The Lives of Lawyers: The Impact of Lawyer Burnout on Law Firms

At a time when many law firms globally are focusing on how to compete in an increasingly competitive legal services landscape, many of them are ignoring their most important resource: their own lawyers. Increasingly, many in our profession have acknowledged that the state of mental health is reaching crisis levels. Brant Bishop, a former Managing Partner at Wilkinson Walsh, resigned recently from the firm he helped found because, as reported by The American Lawyer, he found it too difficult to manage the competing demands of lawyering, management, and family. Lawyers may feel a pang of empathy when reading about Bishop’s 20+ years of experience as a Big Law partner, but many may fail to put the proper name on this feeling of stress that leaves them feeling overwhelmed and struggling to function: burnout.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion brought on by unrelenting overwork and chronic stress that has not been successfully managed because of a gap between demands and resources. That is, when someone is experiencing a high level of stress without sufficient resources, like social support and open communication. It’s the point at which employees can no longer handle the demands made of them and experience a loss of meaning so profound that they no longer believe in the work they are doing.

Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized burnout as an occupational syndrome, including it in its International Classification of Diseases. According to the WHO, burnout is tied to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” and characterized by “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.” Although the 11th edition of the ICD will go into effect only in 2022, the decision by the WHO to reclassify burnout from a “state of vital exhaustion” to an occupational syndrome legitimizes this emerging and oft-misunderstood health issue as a serious one worthy of the recognition and attention required for diagnosis, prevention, and treatment.

The Cost of Burnout for Law Firms

Apart from negatively impacting the overall health and wellbeing of employees, chronic stress, burnout, and low morale in the workplace result in high employee turnover, heightened recruiting costs, and lost productivity. And this costs firms billions of dollars each year. According to the National Association for Law Placement, losing just one associate can cost between $200,000 and $500,000. Outside of the legal sector, where there’s more data available on the impact of burnout, it has been shown that chronically stressed employees are significantly less productive than healthy employees—almost 70% less productive according to some accounts. For U.S. businesses overall, experts estimate that burnout generates losses of anywhere from $150 to $350 billion annually.

Burnout directly eats away at efficiency. Its warning signs are also its symptoms, which include feeling pressured or out of control, increased physical illness, absenteeism, tardiness, resentfulness, social withdrawal from friends or family, engaging in escapist activities, increased social isolation and desiring to drop out of society, emptiness, self-doubt, cynicism, chronic physical issues, depression,, chronic fatigue, and sadness. Other manifestations of burnout include forgetfulness or impaired concentration and attention, anger, anxiety, depression, pessimism, isolation, increased irritability, and lack of productivity and poor performance.

Indeed, burnout saps bright stars of their energy, passion, and high-octane drive, leaving them exhausted, depressed, listless, frustrated, and disillusioned. It tends to hit those employees who care the most, who enthusiastically take on responsibility, who blur the lines between the professional and personal, viewing their jobs as an important aspect of their identity, going all in—working late, biting off more than they can chew, over-delivering. And, as many law firms are creating initiatives to promote diversity in their highest ranks, it is important to note that women are more likely to experience burnout than men—likely due to our propensity to fix anything that isn’t perfect, internalized demands that we hold all the solutions, our readiness to be pulled into multiple directions at once, the pressure to be amenable and adaptive, our widely cherished view that we are more adept at multitasking than men, and that this evolutionary appendage is our superpower.

Why Lawyers Are At Particularly High Risk for Burnout

The nature of the legal profession is a major factor in lawyers’ high risk for burnout, but our tendencies and personalities play a part as well. Long hours in front of the computer, mounting billable hour pressures, client-side demands for immediate responsiveness and quicker turnaround times, that we always be “on,” available 24/7, and work on confidential matters fuel alienation and exhaustion. Our approach of toughing it out, working hard, playing harder, playing through the pain, rolling up our shirt sleeves, being amenable and adaptive, and quickly intuiting the worst-case scenario also isn’t doing us any favors. And that we tend to be obsessive over-achievers striving for perfection, not excellence, also doesn’t help matters much. Perfectionism, isolation, and pessimism are why lawyers tend to rank in the bottom percentile of emotional resilience, despite our hard-work ethic, razor-blade cognitive abilities, and high adaptability. And it is low emotional resilience that primes us for burnout.

How Burnout Impacts Our Clients

Lawyering is an excellent opportunity to manage relationships, provide counsel, and solve problems that require creativity, sensitivity, comprehension, and care. Successful lawyering, from a place of emotional strength and self-care, empowers you to be able to take on challenges with a greater perspective, to give more, not less. Our ethical obligations to our clients are not limited to the substance of our work product—to the contracts we write, to the deals we close, and to cross-examinations and settlement offers. Eventually, we can’t do any of those things well if we fail to tend to ourselves. We need to admit that burnout can and does impact our clients—dispensing with the duty of care to ourselves means that we will not be able to fulfill it for our clients.

Burnout depletes our capacity to meet the demands of the profession, and our clients’ needs, including, most notably, our ability to comply with the ethical rules that require us to competently represent our clients, and in so doing, act with reasonable diligence and promptness when representing our clients. Fatigue impairs our creativity and cognitive abilities and makes it extremely difficult to keep up with the workload, respond promptly to our clients, and deploy the critical thinking required to analyze laws and precedent, draft contracts, negotiate and conduct due diligence well. Disengagement negatively impacts our ability to empathize with our clients and address highly sensitive issues and can lead us to neglect critical aspects of a client matter. Feeling ineffectual, helpless, and hopeless directly eats away at motivation, interest, and focus, and discourages lawyers from exerting the effort needed to take on and resolve complex and sensitive legal issues.

Tips for Preventing and Treating Burnout

  • If you are experiencing burnout, seek support. Isolation is the dream killer, not only on an individual level, for society writ large. Resiliency doesn’t mean toughing it out alone, it’s the opposite. Having an engaged social network that can support you when you need it most – when you don’t even know that you need it, and are too ashamed to ask. There are options – you don’t need to quit your job. Seek or create meaning in your work. Try out a different practice area, explore an emerging area of the law, ask for some pro bono work, or take a sabbatical or unpaid leave.
  • Know that you are not alone. According to a 2018 Gallup poll of 7,500 employees, roughly two-thirds of U.S. employees experience burnout on the job to some degree.
  • Take time to recharge. Use this as an opportunity to whittle away at the activities draining you, and begin prioritizing what you want.
  • Delegate and automate what you can. Ask for and get the support you need, and use technology to your advantage. Time not working doesn’t need to result in a revenue hit. With some planning and armed with the right tools, you can do more by doing less. For example, you can adopt time-saving, automated technological tools that reduce your to-do list and serve as a boon, not a burden. ZERØ’s passive mobile time capture and narrative generation features are easy-to-use and shoulder much of the administrative burden of time entry, alleviating stress, and boosting productivity.
  • Reward effort, not outcome. Reconsider and compartmentalize perfectionism. Understand the difference between perfectionism and excellence.
  • Live in the present. As lawyers, we worry about what may go wrong in the future, and spend the present hedging against these risks, often putting the present on hold for more important issues later. Learn to set boundaries around your personal time, don’t drag your cases or clients into family or friend time, this steals your joy from these experiences.
  • Practice self-care. Make you a priority—your work and life, health, hobbies, love, and passion. Exercise, meditate, spend time with loved ones, engage in hobbies, eat well, sleep.
  • Take breaks between projects. How do you power up without shutting down? Restarting our computers first requires that we shut them down.
  • Just say no—high-octane individuals, especially women, have a habit of saying yes when we can and should say no. Saying yes doesn’t mean never saying no. Saying no makes way for more yes, your yes, on your terms.
  • Actively seek awareness of how you feel—your stress, your triggers, and feelings. Protecting yourself from burnout means understanding when it’s coming – when things are getting out of balance, when you are getting pushed to the edge – anger, headaches, pain, irritability.
  • Manage your energy, not your time – We can’t focus for more than 90 minutes in a row, and we can’t maintain focus when we’re being distracted.
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Amy Sapan

Originally from New York and based out of Tel Aviv since late 2010, Amy Sapan has over eight years of corporate legal experience, principally in the fields of high-tech and private investment fund formation. She has previously held positions at Amit, Pollak, Matalon & Co. and Yigal Arnon, two of Israel’s leading law firms, as well as Dickstein Shapiro LLP in New York City, now defunct. She received her J.D. magna cum laude from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, and her B.A. in International & Area Studies summa cum laude from Washington University in St. Louis. She is a member of the NY State Bar and the Israeli Bar Association. She is passionate about gardening, art, craft, dance, swimming, ecology and movement.