It can feel difficult to avoid burnout in the legal profession — focus on the essentials to find a sustainable pace.
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If you’re on the path to burnout, the problem isn’t just that burnout is coming — you’re also missing out on joy in the meantime. We’ve previously covered why it’s so hard for lawyers to prioritize self-care, as critical as it is to sustaining your (best) work. Even if you can succeed at managing an exhausting pace until retirement, the question is whether you really want to end your career successfully having spent too much time working. It’s likely you might regret it, as Indra Nooyi remarked upon stepping down as CEO from PepsiCo last year following her 24-year career.
As lawyers, we can’t avoid stress — but as individuals, we can learn new skills that help us feel better about how we respond to stress. An August 2019 CNBC headline cautioned “Don’t be a lawyer if you want to be happy,” citing the 2016 ABA/Hazeldon study and the 1990 Johns Hopkins study. While the legal profession creates unique challenges to well-being, happy lawyers exist. They’ve developed the capacity to keep causes of burnout in check, and you can too. Fortunately, we can acknowledge the statistics and the risk factors, and take action to make positive change instead of internalizing the fatalistic exaggeration.
Responding to stress better can help you interrupt the patterns that cause burnout, which is unfortunately common in the legal profession. Absorbing causes of burnout is still often rewarded in the legal profession: Overcommitting / Saying ‘yes’ too much; Excessive workload; Too little recognition; Lack of validation of work stress/difficulty; Perfectionism; Excessive conscientiousness; Workaholism. Industry, lacking a moral compass by design and ethically bound to maximize shareholder profits will exploit tendency toward over-industriousness, which is prevalent in the legal profession — whether self-selected or conditioned in law school. While our organization works with others in the legal community to create better support for well-being, lawyers have the individual capacity to recognize and respond to their own risk exposure.
Preventing burnout in the first place is easier than recovering from it. Take this self-care inventory to acknowledge how your practices are currently. You’ll experience more joy by developing the habits that protect against burnout before you ever experience warning signs:
- Set clear boundaries early — Find more on setting boundaries here.
- Maintain boundaries
- Say NO to reasonable requests (assertiveness) — Find more on how to say NO.
- Avoid multitasking
- Respect your downtime
- Maintain community
If you’re feeling burnout already, you need to respond with more than just preventative measures. Warning signs include feeling that every day is a bad day, caring about tasks seems pointless, finding it more difficult to complete tasks, having trouble focusing or feeling more distracted, pessimism about your abilities, lacking excitement or interest, and feeling physically unwell or exhausted. If you’re experiencing symptoms of burnout, take steps to soothe it:
- Get more sleep
- Say NO first
- Limit checking email to scheduled time
- Do less, focus more
- Ask for help from colleagues, supervisors, family, and friends
Soothing burnout isn’t enough — you need to recover fully, which involves reevaluating burnout and prioritizing self-care. Don’t hop back on the road to burnout. STOP doing what you’re doing, and take an intentional break to focus on your boundaries. To reevaluate burnout, write down a list everything you do currently and ask the following 5 questions:
Regularly practicing proper self-care is critical — but it wasn’t taught in school. And not every parent instructs their children to take “Mental Health Days” off from school starting in third grade — shameless shout out to my mom who was earning her degree in psychology at the time, go figure. And even growing up in a home that emphasized mental health maintenance can be mitigated by the prevailing pressure from our culture at large to be a competitively productive cog for the economy at your own expense. As simple as self-care sounds, we need to focus on things that are often ignored:
- Eat good stuff (think of it as a choice between fuel and sludge in your system)
- Sleep sufficient hours
- Focus on Breathing
- Practice Mindfulness, Meditation, Relaxation Techniques (Find Mindfulness Essentials for Lawyers and Law Students here.)
- Exercise (I find ‘body movement’ is a more pleasant label)
- Cognitive Restructuring (our clinicians can help)
- Organize and Manage Time (Find Tips on Time Management for Lawyers here!)
- Deescalate Conflicts (see also active listening)
- Pursue curiosity, joy, passion: Brainstorm 5 activities you once loved or have wanted to try, pick one and commit to it, schedule in your calendar for one hour each week, and call or meet with a friend and share about your activity
- Utilize Social Supports: Give up isolation, ask trusted friends what they think, talk about your questions and concerns, and access mental health care (again, our clinicians can help)
Lawyers and law students in Massachusetts can schedule a FREE and Confidential consultation with one of our licensed clinicians. Find more here.
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