What Lawyers Need to Know About Burnout

We hear a lot about burnout in the legal profession. Yet for all the talk it generates, it remains a vague term that can encompass everything from becoming cynical to serious mental health issues such as major depressive disorder. Most lawyers (61%, according to a Hazelden Betty Ford survey) struggle to manage stress, which isn't surprising. Legal professionals deal with high stakes, long hours, and frequent confrontations.

But burnout is more than just experiencing the stress or fatigue that comes with being a lawyer. It is a legitimate problem for many people in the legal industry and deserves to be taken seriously. As just one example, 37% of public defenders met the criteria for burnout in one clinical study. Solo practitioners are also at high risk of burnout.

Below, FindLaw has summarized what burnout is, how to spot it, and steps you can take to avoid it.

Defining Burnout

Burnout is not a recognized medical condition. It must, therefore, be distinguished from mood and anxiety disorders. While research has shown burnout and depression are correlated, as are anxiety and burnout, they mean different things and can be treated or managed separately. Because burnout, anxiety, and depression can share symptoms, it is important to first understand which it is you are experiencing.

In 2019, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as an "occupational phenomenon" in its International Classification of Diseases 11. WHO characterizes burnout as:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one's job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

Burnout, then, can be described as something separate from other mental health issues. Instead, it involves work-related stress (with accompanying psychological and physical effects) and reduced feelings of professional accomplishment. If you have burnout, you may feel like you are working harder than ever but accomplishing nothing, leading to extreme disillusionment and exhaustion. 

Symptoms of Burnout

According to the Mayo Clinic, signs of job burnout include:

  • Being overly cynical or critical of others
  • Having trouble concentrating or staying motivated at work
  • Being disillusioned or unsatisfied with your job

Burnout can also manifest physical symptoms, including:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Stomach and bowel problems
  • Frequent headaches

Since burnout is essentially a condition involving high stress, people suffering from burnout are at higher risk of stress-related medical conditions such as heart disease, obesity, substance use disorders, and liver disease.

If you are unsure of whether you are just going through the normal ups and downs of being a lawyer or suffering from burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory is the most widely used measure of burnout in the field and takes about 15 minutes to complete.

What Causes Lawyer Burnout?

Whether mood and anxiety disorders are the main drivers of burnout is still being researched. However, there is also thought to be many job and organizational causes of burnout:

  • Technology overuse: 24/7 availability or feeling like you are on the clock whenever you are awake can lead to chronic stress and burnout.

  • The billable hour: There's plenty of information about the myriad problems with the billable hour model. But reports of the death of the billable hour have been greatly exaggerated – it's still predominant. The billable hour can de-prioritize working efficiently, create long hours, and result in too much focus on the quantity rather than the quality of work.
  • Work-life imbalance: Not having time for other meaningful activities, including time with family, increases the likelihood of burnout.

Ways to Avoid Burnout

Since burnout is not a medical condition, dealing with burnout means managing the symptoms. Medication and treatment can address any underlying medical issues such as generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. Otherwise, stress management techniques such as exercise, sleep, and meditation or mindfulness practices can resolve the physical symptoms of burnout.

For the psychological aspects of burnout, it can help to:

  • Focus on your work's meaning. Lawyers are a necessary and vital part of society, more so than some other professions. While it is easy to lose sight of that fact, it can help to re-focus on the value and services you are providing to clients, not just the business aspects.
  • Use breaks. Avoid working lunches (or skipping them altogether) and take the time to do enjoyable activities. Go for walks, talk with colleagues, or go out for a real meal. Put away your laptop and smartphone some nights to take actual time away from work.
  • Take action. Don't be afraid to take real steps to improve your situation. This could involve getting into another practice area you find more meaningful, or even going on sabbatical.
  • Get the support you need.

Firm-wide and Organizational Strategies

Firm management is responsible for avoiding and preventing burnout, as well. An organizational focus can significantly reduce the likelihood of lawyer burnout. And the old idea that burnout only happens to people who "can't cut it" is not serving anyone well. Why invest resources in an associate only to have them become less effective or leave after a few years? In fact, it is often the hardest workers and the lawyers who care the most who are most at risk for burnout.

To reduce the likelihood of burnout at the firm, consider:

Burnout Is Not Inevitable or a Right of Passage

Burnout should not be dismissed or minimized, nor is it an inevitable part of being a lawyer. On the contrary, one recent longitudinal study found that job and life satisfaction among lawyers can be quite high.

While the solution to your burnout may ultimately involve changing jobs (and there's nothing wrong with diverse work experience), other methods can also reduce the symptoms and likelihood of burnout. The important thing is to acknowledge burnout, recognize the symptoms, and take action if it appears.