How to Prevent Lawyer Burnout: Best Practices
By Morgan Martinez
Practicing law can be an intense job. Unsurprisingly, many lawyers struggle with symptoms of burnout, stress, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. These issues not only affect attorneys’ mental and physical health, but can also lead to lower firm productivity, higher turnover, and damaged company culture.
This guide discusses what law firms should know about addressing lawyer burnout, including:
- Early indications of attorney burnout
- Common causes
- How to stop burnout before it happens
What is Lawyer Burnout?
Job-related burnout is “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity,” according to the Mayo Clinic. It closely relates to, and is possibly caused by, other conditions such as depression. The Mayo Clinic reports that burnout can create a variety of unpleasant or dangerous effects, such as:
- Mood changes, including irritability, anger, and sadness
- Substance abuse
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes
- Weakened immunity against illnesses
Unfortunately, attorney burnout is very common. In fact, Bloomberg Law’s Attorney Workload and Hours survey reported that lawyer respondents experienced burnout at work 52% of the time in the fourth quarter of 2021. Big law burnout can be even more prevalent due to long hours, high-profile clients, and an ‘up or out’ business model that encourages the longevity of the few over the many.
Early Signs of Lawyer Burnout
Recognizing the early signs of attorney burnout is pivotal to addressing job dissatisfaction and worsening health in yourself or team members. Watch for the following indications of lawyer burnout, so you can tackle them before they become larger problems.
1. Constant Exhaustion
Everyone is tired sometimes, but feeling exhausted all the time may indicate that something’s wrong. If you’re sleeping as much or more than in the past but feeling constantly drained, assess yourself for burnout. The same goes for if you’re resting the same number of hours, but wake up unrefreshed and are sleepy during the day. These can be signs of poor rest quality, which is just as detrimental as inadequate sleep hours.
2. Changes in Personal and Professional Relationships
Sometimes the most telling signs of a happy lawyer are external. A healthy work-life balance involves satisfying personal and professional relationships with family, friends, and colleagues.
Sudden changes in these relationships can be a red flag. For example, if you find yourself withdrawing from social life or receiving comments that you’re more irritable, there may be larger issues at play.
Substance abuse, including alcohol and drugs, is often a problem in demanding careers. Law is no exception.
In a survey of roughly 3,000 lawyers sponsored by the D.C. Bar and the California Lawyers Association, 34% of female respondents and 25% of male respondents described dangerous drinking behavior. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the following behaviors constitute heavy drinking:
- For men: Imbibing more than 14 drinks per week or more than four drinks per day
- For women: Consuming more than seven drinks per week or more than three drinks per day
Dependency on alcohol and/or drugs or increasing substance use can be key signs of attorney burnout and other mental health issues.
4. Lack of Concentration
Are you reading the same paragraphs over and over? Do you find it difficult to get through tasks that you used to race through? It may be more than just fatigue or an “off day.”
Burnout can lead to trouble concentrating, which fuels a vicious cycle. The harder it is to concentrate, the less productive you are. The less you get done, the longer you have to work to make up for reduced effectiveness. Longer working hours can lead to even greater lawyer burnout and fatigue.
Primary Reasons for Attorney Burnout
Preventing and reducing burnout first starts with identifying the source. There are three main causes of burnout among lawyers.
1. Long Hours
Attorneys work an average of 53 hours per week, as reported in Bloomberg Law’s Attorney Workload and Hours Survey. This doesn’t mean that all 53 hours are billable. The report states that senior lawyers see the greatest gap between worked and billable hours—working almost 50% more hours than they bill.
We’ve all heard the horror stories about big law attorneys working 80 or 100 hours per week and experiencing big law burnout. In fact, Bloomberg Law’s survey found that approximately 20% of lawyers have billed more than 80 hours during their busiest week.
2. High-Stress Environments
Navigating divorces and custody battles. Defending people in court. Meeting deadlines across jurisdictions. Lawyers deal with these high-stress situations day in and day out, in a highly scrutinized industry. They must also stay on top of constantly changing laws and precedents, and keep up with continuing education. These elements take a heavy toll.
3. Lack of Support
Conflicts between work and personal responsibilities may wear down even the most committed lawyers. The D.C. Bar and the California Lawyers Association determined that female attorneys who struggled with tension between work and family are four times more likely to quit their jobs or consider quitting, due to lawyer burnout and mental health issues.
Without a healthy culture that supports work-life balance, law firms may lose some of their best associates and partners. This has a significant financial impact. Losing a single associate can cost between $200,000 and $500,000, per the National Association for Law Placement (as reported in The American Lawyer).
How Can Attorneys Prevent Burnout?
You know what they say: Prevention is better than a cure. The four strategies below explain how to stop burnout before it happens.
1. Cultivate a Work-Life Balance
People who achieve a positive work-life balance are more satisfied with their life and job, according to Mental Health America (one of the nation’s leading nonprofit organizations dedicated to promoting mental health). They also suffer from fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Make time for hobbies and relationships outside of work to promote better mental and physical health.
2. Get Enough Rest
The American Psychological Association reports that sleep deprivation can lead to a variety of issues, such as:
- A strained immune system
- Increased risk of high blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Increased risk of car accidents
Many lawyers think that they have to work long hours to accomplish their goals. However, burning the candle at both ends can actually decrease productivity. Prioritize sleep to ensure a long, healthy, and effective career. SleepFoundation.org reports that adults aged 26 to 64 years old should sleep approximately seven to nine hours per night.
3. Set Boundaries
Attorneys are often high achievers who push themselves to succeed. Strong work ethic, ambition, and self-discipline serve them well in law school and during bar study. Big law attorneys, in particular, often feel pressured to outwork and outperform (hence the reputation for big law burnout).
These traits are admirable, but saying “yes” too frequently can wear you down.
Set healthy boundaries at work. The following tips can help you define your boundaries and stick with them during even the busiest periods.
- Identify your values. Do you value career success, making money, time with family, long-term health? Identify the things that matter most in your life.
- Clarify your priorities based on your values. In other words, align your actions with your words. For example, if you value time with your kids more than always being available at work, you may choose to sign off for an hour every night for family dinnertime. If you value health, maybe you carve out time for a workout every morning.
- Give yourself permission to say “no.” Being a committed team member doesn’t mean saying “yes” to everything, especially if those obligations don’t align with your values and priorities. Push back if you feel that you’re becoming overwhelmed with work. This might require a brief conversation about what’s on your plate. Or, it could be as simple as saying “No, that doesn’t work for me right now.”
- Speak to mentors and law firm leadership. If you feel that your firm isn’t respecting your boundaries, reach out to available resources. This may include your mentor(s), law firm leadership, and human resources.
4. Improve Time Management
At the firm level, increasing productivity and preventing lawyer burnout starts with streamlining law firm operations. This includes minimizing unnecessary administrative work for lawyers, such as manually creating invoices.
Fortunately, technology automates many law firm to-dos. The following table outlines technological solutions that can save time and prevent attorney turnover due to burnout.
Prevent Lawyer Burnout at Your Firm
Cultivating a productive team and decreasing burnout means allowing lawyers to focus on what they do best: serving clients.
MyCase legal case management software eliminates administrative overload and frees up more billable hours. In fact, law firms that use MyCase gain more than three billable hours per day and increase their caseloads by 38% on average.
See how efficient your team can be. Try MyCase free for 10 days with a risk-free trial.
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