Burnout in Lawyers: What is it and why are we suffering?
Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. Some key signs of burnout include: physical and mental exhaustion; a sense of dread about work; and frequent feelings of cynicism, anger, or irritability. Those in helping professions (such as lawyers) may notice dwindling compassion toward their clients. Feeling like you can no longer do your job effectively may also be an indication that you are burnt out.
According to the Canadian Bar Association report, Survey of Lawyers on Wellness Issues, 58% of lawyers surveyed experienced significant stress and burnout, while 48% experienced anxiety and 26% depression.
A more recent academic article examined why Canadian lawyers may be suffering from burnout. This study showed that the two main stressors that can lead to burnout (as well as anxiety and depression) in lawyers were: 1) overwork and 2) work-life conflict. Work-life conflict was measured by times when a lawyer’s job interfered with home or family life and social or leisure activities. These two stressors (overwork and work-life conflict) were found to be more prevalent in private practice and increased with law firm size.
Steps to Avoid Burnout
It is important to recognize the signs of burnout early and act on them. Lawyers can find themselves in self-denial and ignore the messages their bodies are sending them. Too many lawyers make the mistake of trying to “push through” or work through the symptoms, thinking they will just get better on their own. It is important to take a moment or two each day to reflect on how you are feeling and assess your stress levels and your physical and mental health. It is harder to address burnout once you are in it.
However, there are steps you can take to keep burnout at bay:
Set boundaries. Boundaries help relieve the stressors of overwork and work-life conflict. For example, most clients do not need to reach you 24/7. Set boundaries around when you will have client conversations or answer client emails and communicate those boundaries clearly at the outset of the solicitor and client relationship. Block off time for social and leisure activities. Take that work-free vacation.
Identify your priorities. It is okay to say “No”. Determine what is important to you and what deserves or needs space in your calendar. Focus on your priorities and delegate or say no (or “not right now”) to anything that is not on that list. To counter burnout, it is important for lawyers to have a sense of purpose and meaningfulness in their work, which can include having a good, hard challenge. Outsource or delegate the work that does not motivate you and keep the work that is challenging and interesting.
Build your support team. You can’t do it all on your own. Everyone needs support to be successful, healthy, and happy. Friends and family provide emotional support outside of work, but lawyers need resources and support while practicing law as well. Associates, law clerks, assistants and freelance lawyers can support you in your legal practice and in turn, your mental well-being.
How We Can Help
Help is out there. Our mission at Flex Legal is to make practicing law better for lawyers. We help the lawyers who hire our freelance lawyers by providing them with as-needed, cost-effective assistance with their legal work, freeing up more hours in their day for family, friends, and social activities. We also help the freelance lawyers who join our network by providing them with a flexible way to practice law that works with their priorities in life.
If we can help you too, please let us know!
1. Psychology Today: Burnout
2. A useful example of a first-person account of experiencing burnout can be found in lawyer Erin Durant’s book, It Burned Me All Down.
3.Canadian Bar Association: Survey of Lawyers on Wellness Issues. See also, Ethics and Well-Being: How the Elevated Incidence of Mental Illness is Impacting the Profession by Roza Milani and The Litigator and Mental Health by Chief Justice George Strathy.
4.The Status-Health Paradox: Organizational Context, Stress Exposure, and Well-Being in the Legal Profession at 13.
Note: This article provides an overview only for informational purposes and does not constitute legal advice.
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