Identifying and Dealing with Burnout
Long hours, difficult clients and the constant stress of deadlines are often thought of as the entrée that every lawyer is served when entering solo or small law firm practice. After all, what lawyer isn’t inundated and overwhelmed from time to time with the endless stressors of practicing law?
The work, clients and stress are par for the course in many ways, so why are lawyers so bad at identifying and dealing with these stressors when they become debilitating? Lawyer burnout is a serious problem, and it doesn’t just affect your outlook on your cases and clients—it can take a dramatic toll on your team, your practice, your physical and mental health, and, worse yet, your home life.
The unfortunate part of burnout is that no one wants to talk about it publicly. We sit back and quietly judge any lawyer who dares to talk about how overwhelmed he or she is. Moreover, there is a negative stigma associated with anyone who needs the help of a mental health professional, not to mention the anxiety of trying to determine whether calling BarCares means that the State Bar will be notified.
There should be little doubt that every hardworking lawyer will experience burnout at least once in his or her career. As such, we should understand what factors or issues cause burnout and find out what can be done to mitigate or avoid it.
Burnout identification can be determined by examining the following attributes, behaviors and symptoms: fatigue, negativity and ineffectiveness.
Fatigue appears to be the core and most basic component of any lawyer who is experiencing burnout. Fatigue and exhaustion underline the body’s most basic cognitive and emotional functions. Moreover, fatigue can compromise the mind’s ability to appreciate what has been accomplished or even a job well done.
It is worth noting that fatigue is more than just being tired or overworked. Fatigue can stems from a variety of factors. The most challenging part of dealing with fatigue is that the simplest tasks, even those that one previously enjoyed, become tedious and difficult.
Negativity, cynicism or depersonalization is the second core component in identifying burnout in oneself or others. The most significant issue with negativity arising from burnout is that it whittles away one’s willingness to be involved or to put forth the requisite effort.
Negativity and depersonalization allow you to distance yourself from what is causing you stress by painting all related aspects of the stressor as negative. The net result is that your practice and staff begin to see you acting detached from what is important to your professional success. The most significant issue with this core component of burnout is that it indicates that you have no connection to nor any care for your practice, clients and, often, your staff. Naturally, this alone could be damning for any small practice.
The final component of burnout is a feeling of ineffectiveness that many lawyers feel. Ineffectiveness refers to the feelings of incompetence, inadequacy or productivity. It is not uncommon for lawyers to feel as those they are losing their edge or that they are forgetting important or valuable information and will therefore be less effective in their chosen practice area. This component is often enhanced when fatigue is at its worst. Often individuals are not performing as well as they should and then feeling inadequate because of their poor performance.
It is important to note that while identifying and dealing with each of these individual components is important, each one tends to create feedback loops or cycles that enhance or promote other components. For example, feeling fatigued can promote a sense of inadequacy, and feeling negative can create cynicism, which promotes fatigue.
Moreover, it is not uncommon for individuals to experience significant symptoms of two components and very little in the third. As such, it is paramount that lawyers focus on prevention strategies and seek professional assistance when dealing with burnout by prioritizing self-help and self-caring.
Jared Pierce hung his own shingle right out of law school and has spent every minute since then discovering the joys and difficulties of chasing success. Anyone who has ever met Jared will tell you h