Lawyer Burnout

Burnout is nature’s way of telling you, you’ve been going through the motions your soul has departed; you’re a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker. False optimism is like administrating stimulants to an exhausted nervous system. – Sam Keen

Sitting across from Tom, a lawyer for the past 15 years, I was struck by his ashen face.  Before he even said a word, before I asked him how his practice was going, his slumped shoulders spoke volumes about a good man weighed down.

As we spoke over coffee at Starbucks, he asked if I thought he was suffering from clinical depression.   I didn’t think so, I told him.  I thought he was burnt out.  

Tom burnout

According to an article on burnout in the ABA Journal, lawyers facing increasing pressure to “value engineer” their services have adopted a “better-cheaper-faster” approach to practicing law because that’s what their clients are demanding.

This was certainly true in Tom’s case.  There was no end, no limits to the demands put on him to be better, to be cheaper to run faster.  As if he were a machine.  He hunkered down into a survival mode, had little positive energy to invest in himself or his family and ultimately burned out like a meteorite entering the earth’s atmosphere.

Burnout isn’t just a consequence of trying to keep up with an insane schedule, however.  It’s also about how lawyers actually think.

Author of the book Stress Management for Lawyers: How to Increase Personal & Professional Satisfaction in the Law, Amiram Elwork, PhD  writes:

“Because law requires objective logical analysis and close attention to details, the legal profession attracts perfectionists. These are people who live by the rule: “If I don’t do a perfect job in every detail, I will fail.” Perfectionists tend to be workaholics who are often viewed as inflexible, uncomfortable with change, and obsessed with control but unconvinced that they have it. Since perfection can’t be achieved, striving for it can cause constant dissatisfaction.

“My clients are perfectionists,” says Alden Cass, a therapist to both corporate attorneys and men on Wall Street. “They have very rigid ideals in terms of win-lose,” he continues. “Their expectations of success are through the roof, and when their reality doesn’t match up with their expectations, it leads to burnout—they leave no room for error or failure at all in their formula.”

Elwork opines that “another reason that some lawyers experience burnout is that their core values are not aligned with their own behaviors. Sometimes this problem reflects an internal psychological conflict, whereas at other times it is a conflict between the lawyer’s values and those of the organization at which he or she works.”

My friend Tom is also in this boat.  He works for an insurance defense litigation firm.  He’s a compassionate man who tries his best to be a good person.  The culture of his firm tells him to “hammer” personal injury victims at their depositions and trials.  He hates to do this, but doesn’t know what else to do.  He has a family to support and feels stuck at his job.

He suspects other lawyers at his firm are burned out, but doesn’t really know what a burned out lawyer looks like.  There are, however, telltale signs.

BURNOUT’S TEN MILESTONES

  • Over-commitment (always in motion)
  • Inadequate breaks and rest (continuous client involvement)
  • Idealistic standards
  • Constant low-grade stress (occasionally interrupted by crisis!)
  • Lack of help and assistance
  • Chronic fatigue from pushing oneself (“hitting the wall”)
  • Strong sense of responsibility, even when others “dropped the ball”
  • Guilty feelings about missing church events/activities
  • Heavy job and family responsibilities/expectations
  • Inability (or strong reluctance) to say no

DEPRESSION vs. BURNOUT SIMILARITIES

While they share some similarities, there are some important differences between the two conditions.

Both depressed and burnout sufferers show symptoms of withdrawal and fatigue.

  • Depressed individuals also show signs of hopelessness and disinterest. Severe depression can already alter the sleep-wake pattern of an individual thus triggering insomnia.
  • The most serious cases are those involving persons who possess some recurring thoughts about death. Those who experience a burnout are often accompanied by feelings of helplessness, self-doubt and failure on top of the other feelings similarly experienced by depressed individuals.

DEPRESSION vs. BURNOUT DIFFERENCES  

Burnout is a state that is just induced by severe stress. Depression, on the other hand, is a clinical behavioral disorder affecting one’s mood. As such, it is therefore more appropriate to say that when you are having a burnout you are also at risk of experiencing or developing depression rather than the other way around.

  • Researchers have successfully found important physiological differences between people who suffer from burnout and those who suffer from depression: individuals suffering from burnout do not produce enough cortisol, as if the body decided to go on strike. As a reversal, those who suffer from depression produce too much of it.
  • When one is suffering from depression, he or she is unable to attain or experience a state of pleasure. As a result, you often see depressed individuals shrouded in extreme sadness. Burnout sufferers look different because they feel overly exhausted to the point of doubting their own ability to carry out their regular activities of daily living. Severe burnouts may also lead one doubt his self-worth.
  • Depression is usually rooted upon a number of factors like when one is suffering from an incurable chronic disease or an extreme severance of relationship (death, breaking from a serious romantic relationship) with a very significant other. Depression has also been discovered to have some genetic predisposition and environmental roots. With regard to burnout, this condition is usually tied in with strains in work and high demand stresses of life in general.

A STRATEGY FOR AVOIDING BURNOUT                                                                

It’s easier to avoid burnout in the first place than it is to overcome it. Here a handful of do-able strategies for escaping its clutches:

  • Rest, relax, recreate, renew. It’s the only avenue for sustaining us for the long haul.
  • Give something up before taking on a new commitment or responsibility. Don’t keep “adding floors” onto your already towering skyscraper of activities.
  • Learn to say no and to set up reasonable boundaries around your involvement. Specify the help you’ll need and the constraints on your time.
  • Set priorities and consult with your family. Service work occupies an essential role in our lives but must never take priority over family. Be willing to occasionally say no to low priority activities when they conflict with quality family time.
  • Get away from it all on a regular basis through hobbies, recreation, short “sabbaticals,” and sometimes just being a couch potato.
  • Listen to your body’s stress warning signals, such as headaches, backaches, dizziness, insomnia, and unexplainable fatigue.
  • Cut out the hurry and worry. Stress is the natural byproduct of trying to stuff 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5 pound bag. Do only what you reasonably can in the time available and with the resources available.
  • Consider changing jobs.  Sometimes the only thing you can do is leave your job and seek employment at another firm.
  • Consider changing careers.  Some lawyers tell me that they are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  Being burned out has forced them to confront this decision.  It can be done and there are many happy ex-lawyers out there.

Further reading —

The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law by Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder

Say Ciao to Chow Mein: Conquering Career Burnout by Christina H. Bost Seaton

Can’t Get No Satisfaction: Burnout – New York Magazine article

Burnout: Avoidable, Not Inevitable – American Bar Association article

Knockout Burnout! – Attorney at Work website article

 

A Lawyer’s Heart

I’ve felt plenty of anger over my twenty years as a litigator.  Sometimes, and thank God they were few and far between, I would blow up at opposing counsel or a client.  More often, my anger would sometimes simmer just below the surface.  This is an all too common reality for today’s lawyer.  “By definition, the adversarial system is conflict-ridden, and conflict creates certain types of emotions like anger, guilt and fear, which causes stress, says Amiram Elwork, Ph.D. author of the book, Stress Management for Lawyers

According to Chicago litigator, Shawn Wood, the “nature of civil litigation involves two lawyers (often Type A personalities) squaring off against one another under circumstances where there will be a winner and a loser, and part of each lawyers job will be to capitalize on any possible error in judgment that the other side makes.”  I really don’t buy into this completely.  Many lawyers that I know aren’t “Type A” personalities.  They are usually hard working and successful.  But, it can take a tremendous toll on their mental and physical health.  They struggle with the simmering variety of anger.

Anger turned outward is hostility.  Such hostility can express itself in a number of ways for lawyers.  Andy Benjamin, Ph.D., both a lawyer and psychologist who treats lawyers with stress, anxiety and depression, describes hostility as an “array” of the following thoughts and behaviors: 

  • Holding persistent negative, hostile, or cynical thoughts during relationship interactions;
  • Chronic impatience;
  • Frequent irritability
  • Disconnecting from others due to an empathetic deficit (for example, being rigid in relationship interactions);
  • Suffering continual fatigue.

You could say most people have these problems in our hectic, stressful world.  “But lawyers are particularly susceptible to stress-related illnesses because of the unique interplay of the legal profession and lawyer personality” says the ABA Journal.  A study that followed University of North Carolina law students as lawyers for 30 years suggested that those with significantly elevated levels of hostility were more likely to have died prematurely from cardiovascular disease.

According to Jesse Stewart, assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University, depression and hostility commonly occur together.  When a person is both depressed and hostile, the traits interact in a complex way to elevate inflammatory proteins in the body.  The combination of hostility plus depression appears to be as dangerous a risk factor for heart disease as high blood pressure or even smoking.

Edward C. Suarez, Ph.D., of Duke University, says a recent study, “. . . suggests the possibility that men who are . . . hostile and exhibit depressive symptoms, even in the mild to moderate range, are at heightened risk for cardiac events.”  This is so because of the release of adrenaline during times of stress.  According to Dr. Cleaves M. Bennet, clinical professor of medicine at UCLA Medical Center,  “Adrenaline is the growth hormone for the heart muscle.  On the one hand, its good to have a big, strong heart, but at the same time that the heart is getting bigger and stronger, the arteries are narrowing to protect the tissue.”

Given the clear connection between lawyer hostility, depression and the heightened risk for a cardiac event, what can lawyers do about it?

First and foremost, they need to educate themselves about the connection between depression, hostility and heart disease. Most people don’t see the correlation. But, there’s no denying the science which makes the links. 

Second, because hostility creates stress in the body (i.e. the release of adrenaline and cortisol when the body goes into the fight or flight mode), it’s critical to discharge the stress through some form of exercise.  When I go through a good workout after a confrontational day, it’s as if I am wiping the slate clean.  I am discharging the stress that is causing so much trouble in my body and bringing it back into some kind of balance.  Exercise is really just a formalized form of the flight response to stress.  Our bodies want to step on the gas.  Listen to your body and let it run.

Third, you need to find out where your hostility is coming from.  Is it from problems in your personal life that you bring into your daily life as a lawyer?  If so, these need to be met and addressed.  Or, is it the other way around?  Is it the daily grind and confrontation at the office that you bring home?  It’s important to figure this out.  If opposing counsel is a jerk and elicits a hostile reaction from you, it might be time to learn (and, yes, it is a skill you can learn) different ways of being assertive without harming your heart and increasing your risk for depression.  If it is problems at home, identify them and if need be, go for counseling.

Fourth, learn to tell the difference between being assertive and being aggressive. For further reading on this topic, check out this article “Are you Assertive – or Aggressive?” and the article “Assertive, Not Aggressive.”  To help evaluate your own levels of perceived stress and associated health risks, visit the University at Pittsburgh Center’s Healthy Lifestyle Program Web site.

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