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Legally Burned. The Dark Side of Practicing Law

Updated: Mar 11

By Marco Imperiale


Introduction

Burnout is an increasingly prevalent phenomenon in the legal industry, and, unfortunately, its impact has been amplified in the post-pandemic scenario. The legal professionals operate in a VUCA world (a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), and often find it challenging to experience excitement and passion for their work. Instead, energy depletion, stress, and fatigue have become constant companions of their activity. The outlook for the future months is far from optimistic, adding to the already burdensome challenges faced by legal practitioners.


Definition and Data

According to Christina Maslach and Michael Laiter [1], burnout is a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The three key dimensions of this response are overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. This syndrome is not only detrimental to the well-being and mental health of professionals, but also has significant implications for the quality of their work, personal life, and the overall working environment. Over time, the concept of burnout has evolved and been redefined in various occupational contexts, building on the seminal work of C. Maslach and S. Jackson.

The data concerning burnout in the legal field is both compelling and concerning. A survey conducted by ALM for its Mental Health Abuse report [2] revealed that 31.2% of the 3,800 legal professionals surveyed reported feeling depressed, 64% experienced anxiety, 10.1% faced alcohol addiction, and 2.8% reported drug abuse [3]. These figures paint a stark picture of the mental health challenges prevalent in the legal profession. Moreover, according to American Psychological Association [4], burnout costs the United States an astounding 500 billion U.S. dollars annually, equivalent to 550 million lost workdays. What is even more alarming is the upward trajectory of these mental health issues, which now play a crucial role in evaluating performance, resilience, and the attraction and retention of top legal talents.


Reasons behind the rise of burnout cases The burnout crisis in the legal profession is influenced by various factors, both intrinsic to the nature of our job and related to how legal professionals manage their personal and professional lives. Understanding these factors is crucial for developing effective strategies to mitigate burnout.


The following are some of the most significant reasons contributing to burnout:


· Workload and constant pressure: The demanding nature of legal work often entails heavy workloads, tight deadlines, and long hours. Additionally, the need to meet client expectations and billable hour targets further exacerbates the perception of the pressure.


· Typology of interactions: Legal professionals frequently encounter stress and emotional strain in their interactions with clients, counterparties, and sometimes colleagues. Dealing with difficult or demanding clients, managing conflicts, and navigating sensitive and emotionally charged cases – especially in adversarial settings - can take a toll on our well-being.

· Organizational factors: Organizational factors within law firms and in-house legal departments are a relevant issue, considering their impact in terms of autonomy, excessive bureaucracy, poor leadership, and limited opportunities for growth and advancement.

Additional factors may be toxic work environments characterized by high levels of competition and cultural factors (e.g. implicit favor for in-person presence over smart working).

· Work-life imbalance: The demanding nature of legal work often leads to a significant imbalance between professional responsibilities and personal life. We may struggle to find time for self-care, leisure activities, and nurturing personal relationships due to work demands.

· Role ambiguity: Uncertainty regarding job roles, unclear performance expectations, and conflicting demands from different stakeholders can create frustration and raise stress levels.


· Personality traits and coping mechanisms: Individual characteristics and personality traits, such as perfectionism, self-efficacy, and resilience, can impact how we perceive and respond to work-related stressors. Additional factors may be the individualistic nature of legal professionals and reluctance to work in group, which can hinder collaboration and the establishment of support systems.


· Lack of resources and proper support: Law firms and legal departments have been significantly impacted by economic crises and the constant uncertainty surrounding the future of the legal profession. As a result, resource constraints and reduced support for legal professionals have become prevalent, even in successful companies.


· Difficulty to catch-up and high competitivity. It is undeniable that being a legal professional in a world driven by exponential innovation is harder than ever. The amount of legal updates and the constant emergence of new areas, most of them driven by uncertainty (from nfts to cryptocurrencies, from anti money laundering to artificial intelligence, from esg to litigation funding, the examples are endless), is mesmerizing. If this is not enough, the amount of competition among legal professionals, mixed with declining demand in many areas and the emergence of new technologies and alternative providers, create a “perfect storm” scenario. I was very surprised when, at a managing partners international conference, the main question was: “What keeps you awake at night?”


Consequences of Burnout in the Legal Profession

The consequences of burnout in the legal profession extend beyond individual well-being and mental health. They also have significant implications for firms and organizations. Research consistently highlights the following outcomes associated with burnout:


· Decreased performances and professional functioning: Burnout can significantly impact the professional functioning and performance of legal practitioners. Emotional exhaustion and reduced personal accomplishment can lead to decreased job engagement, impaired concentration, and diminished productivity.


· Increased turnover and career dissatisfaction: The prevalence of burnout in the legal profession is associated with high rates of turnover and career dissatisfaction. Studies consistently show that burnout is a significant predictor of intentions to leave the legal profession and/or the legal department/the law firm. The demanding and stressful nature of legal work, coupled with the negative effects of burnout, can indeed lead to disillusionment and decreased commitment. It is worth to stress that high turnover not only disrupts the continuity of legal services but also incurs significant costs for organizations in terms of recruitment, training, and loss of expertise.

· Ethical issues and professional conduct: Burnout can have ethical implications, potentially compromising the professional conduct and ethical decision-making of legal professionals. Exhaustion and emotional detachment associated with burnout can erode empathy, impair judgment, and increase the likelihood of engaging in unethical behaviors. Research has shown an association between burnout and an increased likelihood of unethical practices such as neglecting client interests, compromising confidentiality, or engaging in dishonest behavior.


Strategies to avoid burnout

Burnout can be both avoided and limited through various interventions. Implementing these strategies is essential for promoting well-being and maintaining a resilient legal workforce. The following major steps and additional strategies provide a comprehensive approach to addressing burnout:


Major Steps:

· Acknowledgement and awareness: Recognizing and acknowledging the existence of burnout is a crucial first step. Without this awareness, we may not be inclined to seek help or take necessary actions to address burnout.


· Improving sleep: Prioritizing adequate sleep is essential for replenishing energy levels and manage/balance our emotions.

Establishing a consistent sleep routine and practicing good sleep practices, such as avoiding screens before bedtime, and exploring relaxation techniques or sleep aids can contribute to our wellness.


· Analyzing the reasons behind the burnout: Understanding the underlying causes of burnout is a crucial part of the process. Was burnout related to workload, difficulties in managing work-life balance, lack of self-care, financial issues, or a combination of factors? The more insight we gain into the reasons behind the burnout, the better equipped we will be to address the challenges effectively.

· Setting Limits: Embracing the concept of limitation is essential in conserving energy and preventing burnout. This can involve practical steps such as learning to say no to additional commitments, delegating tasks, or avoiding taking on unnecessary responsibilities. Implicitly, it may mean refraining from pursuing specific career promotions or additional tasks that could further strain well-being.


· Seeking help: Overcoming the stigma surrounding therapy and counseling is crucial for addressing burnout effectively. Seeking professional help can provide valuable support and guidance, both in the short term and for long-term well-being and performance.


Additional Strategies may be the following ones:

· Cultivating positivity: Engaging in practices that promote positivity is essential for preventing and combating burnout. Practicing gratitude meditation, where we reflect on and express gratitude for aspects of our life, or positive affirmations - whether keeping a gratitude journal, or engaging in acts of kindness -can help rewire the brain to experience and appreciate positive experiences, fostering resilience and well-being.


· Regular Exercise: Regular physical activity is not only beneficial for physical health but also plays a significant role in maintaining mental well-being. Engaging in activities such as jogging, swimming, yoga, can release endorphins and lower our cortisol level, therefore reducing our stress.


· Healthy Eating: Nutrition plays a crucial role in maintaining optimal well-being and preventing burnout. I would suggest implementing a balanced and nutritious diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, in order to provide the body with essential nutrients for energy and mental clarity. I would also recommend staying hydrated by drinking an adequate amount of water throughout the day and avoiding excessive consumption of alcohol and caffeine, which can disrupt sleep patterns and contribute to anxiety.

· Self-Care: Prioritizing self-care is paramount for preventing burnout and maintaining overall well-being. I would therefore suggest engaging in activities that bring joy, relaxation, and fulfillment. This can include hobbies, creative pursuits, spending quality time with loved ones, or simply taking time for oneself to rest and recharge. Another strategy could be “spoiling ourselves” after concluding a difficult task or a challenging project.


· Redefining technology usage: The rapid advancement of technology has created new challenges in preventing burnout. However, establishing healthy boundaries and redefining the relationship with technology can help mitigate its negative impact. I would suggest setting designated periods of time for screen-free activities, disconnecting from work-related devices during personal time, and practicing mindfulness. Another recommended strategy is limiting compulsive email checking and social media presence. I am aware of the challenges related to this last point (how can we manage our boundaries if clients and/or bosses are asking us to reply to emails and chat messages in real-time?). A good idea could be an honest conversation on the matter, highlighting the benefits of dedicated focus time.

· Recognizing Limitations: Acknowledging personal limitations is an essential aspect of preventing burnout. As one of my Zen masters used to say: “the best way to have more energy is spending less energy”. Understanding and accepting one's limitations, whether setting realistic expectations, delegating tasks when necessary, or seeking support when feeling overwhelmed, is a necessary step for personal and professional well-being. Is that weekend task really essential? Do we really need that promotion? Can we avoid an unnecessary meeting?


· Focusing on the long term: This is a crucial, but sometimes underestimated element. Legal profession is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. How about prioritizing long-term goals and sustainable practices over short-term gains? How about considering the broader impact of decisions and actions on physical and mental health? How about taking a short break in order to understand better the direction we want our carrier to move?


· Journaling: Engaging in reflective writing or journaling can serve as a valuable tool for self-reflection, emotional processing, and stress management. By putting thoughts and emotions onto paper, we can gain insights, identify patterns, and obtain a better understanding of their experiences and feelings.


The Aftermath

Addressing burnout is not only about finding

strategies to overcome it but also about navigating the aftermath and finding ways to prevent its recurrence. This is why I would suggest professionals to take the following steps to foster recovery and resilience:


· Speaking openly about burnout: Sharing personal experiences openly and honestly can help reducing the stigma surrounding burnout and creating a supportive environment, whether inside the office/firm and more in general in the legal profession. By initiating conversations, we can provide support and encouragement to others who may be facing similar challenges.


· Mentoring Other Professionals: As we recover from burnout, we can play a pivotal role in mentoring and supporting colleagues who may be experiencing similar difficulties. Sharing insights, coping strategies, and lessons learned can create a sense of camaraderie and help others navigate their own journeys toward well-being and resilience.


· Promoting Positive Initiatives: We can actively contribute to fostering a culture of well-being and mental health within our professional circles. Most of the legal associations, for example, have chapters and/or initiatives related to mental wellness. How about advocating for supportive policies and practices, organizing awareness campaigns, or establishing support networks? How about sharing our experience for an incoming report on the topic?

· Maintaining Vigilance: Recovering from burnout requires ongoing self-care and vigilance. It is essential to continue implementing healthy coping strategies, maintaining boundaries, and prioritizing self-care even after the immediate effects of burnout have subsided. Burnout can be a recurring challenge, but with ongoing attention and care, we can build resilience and maintain our well-being.


Conclusions

Burnout poses a significant challenge to the legal profession, impacting the well-being of legal professionals and the quality of our work. Lawyers and in-house counsels can safeguard their mental health and overall well-being by implementing strategies to prevent and address it.


With this article, I aimed to provide information and practical takeaways to raise awareness on a delicate topic. I am aware of the fact that navigating the complexities of legal profession is harder than ever, but through individual and collective efforts we can foster a culture of well-being and resilience, ensuring the success of all practitioners and the long-term sustainability of the field.


Notes: [1] C. Maslach, M. Laiter “Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry” in World Psychiatry. 2016 Jun; 15(2): 103–111.

[2] For further info https://www.alm.com/intelligence/solutions-we-provide/surveys-rankings-and-reports/surveys-rankings-and-reports-list/mental-health-substance-abuse/ [3] Further details are provided in Sharon Miki’s article “Lawyer Burnout: Stopping it Before it Starts”, available at https://www.clio.com/blog/lawyer-burnout/

[4] For further information, check this article on Harvard Business Review, available at https://hbr.org/2019/12/burnout-is-about-your-workplace-not-your-people

 

About the Author

Marco is the founder and managing director of Better Ipsum, a consultancy focused on legal design, legal innovation, and legal well-being. He is also a frequent keynote speaker (100+ national and international events). A true legal design and innovation pioneer,


Marco wrote (with Barbara de Muro) the first Italian book on legal design and lectured the course on legal design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. At Harvard, where he graduated as Fulbright Scholar, he also worked as visiting researcher.


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