Many times a year the counsellors at LAPBC sit across the desk from a lawyer who is tired, highly anxious, depressed, frustrated, angry and appearing quite desperate. "I've had it with the law, I'm packing it in, and if I only knew what else I could do, I would do it." While this is a common reaction to stress, in most cases a change in occupation is inadvisable if based solely on a stress reaction that the lawyer does not fully understand.
Although burnout can happen at any age, we are seeing it in younger and younger lawyers. In the eyes of the world, these people are often seen as super successful, high achievers who have "made it". Notwithstanding an outwardly shiny image, their inner world is in great turmoil, filled with dissatisfaction and a sense of failure. Their inner reality is that the stressors in their life have exceeded their ability to cope. When this happens, a high level of anxiety and depression sets in.
"Burnout" is usually defined by a sense of emotional exhaustion and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. Most lawyers have either seen it in others or have experienced it themselves to a greater or lesser degree. On some levels, the causes are not mysterious; most lawyers could identify the "usual suspects": long hours, the adversarial nature of law, the focus on billable hours, increased competition for clients, the dehumanization of the practice, focusing on the business aspects of law rather than people, and a culture of materialism, perfectionism and workaholism. The problem with this analysis is that all of these causes are beyond the capacity of an individual lawyer to control, which leads to the conclusion "I have no choice; it's not going to change; I have to get out."
There are, however, some causes within the lawyer's control that can have a huge impact on burnout. The first is boundaries. I believe there can be no burnout without poor boundaries. The belief that you can't or shouldn't say no to employers, clients and other lawyers, when appropriate, results in hopeless attempts to please everybody. In my experience, one of the keys to a long career in law is realistic boundaries.
The second cause is perfectionism. Because law requires objective logical analysis and close attention to details, the legal profession attracts perfectionists. Although it is highly valued in law, most psychologists see perfectionism as a neurosis. It should not be confused with the pursuit of excellence or doing high-quality work. The motto of the perfectionist is "If I can't do it perfectly, I won't do it at all." This, of course, is a recipe for procrastination. It encourages workaholism. Since perfection is impossible to achieve, striving for it can be a cause of constant dissatisfaction.
The third cause is the stress produced by a work life that is not in alignment with a person's true values. These misalignments can be caused by internally conflicted or mutually exclusive values operating at the same time. One example is high ambition at work versus strong family commitments. Another is a conflict between personal values and the values of the workplace, such as financial success at any cost versus ethical behaviour. Another common misalignment occurs when the area of practice is inconsistent with the lawyer's core values-for example, being an environmentalist and acting for an irresponsible logging company.
At LAPBC we have had great success in teaching people about setting healthy boundaries, pursuing excellence rather than perfection and arranging a pattern of work life that it is congruent with personal values. We have workshops and extended courses in all of these areas.Most lawyers who have experienced burnout need to make life/work changes. These can range from fairly simple adjustments at their existing job, to changing firms or moving from private practice to some of the many quasi-legal jobs. In my experience, very few lawyers end up leaving law completely, and those who do usually end up with another career that brings them both success and happiness.
In some situations, we see that burnout is caused by personal or psychological issues unconnected, or minimally connected, with work. In these cases, there is no point in changing firms or the areas of practice. If, however, we determine after careful examination that the causes are primarily work related, we generally point out that the lawyer has three choices: change the situation, accept the situation or leave the situation. For some lawyers, changes such as setting better boundaries or discussing issues with other partners can result in substantial reduction in the amount of stress. In other situations, the lawyer must accept that certain kinds of stress are unavoidable if he or she chooses to stay in private practice.
Nevertheless, certain areas of the law and certain legal cultures are much more stressful than others, and many changes can be made that will result in a substantial reduction of stress.In some cases of extreme burnout, it is advisable for the lawyer to take a substantial break or sabbatical. This helps by eliminating work-related stressors and giving time for consideration of other career options.The good news is that almost all lawyers recover from even severe burnout, especially those lawyers who seek out help. We can provide one-on-one peer counselling, and we provide a number of courses that can help.