Burnout: A Necessary Part of Lawyers' Lives?

By: Randall B. Christison, Attorney at Law

Talking to a lawyer-friend recently, one in practice for many years, I asked how he was. "Working harder; enjoying it less." Far from flippant, he was deadly serious. Everything in his voice and body language suggested he was at the end of his rope. I asked what he does after he leaves his office each day: "home to my networked computer." In essence he’s in the office many hours and telecommutes the rest. I asked about his résumé, down at the bottom, where we put hobbies and personal information, what did he have there? With a mirthless laugh he responded, "You mean those things I haven’t done in decades? That was a different lifetime." Maybe more accurately, that "was when I had a life, before the law sucked it out of me."

The conversation of any group of lawyers often turns to the stresses and frustrations of our colleagues–and often of ourselves–following years of practice. We lawyers easily identify the source; we work in an adversarial, pressured, high-speed environment. Long hours are often marks of success, even badges of honor. An unstressed lawyer? I’ve not met one. Burned out lawyers? I’ve met several–including one in the mirror.

A Profession in Trouble

Since the problem began garnering attention in the 1980s, survey upon survey shows a profession in trouble. The signs are hard to miss:

  • Large percentages, even majorities, if they had to do it over again, would not become lawyers.
  • Many lawyers drop out of the profession altogether.
  • Remarkable numbers, well more than 30%, qualify for mental health intervention, and not just for depression and substance abuse.
  • Lawyers suffer nearly quadruple the clinical depression rates of the average occupation, easily the highest of any occupation studied.
As asked by one author,1 "Lawyers have never wielded more political and economic power than they do today. [They] are the wealthiest in the world. In influence, affluence, and prestige, practicing lawyers surpass most other occupational groups. Why are so many lawyers so sad?" Why indeed? Part of the answer lies in a lawyer's distinct personality.

Lawyers Are Different

Studies suggest entering law students are not markedly different from other graduate students, at least as far as psychopathology. But other studies show these students are different from the general population in several ways, a difference law school intensifies. The well-known Myers-Briggs tests show lawyers and law students are appreciably different from the rest of the population. They are detached thinkers, not empathetic feelers, abstract intuitive thinkers rather than concrete ("sensing") ones. Surprisingly, they are more introverted than extroverted. Some suggest this reflects self-selection and law-school winnowing; much of law training rewards those whose hours of studying resembles less a courtroom performer than a monk. Susan Daicoff2 summarizes the "attributes associated with effectiveness as a lawyer,"

  1. Need achievement,
  2. Be extroverted and sociable,
  3. Be competitive, argumentative, aggressive, dominant, cold,
  4. Show low interest in people, emotional concerns and interpersonal matters,
  5. Have disproportionate preference for Myers-Briggs thinking v. feeling,3
  6. Focus on economic bottom-line and material concerns, and
  7. Have a markedly higher incidence of psychological distress and substance abuse.
Not only do lawyers have a distinct personality, but also they work in a distinct environment. In the lawyers' world, we measure success (too often) by revenue and by billable hours. We gain success by putting in long hours, in a constantly pressured, highly adversarial environment, often carrying the burden of emotionally charged clients and situations. Dennis Kozich4 and Peter Lattman5 lists the common sources:

  • Long, dehumanizing hours,
  • Burdens of responsibility for someone else's money, family, freedom, even life,
  • The omnipresence of trained adversaries eager to pounce on any opening,
  • Judges, juries, others constantly passing judgment on your performance,
  • Ever-present deadlines,
  • Ever-present interruptions-telephones, emails, Blackberries,
  • Instant communication causing ever-faster documents and decisions,
  • Competition for clients,
  • Clients' stress and anger transferred to their lawyers,
  • Job security concerns,
  • A gap between the ideals of those entering the profession and the reality, and
  • Too often, a gap between lawyers' intelligence and the mind-numbing nature of the work.
In years past, mail and telephones controlled our time. Now instant communication-email, fax, and Blackberry-make such memories seem quaint. Vacations once were a way to get away from these pressures. Now cell phones and laptops are essential parts of vacation packing.

In essence, lawyers are called on to assume the burdens of responsibility for other's fortunes, family, and freedom. Indeed, to help and protect others is why many became lawyers. But unlike the other helping professions, lawyers have trained, skillful, even ruthless adversaries waiting to jump on any mistake. Getting a 90% grade in college was not bad; in law practice it's an invitation to embarrassment, if not to a malpractice claim. For many of us, judges, juries, even the news media, are passing judgment on our performance, a judgment that is visited upon our clients. And as lawyers progress from novice to veteran, their passage is monitored, scrutinized, and frequently harshly criticized by the firm's more senior lawyers. Under these circumstances, it's hard to imagine a lawyer not suffering from stress. And added to it are the inevitable economic expectations and pressures.

Burnout's Red Flags

Physical

  • Headaches, backaches,
  • Fast or skipping heartbeat,
  • Indigestion, diarrhea, gastric complaints,
  • Sleep problems-getting to sleep or staying asleep,
  • Appetite changes (decrease or increase),
  • Sexual dysfunction or lost interest.
Mental

  • Short fuse, impatience,
  • Feeling of being overwhelmed,
  • Emotional roller coaster,
  • Forgetfulness, Inability to concentrate,
  • Increased procrastination,
  • Floating anxiety,
  • Feeling of dread.
These warning signs are not unique to lawyers by any means-ask a police officer or a paramedic-but they are more prevalent. My one-sentence incipient-burnout test is the alarm-clock question: when the alarm goes off, do you:

  1. wake up, looking forward to the day?
  2. wake up, regarding the day with indifference?
  3. wake up, regarding the day with dread, burying your head in your pillow, hitting the snooze button repeatedly?
  4. throw the clock out the window?
Can Leopards Change Their Spots?

If lawyers indeed have a different personality and if lawyers are subject to a particularly demanding environment, can lawyers do anything about it? Do we instead resign ourselves to a life "poor, nasty, brutish and short"? (Well, maybe not "poor.") Can leopards change their spots? We suggest yes, but it requires effort and changes in the way we think.

Over the past few years we lawyers have talked of "life-work balance." Some law firms devote considerable effort to the problem. Balance is a common topic in associate recruiting. But the signs of burnout continue to spread.

The Blackberry illustrates the problem. A few years ago we debated whether to provide associates Blackberries or simply let them buy their own. That debate is over. Firms have their Blackberry-equipped associates on a 24/7 leash. Vacations are replaced by resort-based telecommuting. Perhaps we should place a warning, "This device will handcuff you to the job."

Billable hours, uncommon before the supreme court's 1975 case, Goldfarb v. State Bar, now are ubiquitous. A whole generation of lawyers thinks of a world without billable hours as akin to working with quill pens. 1,800-hour requirements are remnants of some quaint, bygone era. Requirements, and worse, expectations, inexorably increase.

Short-term Solutions

So it seems not much good news is out there. But lawyers can try some remedies, some short-term, some for the long haul.

Under the sort-term rubric are familiar ones:

  • Modern time management skills;
  • Stress management skills;
  • Physical: exercise, nutrition, sleep;
  • Taming the chemical monsters-caffeine, alcohol, drugs;
  • Vacations that are vacations, days off that are days off.
One problem remains difficult to solve, changing an achievement-oriented profession's definition of success. And revenue and billable hours represent an unmistakable measure.

Long-term Solutions

Periodic Change. "Just like my houseplants, I need to be repotted every ten years or so." Mental and intellectual stimulation may be the leading reason we become lawyers. But after several years in the same practice field, many find the thrill is gone. The now largely forgotten practice of sabbaticals was a useful solution. Changing into an entirely new field is likely economically unrealistic, though taking the financial hit may be a solution of last resort. But developing into related areas is within the reach of most. Sometimes clients, needing assistance in a new area, can provide that springboard.

Firm Style. How the firm conducts business includes how it treats its people. Does the firm increase or ease stress? Usually it's the former. Does the firm promote collaboration or competition; does it reward cutthroat, "I'm in it for myself" behavior, or team efforts? Does the firm reward rainmakers and no one else? Do the firm's members share attitudes, behavior, values, friendships? Does the firm promote the lawyers' family responsibilities or undermine them? Above all are there collegiality, mutual support, and respect?

Client Relations. Clients sometimes expect too much. Putting those expectations on the lawyers' shoulders only increases stress, magnified especially for those lawyers who entered the law to protect and serve others. Lawyers have much to do with raising and moderating those expectations, both for their clients' and their own sake.

Success and Money. Chasing high income is its own self-defeating effort. The Woodard Rule6 (no matter what the income, "I'd be happy if I only made 25% more") applies as much if not more to high income earners as to those earning five-figure incomes. As long as money is a (or the) criterion for success, lawyers will cause themselves untold unneeded stress. Rethinking this goal may prove the most difficult trait to remedy, yet the most important.

Positive Changes. Amiram Elwork7 talks of changes in his chapter "All the Sages Agree." Those who are happiest, those enjoy the benefits of stress and not its destructiveness are those who (1) have reasonable goals and expectations, (2) feel competent in their jobs, (3) have challenging work, but (4) have work balanced by leisure, (5) have a good marriage and family, and (6) contribute to the community. They do not seek success at any cost, do not demand or aspire to be the top dogs, do not spend their lives at work, and do not substitute work for family. Instead, those who contribute to the community are often the ones who feel the best about being lawyers, for they are the ones who can use their hard-earned skills for the common good.

Sharpening the Saw. Continuing the theme of "all the sages agree," is the universal view that those who continue to develop their skills, those who engage in lifelong learning and continuing professional development are those who best keep the stress monster at bay. One needs only to think of Stephen Covey's parable8 of the lumberjacks who are too busy, working too hard, driving themselves to exhaustion cutting down a tree, all because they "don't have time" to sharpen their now quite dull saw. And continuing professional development has the added benefit of exposing us to others we wouldn't otherwise know, to ideas, even inspirations we would never otherwise encounter.

The Prescription

Lawyers work in a tough environment, and we make it tougher on ourselves. We need to turn some of that toughness toward protecting ourselves from burnout. To do so requires effort, requires knowledge, requires self-awareness, and requires reworking of our law firms. But lawyers' own personalities render self-protection much more difficult. We spend our time and effort on others' problems, on achieving, on competitive success. And we are hardly introspective.

These very characteristics make it unlikely burnout-susceptible lawyers by themselves will successfully carry out a burnout-protection program.

First, all of us need to understand the risks and the warning signs, and identify what in our work and our personality leads us toward burnout. Law school didn't teach us that.

Second, we need someone, usually a coach, to keep us on the right path and to alert us to our high-risk and self-destructive behavior.

Third, we need to exercise the same kind of self-discipline that enabled us to get as far as we have already, but this time self-discipline directed at helping ourselves.

Fourth, for those who have firm management responsibility, you need to attend to the firm's culture. Because high-achievement lawyers--the ones who are the chief assets of any law firm, are the ones most susceptible--the firm must not be the cause of burning out its prize assets.

Wolf Management would be pleased to assist lawyers and law firms in addressing burnout awareness and prevention, through our classes, consulting and coaching services. Just as we didn't become burnout champions overnight, it will take time to get it turned around. But it's worth it.

I suggested to my friend from the opening paragraph one reason his firm hired him was because of the complete person he was, a person who had those end-of-the-resume experiences. What made him a more complete lawyer, one more valuable to his clients, were those same things. Burned-out lawyers are not much good to anyone. He needs to dig out that old résumé and reconnect with himself, a good first step in burnout prevention.



1 Mary Ann Glendon, A Nation under Lawyers: How the Crisis in the Legal Profession Is Transforming American Society, 1994, p.15.

2 Lawyer, Know Thyself: a Psychological Analysis of Personality Strengths and Weaknesses, 2004, pp. 40-41.

3 Those with a high “thinking” score analyze situations, keeping a detached distance, seeking logical and rule-based conclusions. Those with high “feeling” scores prefer to get close to the situation, a “looking from the inside,” and seek conclusions based on achieving harmony and consensus.

4 Stress: What Is It?” in Julie Tamminen, ed., Living with the Law: Strategies to Avoid Burnout and Create Balance, 1997, pp. 1-2.

5 http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2007/07/16/british-lawyers-are-unhappy-too/ by Peter Lattman on 16th July 2007.

6 From Newport Beach CPA Douglas C. Woodard, describing his extensive experience with high net worth clients.

7 Stress Management for Lawyers: How to Increase Personal and Professional Satisfaction in the Law, 2d ed., 1997, pp. 157-159.

8 The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, 1989.

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