TLBS Debuts Burnout Column in ABA GPSolo eReport
Updated: Mar 29
The Legal Burnout Solution: Getting Serious about Legal Burnout
By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp
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.
We are excited to introduce ourselves to you as contributors to the GPSolo eReport. In our recurring column, “The Legal Burnout Solution,” we intend to open up the conversation about and address solutions for occupational burnout and other mental health concerns faced by our colleagues in the legal profession.
Over the years, both of us struggled with burnout, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Fortunately, we learned effective coping skills and now lead productive and stable lives full of happiness and joy. By sharing our personal stories, as well as the tools that helped us move into “the recovery zone,” we hope to help others with respect to wellness-related struggles.
In our debut article, we will share information on what burnout is, how to recognize it in yourself or others, and what you can do to manage and prevent it.
I was a 26-year-old, newly minted attorney chasing her dreams in Washington, D.C. To the outside observer, I had it all—head-hunted into a morally uplifting Big Law job in my chosen practice area of federal Indian law; a view of the Washington Monument from my top-floor office; and I had a paltry 1,600 billable hours requirement. I had arrived.
Fast forward two years into my “dream job.” Every time I hear the e-mail alert ping on my phone, my stomach painfully contorts. I come home each day and explode in anger when asked about my workday. Formerly bubbly, active, and social, I only have energy to zone out and watch TV until it’s time to pass out and repeat. Just repeat, no rinse—there was not a lot of personal hygiene during this period.
Ultimately, my Big Law career in D.C. came to an untimely and unceremonious end. The unresolved burnout, depression, and anxiety had finally coalesced to derail years of academic achievement, training, and investment in my legal career. It was the first time in my life where I felt like I had failed to achieve what I set out to do.
I entered solo practice, moving to Northern Arizona, where I was able to focus on healing in mind, body, and spirit—prioritizing physical activity, work-life balance, reconnecting with nature, and rest. This is also when I found mindfulness and meditation, practices that have truly transformed my life. This experience also inspired me to become a certified meditation instructor in order to help others cope with stress, burnout, and mental health concerns.
It took prolonged and dedicated effort, but I was finally able to accept and understand that I wasn’t deficient, I wasn’t a failure as an attorney or a person. I was a victim of burnout, an experience so common among attorneys that it has seemingly become part of our professional culture.
We issue a personal challenge to our readers to consciously examine our work environments and the culture we have created in the legal field, and ask ourselves—is this how we want it to be? Because, ultimately, the choice is ours.
How to Identify Burnout
If Becky’s story resonates, perhaps you are curious to learn what burnout is exactly. In May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed burnout in the International Classification of Diseases and recognized it as an “occupational phenomenon.” Long before the WHO’s recognition of occupational burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory had been used (and is still a respected assessment) to measure various aspects of burnout.
According to the Mayo Clinic, some signs of job burnout include becoming highly cynical or critical, difficulty focusing and staying motivated, and feeling disillusioned or dissatisfied at your job. Burnout can also manifest in physical symptoms, including exhaustion, insomnia or difficulty sleeping, stomach and bowel problems, changes in appetite, and frequent headaches. Given the connection between burnout and high stress, those suffering from burnout are also at a higher risk of developing other stress-related medical conditions, including heart disease, obesity, substance use disorders, and liver disease.
Lawyers’ Susceptibility to Burnout and Other Mental Health Concerns
We are absolutely thrilled that the mental health of lawyers has finally captured the spotlight. For too long, the insidious effects of stress and burnout have been all but ignored. In fact, it has traditionally been a badge of honor in our profession to work arduous hours and become a billing machine.
A 2016 study on lawyer impairment conducted by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs in collaboration with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation revealed the extent to which attorneys are disproportionately impacted by mental health concerns and substance abuse. The research showed that approximately 28 percent, 19 percent, and 23 percent of practicing lawyers are struggling with some level of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.
The study further demonstrated that between 21 percent and 36 percent of attorneys qualify as problem drinkers. Although attorneys are three to five times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than the general population, 93 percent did not receive any help or services for alcohol or drug addiction. It would be naive to think that this crisis has not worsened during the heightened stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.
These statistics should come as no surprise in light of the unreasonable demands and pressures placed on members of our profession. Slaves to technology, many lawyers live in a world in which they are expected to be constantly available and responsive. Work product must be perfect and delivered quickly. Work-life balance is a myth for many because of the long hours that must be put in just to keep up.
Furthermore, many attorneys are under severe financial stress, often saddled with back-breaking student loans. Finally, an often-overlooked phenomenon is that, when lawyers deal with clients who have endured their own trauma, legal practitioners may become afflicted with secondary trauma and exhibit symptoms similar to those of post traumatic stress disorder. All of this is in addition to the typical stresses faced by everyone in daily life.
Managing Legal Burnout
If only we could offer a panacea for all ills—a “little pill” (with no side effects) that instantly shifts you to ten on the happiness and success meter. Because such a quick fix is currently unavailable, we are left with practical solutions that may seem simple but are not easy to apply.
1. Set aside time to examine whether you are exhibiting any of the signs of occupational burnout outlined above. Perhaps it would be useful to ask others what they think about your self-assessment. It’s all too easy to stay in denial—even with outside input.
2. Make a decision to take charge of all aspects of your life. We recommend making a written commitment to change or shift problematic situations.
3. Consider where you could adopt more productive lifestyle habits. This includes healthy eating, regular exercise, and a consistent sleep schedule. Take a serious look at your work habits. Do you take frequent breaks throughout the day? Do you spend time with family, loved ones, or even yourself without being tethered to a laptop or other electronic device? Those who work remotely may be especially tempted to “squeeze in” work all day, every day.
4. Investigate and take advantage of available resources. Attorneys hesitate to reach out for help in large part because of the perceived stigma. 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. LAPs provide confidential services and support to members of the legal profession. At the very least, reach out to a friend, family member, or mental health professional.
5. We have embraced mindful lifestyles for many years and firmly believe that any viable remedy must be implemented with a backdrop of mindfulness. In future articles, we will explore how to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life. In the meantime, we have compiled a resource guide to get you started. E-mail us at email@example.com, and we will forward it to you.
Wellness as an Organizational Issue
Burnout is both an individual and an organizational problem, as workplace factors (especially in the legal setting) can make employees more prone to developing it. According to Gallup poll data, the biggest causes of job burnout include unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, and lack of communication and support from supervisors, as well as unreasonable time pressure.
Many lawyers (including these authors) have been victim of the circumstances of these unhealthy environments. Until recently, law firms and other legal entities have not prioritized lawyer wellness. Thankfully, the trend is changing. Since September 2018, the American Bar Association has collected almost 190 signatories to a well-being pledge by legal employers committing to improve lawyer wellness. Indeed, this is a step in the right direction.
By normalizing conversations about and implementing strategies to effectively cope with burnout, mental health issues, and substance abuse within the legal field, we can create purposeful environments that safeguard and support our ability to be happy, healthy, and productive legal advocates and people.
Tune in next month when Cindy will share how she overcame her struggles with alcoholism.
© 2020. Originally published in GP Solo eReport, December 2020 Issue (Vol. 10, No. 5) 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.