being self-compassionate is a form of self-indulgence that shirks responsibility. Rather, true self-compassion empowers us to acknowledge and accept our negative thoughts and feelings and ultimately learn from our mistakes—all while extending unconditional love and support to ourselves regardless of perceived successes or failures. Self-compassion is also distinct from self-esteem, which depends on evaluations of our worthiness and can incite negative comparisons and competitiveness. (For additional information and further reading, visit self-compassion.org.)


Benefits of Self-Compassion for Lawyers


Practicing self-compassion leads to greater happiness and fulfillment in both our personal and professional lives. Extending gentle comfort and loving support to ourselves can bolster our capacity to meet our professional ethics responsibilities and make sound decisions. For example, self-compassion helps foster emotional resilience, which can translate to reduced mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety, and burnout.


By being kinder to ourselves, we set the conditions for more kindness and empathy in the legal profession as a whole. Self-compassion is also key to cultivating a trauma-informed law practice. Practicing self-care—including being kind to ourselves when we need rest, relaxation, or support—is an essential tool to protect lawyers from compassion fatigue or secondary trauma. Given the positive correlation between self-compassion and empathizing with others, this state of mind also contributes to stronger client relationships and improved civility in our legal work environments.


Practical Steps for Cultivating Self-Compassion


In light of the epidemic rates of burnout, mental health concerns, and incivility in the legal profession, we seek to empower legal professionals with practical tools to enhance our well-being and resilience.


Mindfulness is a simple, evidence-based tool that can help us build a more positive inner dialogue and become more aware of when we are being harsh and self-critical. Practicing mindfulness enables us to be present and acknowledge negative thoughts and feelings without getting “stuck in the muck.”


As there are countless mindfulness methods, we encourage you to experiment and find a practice that works for you. Below, we highlight a few of our favorite mindfulness tools and contemplative practices, which can help you actively integrate more self-compassion into your everyday life and law practice:


●      Mindfulness meditation. Developing awareness of our thoughts and feelings is the first step to developing a deeper, more compassionate relationship with ourselves. During moments of distress (or calm!), take a pause to observe how you’re feeling without judgment. Accept the present for what it is without seeking to change it. Recognize that you are not your thoughts and that these emotions—positive or negative—are temporary; as the infamous saying goes, this, too, shall pass.


●      Positive self-talk. Practice speaking to yourself in a comforting and supportive manner, especially during times of turmoil. As an exercise, imagine you are speaking to your best friend and extend the same kindness and care that you would if your friend were suffering or in emotional distress. This can be particularly beneficial if you notice yourself engaging in negative self-talk. Explore using positive affirmations to reprogram persistent negative thoughts or false beliefs about yourself. Find a mantra that resonates with you personally, such as, “I am enough,” and regularly repeat this mentally or aloud.


●      Gratitude. Focusing on feelings of thankfulness and appreciation is scientifically proven to improve our mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Strive to implement a gratitude practice into your daily routine, such as journaling or meditating on three things you are grateful for to begin or end your day. Find a practice that you look forward to and be consistent. After all, the neuroprotective effects of mindfulness are cumulative, so the more you practice, the more you can maximize the positive benefits.


Brianna’s Self-Compassion Journey Reprised


After struggling for months with depression and burnout, Brianna confided in a legal mentor about her feelings, including her increasingly negative self-talk. Brianna says it all clicked when her mentor asked her how she would approach a friend going through a similar situation. “Suddenly, it was like a light bulb went off. I would never talk to a friend the way I was treating myself.”


After recognizing she needed to make a change, Brianna contacted her state lawyer assistance program and got connected with a mental health counselor. She shared with us that attending therapy has given her greater self-awareness, along with practical tools to support a healthy work-life balance. “Going to therapy has helped me learn to give myself grace. I can still hold myself to the highest standards as an attorney and also acknowledge that I’m a human being with needs.”


At her counselor’s suggestion to incorporate mindfulness into her daily routine, Brianna now does a ten-minute loving-kindness meditation before she starts her workday. “When I practice compassion for myself and set healthy boundaries, my clients ultimately benefit as I’m able to show up as the best version of myself. It’s a win-win.” We thank Brianna for sharing her story and these pearls of wisdom.


Moving Forward


Self-compassion is an essential ingredient that supports not only our personal success and satisfaction but also positively benefits the legal profession as a whole. By actively cultivating a healthy and positive inner landscape, we can simultaneously support our internal health and well-being, as well as strengthen our external relationships, both personally and professionally.


Visit legalburnout.com for more practical ways to incorporate mindfulness into your everyday life and law practice, including breathwork, gratitude, and more. If you would like further practical mindfulness tips, contact us today for a copy of our free Mindfulness Resources Guide for Attorneys.


Join us in our next column, where we will discuss the latest ethical developments surrounding lawyers’ use of ChatGPT.


Rebecca Howlett, Esq., and Cynthia Sharp, Esq., are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution (legalburnout.com), a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers. Check out The Legal Mindset Corner, a podcast dedicated to tackling the unique challenges of the legal profession.


Originally published in ABA GPSolo eReport, Feb. 2024 Issue (Vol. 13, No. 7) 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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