Our interview with the partner was scheduled for 2 p.m. She arrived at 2:45 p.m., apparently not knowing what she was doing in the room or why we were there (even though we had met and shared an agenda only a week ago). As we started to sit, she mentioned she had only 15 minutes to give us. Immediately, I asked when we could reschedule her interview and discussion of the firm’s business development plans for the coming year. The partner, head of the firm’s most profitable practice group, looked at us with a blank stare: “Oh, that’s what this is for? That marketing thing?”
She gathered her notebooks, stood up and dismissively suggested that we call her “next week to discuss this over the phone.” I looked to the firm’s CMO, who was busy examining his shoes, then said to the partner, “So, how long has it been since you really enjoyed your work?” She stopped in her tracks.
Slowly turning to face us, she exhaled and dropped her folders on the table. Taking a seat, she asked the CMO to give us some privacy and we began to talk. Yes, it was all beginning to be a bit too much for her at the firm.
Lawyers as Sales Force is a Tight Fit
I spent years managing a large corporate sales team. So the signs were familiar to me. She was suffering from burnout. I’ve seen it often in others and even in myself. However, “trained” sales executives who have chosen a sales career are keenly sensitive to the signs of burnout and have tools to identify and quickly address the problem.
In the legal profession, stress and overwork have long been a problem. But the newly added demands of business development—where I come in—can push an ill-prepared lawyer over the edge. Doug Richardson, business development consultant with Edge International, also sees lawyer burnout and shares this warning: “Be careful, the path between occupational stress and flamed-out free-fall can be short indeed.”
Profession-wide, the real nail in the burnout coffin took place when most law firms provided associates, partners and senior support staff with smartphones—a 24/7 leash. Vacations have been replaced by resort-based telecommuting. PDAs should have come with the warning: “These devices will handcuff you to the job.”
So What’s the Fix?
It’s important to distinguish the difference between being stressed out and being burned out. How can you spot the difference before things go too far? Here’s an excellent checklist to help you identify if burnout is creeping up on you or on one of your colleagues. Or you can simply ask yourself, “Am I consistently making choices for the benefit of others at the expense of my own needs?”
Short-term remedies. Some fixes are fairly simple—though somewhere along the way you probably forgot about them.
- Develop better time management skills and tools
- Try stress management exercises
- Get more physical exercise, nutrition in your diet and sleep
- Tame any possible chemical monsters like caffeine, alcohol or drugs
- Respect that vacations are vacations and days off are days off—and enjoy them
- Laugh more often.
Long-term solutions. These are harder and require more effort.
- Switch it up. Mental and intellectual stimulation may be the leading reason lawyers become lawyers. But after several years of doing the same thing, many find the thrill is gone. Switching to an entirely new field may be unrealistic, but with changes in economic conditions, exploring related areas of practice has become more common. Perhaps it should be considered an option when emotional conditions change as well.
- Manage client expectations. Talk to your clients more honestly and better manage and moderate their expectations, both for the clients’ and your own.
- Make it part of the firm’s culture. Does working at your firm increase or decrease stress? Do the firm’s employees share common attitudes, behavior, values and friendships? Does the firm support your family responsibilities or undermine them? Above all, is there collegiality, mutual support and respect?
- Keep learning. Lawyers who continue to develop their skills and engage in lifelong learning, both personal and professional, keep stress at bay best. Believing that you can always learn new tricks has the added benefit of exposing you to new people and new ideas.
To overcome burnout you must learn to respect yourself as much—if not more—than your work. The partner we interviewed that day worked in a tough environment, no doubt. But she was making it tougher for herself by keeping everything bottled-up. By stopping to engage with us in the interview and evaluation process, finally she was able to talk candidly about her situation. By doing so, she realized she needed to make some changes. The first step was acknowledging that she needed to put her own interests ahead of others. It may sound selfish, but it’s not. It’s a lesson in learning how to assert your right to be happy and fulfilled in your work and your life.