I recently read an article published by the American Bar Association on the subject of “Legal Burnout”.
The term Legal Burnout is referring to lawyers that are so overworked and overstressed from their chosen profession that they suffer from depression, anxiety, and even substance abuse.
The piece was well written, and I can empathize with the authors. I think their story is relatable to most lawyers, and I certainly feel for them. The stress felt by lawyers is real, as it is in most professions. I also agree with the authors’ position that mental health for attorneys is stigmatized and swept under the rug. We aren’t supposed to admit that we are human and sometimes we need help. The conventional wisdom is that lawyers are rich (I can assure you, that is definitely a misnomer) so there is no sympathy for us.
Like many other professions, the authors refer to lawyers as being forever tied to their desks because of technology, and that we are expected to be available and responsive at all times. Many lawyers that I know do feel this way, but I do not. That’s because I set boundaries. More on that in a minute.
The authors are lawyers, not therapists, so when they offer potential solutions for the problem, I understand that they are not medical professionals. Essentially, their advice is to make sure you examine yourself for signs of burnout, take advantage of available services, and make a decision to change your life. There isn’t a magic button answer in the article, and that’s because there’s no magic button solution.
That last suggestion, to decide to “change your life” is the best advice in the article, even though it’s vague. While a reader might see that and think “sure, easier said than done”, I can assure you, it can be done. I know this because I have done it. By no means am I trying to make light of these issues. They are serious, and I find it truly sad that so many lawyers feel this way. For a while, I was close to falling into this trap, especially when I was first starting out as a solo lawyer and opened my own practice, but I broke out of it.
First, I didn’t do it alone. I always had my wife to lean on. For a long time, I think that the first hour of our conversations when I got home at night was complaining about my day. She was always positive and supportive, and that really helped me a lot. Without her as a sounding board, and as a way for me to release some of the stress, I would have bottled it up and eventually exploded.
Second, I still don’t have this down perfectly. There are of course still stressful days, bad days, overworked days, but they are the exception, not the rule.
Next, it took a lot for me to realize that (1) I could be happy at my job, (2) I didn’t have to be tied to technology, so long as I was up-front and honest about that with my clients, and (3) if I managed my time well, I didn’t have to work on nights and weekends.
The way I realized it was by seeing others do this, and succeed. A few years back I joined a lawyer’s marketing group called Great Legal Marketing. To say that it was a life-changing thing for me is not an understatement. The folks at Great Legal Marketing have since become close friends, and their instruction helped me change my practice to the way I wanted it, with new growth every year, and still have the time I need with my family. The founder of Great Legal Marketing, Attorney Ben Glass, was always demonstrating that you could be a successful lawyer, but still find that work/life balance, and enjoy your life. And at the same time, making others’ lives better too.
One of the things I borrowed (stole) from Ben was his communications policy. He takes no unplanned phone calls, and all of his calls and meetings are scheduled. I wasn’t sure if I could put that same practice to work for me, but I tried it and I've never looked back. At the time of being hired, I provide all of my clients with a copy of my communications policy, so they know at the outsell how to get in touch with me, and when I'm available (and not available). I know that’s not a perfect fit for every client, which is why it’s discussed at the outset, and if a client isn’t okay with that, I politely refer them elsewhere. I’m still a work in progress, and there are days when I struggle not to jump every time my inbox tells me I have email, but I’m getting better. At the same time, I schedule virtually everything. File work, meetings, calls, all scheduled.
The other thing I’ve done is built a reliable team. In the past, if I went on vacation I was still checking email and messages several times per day. I could never disconnect. But with the team I have now, I know they can handle things if I’m gone, and I don’t sweat it. I can travel, leave the office in their hands, and feel confident that all will be well when I return.
I am happy at my job. I am happy with my team and with my firm. We have a great environment, we like each other, and we have fun, Sure, I have bad days, but the good ones far outnumber the bad. My best advice for other attorneys is to find other “happy” lawyers and see what they are doing. Also, ask yourself what would make you happier at work – write it down – and make that your goal. If you commit to it, it works.
Just give yourself permission to try.