In a previous installment of “On Balance,” I wrote about the need for a true work-life balance as a lawyer, and specifically about the challenge of achieving it as a solo practitioner. Here, I’ll share a couple of cautionary tales about dealing with burnout — and how not tending to yourself as an individual (not just a lawyer) can have disastrous consequences.
My purpose is to encourage attorneys to stop buying into the “Superman complex” — the idea that nothing is going to hurt you — and consider the ramifications of not taking care of yourself.
Law is stressful, there is no doubt. In litigation, attorneys are constantly in an adversarial struggle. Corporate work often involves endless game-playing at the negotiation table. Even if you don’t deal directly with parties on the other side of the “v,” legal work can be tedious and involve long hours of mindless, soul-crushing document review or compliance work. And certain areas of law, such as family law or criminal casework, can seriously tax one’s emotional side. Some potential consequences?
Alcohol and substance abuse is a huge problem in the legal profession. Highlighting its severity, most state bars have helplines dedicated to it. For some lawyers, alcohol and other substances are how they cope with the stress and unpleasantness of the work on their desk.
Joe was a state prosecutor for many years, prosecuting cases of violent crimes such as rapes and murders. It was hard to go home to his wife and children every night and keep the images of crime scene photos out of his head. Eventually, Joe decided to switch sides and become a criminal defense attorney. The pay was great, but the long hours and same types of distressing cases took their toll. Having been a criminal lawyer his entire career, he did not see how he could feasibly transition to another practice area.
Joe struggled to maintain perspective in his life. Taking his children to the playground, he was unbearably hyper-vigilant as he thought of kidnapping cases on which he had worked. If he and his wife went out to dinner in the city, he viewed every passerby as a potential mugger. He had nightmares, and the only way he could get to sleep each night was to have a drink. Eventually, his nightcap became two drinks and then three, until he simply could not stop drinking.
Depression runs rampant among lawyers, not only those who work in particularly emotional areas of the law, but across all practice areas. Ed was a practicing civil and transactional lawyer for 30 years. His work did not involve heinous acts or emotional family drama, but it was unsatisfying for him on many levels.
Ed never achieved the financial success he envisioned when he started out, clients frequently failed to pay, the hours were long, the work was interesting but not intellectually stimulating, and he fell into a deep depression. Some days he could not get himself out of the house to even go to work, and other days he sat at his desk staring into space rather than working productively.
Physical health can bear the brunt of a stressful law career too. Working long hours can often mean frequent eating out, or missing meals, and not finding time to exercise. The rigors of law practice can also lead many to put their health on the back burner even when they know something is wrong. Who has time for doctors’ appointments?
Max was a partner in BigLaw, handling major litigations for huge institutional investor clients. He had a team of associates working for him, the respect of every other partner in the firm and a massive book of business. He loved his work and typically stayed late. He ate dinner delivered from local restaurants at his desk most evenings, and his gym membership card went unused for weeks at a time. No depression or substance abuse here — Max was happy, busy and well-liked. He was also frequently short of breath, suffered from dizzy spells and had headaches many days. Being too focused on work to take notice of these symptoms and seek medical help, Max had a heart attack at age 45.
Dealing With Burnout: Your Life, Your Body, Your Client’s Problem
Pointing out the potential problems facing lawyers who don’t tend to their physical and mental health often elicits responses in the vein of “it’s my life, it’s my body, it’s my problem if I choose to live this way.”
However, the truth is, while it may be your body and your life, it will be your clients’ problem if you don’t head off the consequences of stress and begin dealing with burnout. It is the client who loses the suit when you are too hungover to properly defend her deposition; the client who ends up incarcerated because you were so depressed the week before trial that you never got yourself focused and prepared for the trial; and the client who is left in the lurch when you are suddenly hospitalized with a major health crisis.
We tend to think of our ethical obligations to our clients in terms of the substance of our work. We must know our area of law, meet calendar deadlines and so on and so forth. But eventually, we will not be able to do any of those things if we fail to tend to ourselves. At some point, burnout will impact our clients.
So, if you cannot be convinced to take care of yourself for you, consider that failing to do so is going to hurt someone else. When it does, it will circle back and become a disciplinary problem, compounding the health issues you will have created for yourself.
Find that balance now, before you reach a point of crisis.