Last week I served on a panel about attorney burnout for a bar association club for attorneys in their first 10 years of practice. The panelists had lots of helpful guidance and information to share. The last question asked by an attendee, however, perfectly exemplified the real problem with burnout, and the way I answered repeated the same problem pattern.
Here’s what I mean.
Asking the Right Questions About Attorney Burnout
The question was about how to handle unreasonable expectations from a supervising attorney. In the example, based on the lawyer’s real-world experience, the partner would promise a deliverable to his client without consulting his team and then delay delegating the task to the more junior attorneys. The partner would then have an unrealistic deadline and freak out because he had promised the client an answer or deliverable by a date that was, by that time, impossible.
The associate asked the panel: What should I do? How should I handle it?
We provided good techniques for communicating the impossibility of the task to her supervising attorney, and how to talk with others about possibly getting an extension for others’ work without pressing deadlines. We also discussed how she could communicate the specifics of what she would be able to produce in the timeframe provided.
This was all useful information, and hopefully, it helped the associate. But thinking about the question later, I realized we had addressed the wrong question.
Whose Problem Are We Solving?
Sure, we answered the question asked, but really, the question was about how to avoid getting in that situation in the first place. More importantly, the answers should have focused on the fact that the associate should not be the one responsible for solving this problem.
There is plenty of advice out there about being proactive about preventing or reducing your own burnout. That was, in fact, the focus of the panel I was on and to whom the associate’s question was posed. But I want to go further and discuss ways senior attorneys and firm leaders can create an environment and culture that reduces burnout.
Why? I believe there are ethical and health reasons for the legal industry to adapt to a better working environment. But even if you don’t agree, creating a culture that reduces burnout is critical for the health of your firm’s bottom line. You should be fully focused on retaining associates because otherwise your investment in hiring and training them will be wasted; replacing lawyers is very expensive. More importantly, burned-out lawyers are not able to be as efficient or effective as more balanced, healthy lawyers — and that is a disservice to our clients.
Five Ways to Create a Culture That Reduces Attorney Burnout
1. Make expectations clear
Not knowing what is expected of us is a big contributor to workplace dissatisfaction and ultimately burnout. We don’t know how to act, how to prioritize, what to do, or even to whom to communicate when expectations are not clear. If you are a firm leader or supervising attorney, make expectations absolutely clear. At a minimum, the following should be stated, perhaps even written down, to more junior attorneys:
- “Chain of command”
- How to communicate issues and problems with assignments and co-workers
- Hours expectations
2. Delegate early and effectively
Delegating is a skill, and, unfortunately, many people are never taught how to do it effectively. The first step is getting clear on what needs to be done: the task, assignment, deliverable, etc. Then it must be explained in detail to the person who will be handing it. The deadline needs to be expressed clearly, including the reason for the deadline. Questions need to be entertained. There must be a check-in at least twice. If you as the delegator do not want to be responsible for checking in, then you must make clear to the delegatee that you expect them to check in with you twice about progress and status. Most importantly, delegate a task as soon as possible. If you are considering doing it yourself but are concerned that you do not have time — to either do the task or delegate — make it your No. 1 priority to delegate it ASAP.
3. Communicate with your team before setting deadlines
If you work as part of a legal team, especially if you are the lead or senior person on the team, discuss responsibilities and availability with your team before making promises about deadlines to clients and others. Your team will thank you and will be able to take ownership of deadlines. Plus, they will learn these skills and carry them forward when they are more senior. Your clients will thank you because they will get timely and well-done work product. And you will be growing as the leader of a team who feels you respect their input.
4. Be an advocate for and mentor to your junior attorneys
It takes time and effort to support the more junior attorneys in our firms, but it is always worth it. They become invested members of your firm or practice group, acquire skills more quickly, and grow more effortlessly into senior attorneys who know how to lead others. If your mentee is in an uncomfortable predicament where she has more than one assignment for more than one partner that needs to be “first priority,” take it upon yourselves, partners, to talk to each other so that your junior attorney is not in the unfortunate situation of trying to manage the partners’ relationships with each other. It’s not their job to do that.
5. Model balanced behavior
Most of us learn best by watching others do and be what we want to do and be. Whether you are a firm leader, partner, senior lawyer or just a year or two ahead of another lawyer, do your best to model more balanced behavior. Take into consideration that your colleague — everyone in the firm — is also a person who has a life outside the office. Outside the office, we all have people, interests and needs that require our time and attention. And taking the time for those people, interests and needs is the very thing that will help us avoid burnout.
Breaking the Burnout Cycle
As the questioner at my panel made clear, the partner with unreasonable expectations was also likely suffering from burnout, creating a vicious cycle of unhealthy attorneys unable to offer the best service to clients. You can be the one to break the burnout cycle.
More From Attorney at Work:
- “Why Lawyers Really Struggle With Work-Life Balance” by Dustin Cole
- “Escaping the Overwhelmed and Overworked Cycle” by Jamie Spannhake
- “Organize Your Time With a Good, Thoughtful Plan” by Jamie Spannhake
- “Knowing Is Half the Battle: Pro Tips for First Assignments as a New Associate” by Meyling Ly Ortiz
Have You Read Jamie Spannhake’s Bestselling Book?
In “The Lawyer, the Lion, and the Laundry: Three Hours to Finding Your Calm in the Chaos,” lawyer and certified health coach Jamie Spannhake helps you learn how to CHOOSE, ACT and THINK in ways that will clarify your desires and set priorities so you can reclaim your time and enjoy your life.
Available in the Attorney at Work bookstore, here.