Does your old friend adrenalin no longer give you the burst of energy and focus you need? Is it not only that you aren’t motivated, but that you don’t care that you’re not motivated? Do you feel apathy and inertia oozing into every cell? Burnout is a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion brought on by unrelenting stress, which we know is frequently brought on by overwork.
Unfortunately, workaholism as a lifestyle is often encouraged in the practice of law. For one thing, it ensures that billables are up, up, up! And everyone is happy as long as the workaholic remains functional. But a workaholic can’t remain functional for long. It is difficult to maintain emotional bonds, adequate self-care, recreational pursuits or the spiritual practices that cultivate hope. And it is the hopelessness that sets in with the stress that seems to really tanks a person suffering burnout.
Burnout may sound a bit like depression, and often it is. The unholy trinity of workaholism, burnout and depression fuel each other. When a lawyer goes down into that dark abyss, it is dangerous both to the lawyer and to the client, because clients don’t get taken care of by unreliable lawyers.
I’m personally interested in burnout, having experienced it once myself in another profession. I offer empathy and advice to you legal warriors on how to stave off burnout, keep your perspective, nourish your creativity and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
You Don’t Have to Be a Victim of Burnout: Two Perspectives
Let your temperament dictate how you recharge. You may be familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). How you need to deal with work-life balance may be influenced by your temperament. Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers describe it as your preferred way of relating to the world: Extraversion or Introversion. In simple terms, the extravert’s energy is directed actively outward toward people and events, and the introvert’s is directed reflectively inward toward concepts and ideas.
So, if you are an extravert, remember that you draw energy from action. A state of inaction saps your motivation. Take periodic breaks to do something physical, especially if you’re suffering “brain fever” from thinking too much. If you are an introvert, remember that you burn energy through action. To rebuild, you need quiet time alone and away from fast action. A sanity break in the garden, or time spent in meditation, can make a world of difference when you’re feeling scattered and dissipated.
I spoke with two lawyers who represent both temperaments, to learn their strategies for handling burnout.
An Extrovert’s Recipe for Battling Burnout
“I run every morning at 5:30 a.m. because it’s the time I consistently have available that is just for me,” says one lawyer, who is a competent insurance defense attorney and mother of a grade school child. “I stay late at the office on Thursdays and attend a kick boxing class that runs until 9 p.m. I find that the combination of people and energy, plus a weekly night-off from mother duties, is a good release valve for pressures that builds up during my week. Fridays, I head to our favorite restaurant to meet up with my husband and son. We like coming together to celebrate and share our week. And the boisterous atmosphere of the pizza parlor is the perfect setting for a meal with our high-energy son.
“My husband is not an attorney but he has a demanding job, nonetheless. We work at our relationship so that no matter how busy our work gets, we have daily routines so we don’t get out of touch, like preparing the next day’s lunches together. We make an effort to schedule dinner and cards, or lunch and racket ball, with friends semi-monthly. As a family, we take a week-long ski vacation in winter, and in the summer we take another week for camping, canoeing and hiking. My husband and I take a three-day weekend alone together every other month to keep our romance alive.
“I put 180 percent into my work to keep myself on a partnership track, which is an important goal. I see myself as a professional woman, but that isn’t the sum total of who I am. My life is stressful and challenging. What works for me is scheduling lots of physical activities, and frequent opportunities for interacting with family and friends. In addition, I try to do one thing for myself every day even if it is only for 30 minutes.”
An Introvert’s Recipe for Battling Burnout
“I used to be in a big law firm. They were happy with me, but I felt like a fraud there,” says another lawyer, who recently transitioned to solo practice doing appellate work. “In the beginning it was important to me to practice in a big firm, because I wanted to be a role model as a gay corporate attorney. I gave up putting that pressure on myself. I found that just taking the subway downtown every day to work got me a bit crazy. I appreciated the time I spent alone researching and writing. So, one day I just woke up and said, ‘What the hell am I doing on this treadmill?’
“I’ve had to downsize to a more modest condo, but there is a park with gardens and a lake that I can see from my balcony, and I drink my coffee out there and meditate every morning.”
As for coping, “I’ve taken mental health days since I was in grade school. I belong to an online book club with people I have stayed friends with since college. Every year, we get together with our respective families at cabins on a lake in Maine for two weeks of relaxing and hanging around the fire. For two weeks I live in sandals, shorts and sweat shirts. Glorious! This concentrated time together, with nothing scheduled and no expectations, keeps me fueled the rest of the year.
“I am usually pretty busy with work, practicing my music, doing yoga and taking care of all the details of maintaining my home with my partner, who is also an attorney. We went through a crisis where we could have chosen to split up if we didn’t truly enjoy sharing our lives. I think our relationship has gotten stronger because we made a conscious decision to live a life committed to our values. We take mini-vacations together monthly and stay connected with the things that brought us together in the first place.”
Stressbusters: 10 Helpful Do’s and Don’ts
- Don’t go it alone. If you are feeling a lot of stress, talk to people who know exactly what you are going through. Contact your state bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program. The ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs (CoLAP) can put you in touch with your local program. If working more is how you cope, Workaholics Anonymous is a 12-step program that provides support to people who have a desire to stop working compulsively.
- Get free advice on managing your work. If you are feeling overwhelmed at work, chances are there is a helpful practice management tip that can help you get control of the myriad details that bedevil you. Call your practice management advisor. Just do it. The State and Local Bar Outreach Committee of the ABA Law Practice Management Section offers a directory of Practice Management Advisors throughout North America.
- Use stress management tools. MindTools offers tons of stress management resources that help you figure out on-the-job stress and how to combat it. Start with this helpful article on Avoiding Burnout.
- Learn relaxation techniques. Learn to meditate and begin a daily practice, for example. If you want to jump in, check out the online course from the Meditation Society of Australia, investigate the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society — The Law Program. Or, look into a good book on the subject like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living.
- Get acquainted with yourself. Take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment to understand your temperament (and hot buttons). Lawyer Assistance Programs can recommend someone who is certified to administer this tool in conjunction with career counseling.
- Laugh often. Collect jokes, cartoons, silly videos of skateboarding bulldogs, talking twin babies or a dog wins playing Simon Says in a humor folder on your desktop for those days when you need a quick laugh.
- Take a fitness break. “If you build time into your day to, say, run at noon, then you have an automatic stress break,” says Thoughtful Law blogger David J. Bilinsky, a practice management advisor for the Law Society of British Columbia. “You improve your fitness, get out with a different crowd — or have time alone, and clear your mind,” he says. “Your work improves because you come back to your desk with a clear head, a fresh outlook, infused with oxygen and ready to go. Your stress goes down and your attitude improves because of the relief from the pressure.” If you don’t exercise regularly, aim to commit to exercise at a moderate or vigorous level for 10 minutes at a time (and consult your doctor). See the Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Know when clients’ troubles have become your own. If you deal with clients in great turmoil and distress, learn to recognize if you are suffering from “compassion fatigue” or “Secondary Traumatic Stress” by reading “Secondary Trauma and Burnout in Attorneys: Effects of Work with Clients Who are Victims of Domestic Violence and Abuse” and get help.
- Don’t think of massage as a luxury. You know massage feels good, but do you know it’s good for you as well? See the types of massage on the Mayo Clinic website. Your doctor may prescribe massage to help you with stress and this Rx for stress can be paid with your Flexible Spending Account.
- Set boundaries. Laura A. Calloway, Director of the Alabama State Bar’s Practice Management Assistance Program, says her favorite stress management technique is to set firm boundaries on work. “If you regularly plan non-work activities this can help you in two ways,” says Laura, who blogs at The Last Word. “First, you have something to look forward to and a reason to get your work done by a certain time (work does expand to fit the time available). Second, you get the release and relief of doing something you enjoy with people you enjoy, which is, after all, the reason we work in the first place.”
Finally, if you think you might be headed for burnout, or want to make certain you never do, take it seriously. Read The Burnout Pandemic: Accommodating Workaholism in the Practice of Law by Steven M. Angel, written for the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Bar Journal. It’s the powerful story behind one lawyer’s burnout.
Above all, take it easy on yourself.
Sheila M. Blackford is an attorney and Practice Management Advisor for the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund. She received her J.D. with Tax Law Concentration from McGeorge School of Law. Sheila has been a member of the Oregon State Bar since 2000, and is a Council member of the American Bar Association Law Practice Management Section, and member of the Law Practice Magazine Editorial Board. She writes the Just Oregon Lawyers Blog.