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Becoming a Burnout-Proof Attorney: 5 Steps

By Gray Robinson

Becoming a resilient, burnout-proof attorney means prioritizing mental health and getting serious about managing stress. Here are five strategies you can use.

burnout-proof attorney

The legal profession is suffering. Recent studies indicate that stress, anxiety and burnout among lawyers are on the rise despite increased awareness and resources being directed to these problems. Statistics reveal that more and more lawyers — especially women — are experiencing burnout and considering quitting the practice of law.

In 2016, the ABA–Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study on lawyers’ mental health raised the alarm. Since then, the American Bar Association and state bars have focused considerable resources on studying the problem and training lawyers to manage stress. Unfortunately, nothing seems to be working. According to data from the 2023 report on the NORC-University of Chicago Study of Lawyer Well-Being in Massachusetts, the problem is getting worse.

It is obvious that lawyers must get serious about prioritizing mental and emotional health. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, I have found that some practices do help relieve stress, anxiety and burnout.

Law Practice Is a Perfect Breeding Ground for Stress

All of the studies on lawyers’ mental health link stress to anxiety and depression, and heightened levels of drug and alcohol abuse.

Common sources of stress for lawyers include the following:

  • Overwork
  • Multiple caseloads and deadlines
  • Personality
  • Physical and emotional health
  • Relationships
  • Change
  • Financial problems
  • Unexpected challenges
  • Death of a loved one
  • Substance abuse

I would add perfectionism to that list.

If we were programmed for perfection, we were set up for stress. I don’t mean the perfection of acceptance; I am talking about the feeling or belief that everything must happen as we plan it. As life is what happens when we have something else planned, this program of perfection will inevitably create stress.

The more expectations we have, the more anxiety and stress we will have.

Identifying Stress Triggers

Often, stress triggers are formed early in life. Our parents are often the source of our anxiety because they taught us anxiety is a necessary part of life.

  • Perhaps your parents struggled to make ends meet and constantly sent you negative messages about money. Messages of bad luck, unfairness, blame and anxiety about money will create similar patterns in the minds of impressionable young children.
  • Or perhaps your parents struggled with their relationship and sent you messages of guilt, jealousy, rejection, abandonment or insecurity.
  • If your parents often expressed feelings of victimhood, you will have learned how to react to life in similar ways.
  • If your parents were highly judgmental and constantly criticizing, you likely also learned to be judgmental. If you constantly perceive that the world is wrong and you are right, that tension between the wrong and right will eventually produce stress.

If young children observe negative talk, it will often instill negative self-talk in the child. Constantly criticizing ourselves will create anxiety through self-hatred.

Buried memories and feelings often bubble up later in life as stress. Low self-esteem — common among lawyers — contributes to stress. Lawyers have numerous opportunities to be self-critical and beat themselves up, but lawyers who suffered childhood abuse or trauma are more likely to have low self-esteem.

5 Steps to Becoming a Burnout-Proof Attorney

To help protect your health, livelihood and peace of mind, here are a few practices you can use to manage stress and increase your resilience. 

1. Join or Form a Mastermind Group

Resilience requires a team effort, so I always encourage lawyers to build a team or a “posse.” Elite professional athletes rely on coaches, trainers, counselors, friends and family to excel. Lawyers should do the same.

Napoleon Hill coined the phrase “mastermind group,” meaning a group of peers who discuss problems, issues, current events, business and other topics related to personal growth. Groups like this are crucial for growth and evolution. Benjamin Franklin started one of the first peer advisory groups in America when he was in his 20s. Some of its members went on to participate in the Continental Congress.

It takes support and inspiration to build a successful legal career. Relationships remind you that you are not alone. Your group doesn’t have to be made up of lawyers or legal professionals — some believe these groups should be diverse. Anyone who can help you feel safe and supported will help build your resilience.

2. Focus on the Positive

It is unhealthy to focus on negative thoughts. Transformational leaders look to neurolinguistic programming to help people transform their lives by changing their thoughts from negative to positive. But changing negative thoughts to positive ones doesn’t have to be complicated. You can choose not to focus on negative thoughts and to focus on positive ones instead.

For example, train yourself to look at what you learned from an experience rather than the adverse results — to look at what you’ve gained instead of what you may have lost. One technique is to reframe your thoughts. A good example is the phrase “have to.” When you replace “I have to do this” with “I have the opportunity to …” you will feel the stress begin to evaporate.

3. Get a Sense of Humor

Lawyers often blame themselves when they don’t get the results clients want. They take adverse results personally and assume it reflects on their competence. We must remember the big picture — that practicing law has a lot of moving parts over which we have limited control. A sense of humor can help you keep a proper perspective. Law is serious business but life is much more rewarding when you are having fun. Watching comedy shows, reading cartoons, and laughing with colleagues can lighten the load.

4. Feed Your Soul

Many people don’t give a lot of thought to their spiritual practices beyond attending church or other religious gatherings. In fact, spiritual practices — meditating, listening to music, learning something new, visiting art galleries, or spending time outdoors connecting with nature — greatly benefit mental health. These activities feed our soul, helping us connect to something bigger than our career. Anything that connects us to our inner divinity goes a long way to bolster our resilience.

5. Cultivate Your Guru

In previous articles, I’ve written about our nervous system’s flight-or-fight response, how it damages our physical and mental health, and ways to activate our nervous system’s “feel good” response. (See “Warrior and the Guru.”) In brief, when activated, our bodies produce endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, melatonin and serotonin to make us feel good. We can reason, communicate clearly, connect, compromise, create, problem-solve — and relax. To go from stressed-out mode to calm mode, try “brain hacks” like these:

  • Smile.
  • Breathe deeply.
  • Utilize eye movement by looking all the way to the left, holding for 60 seconds, and then looking all the way to the right for 60 seconds.
  • Sing or hum.

More details on these hacks can be found in “Calming Your Warrior Brain” and “Three Breathing Techniques.”

If done regularly throughout the day, practices like these can greatly reduce stress.

Make Mental Health and Emotional Health a Priority

The stress of a law practice is unrelenting. The key to becoming a burnout-proof attorney is having a consistent and focused approach to managing stress. Make it a priority to incorporate any of these steps into your routine, and you will improve your resilience and experience practicing law.

Image © iStockPhoto.com.

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Gray Robinson Gray Robinson

Sir Gray Robinson is a lawyer, writer, speaker, mentor, consultant and coach for lawyers who are struggling with their practices. He was a divorce lawyer for 27 years, handling hundreds of divorces, custody and support cases. Gray quit in 2004 due to stress and burnout and has devoted himself to helping lawyers and clients deal with the pressures of practicing law. Gray is the founder of Lawyer Lifeline, a restorative program that guides legal professionals through anxiety and stress to fulfillment and passion. In. 2023, he was inducted as a knight of The Royal Order of Constantine the Great and St. Helen, an organization that has existed since 312 ACE. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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