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 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.
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.
The World Health Organization has recognized burnout as an "occupational phenomenon" since 2019. In its International Classification of Diseases 11, the WHO characterizes burnout as:
Burnout is therefore something separate from other mental health issues. Instead of a medical condition, 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.
According to the Mayo Clinic, signs of job burnout include:
Burnout can also manifest physical symptoms, including:
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.
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:
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:
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 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.