Editors Note: Dr. Amiram Elwork is a psychologist who specializes in working with the legal profession. He is the Director of the Law-Psychology Graduate Training Program at Widener University near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the President of the Vorkell Group, a consulting firm that helps lawyers and their firms achieve “true success” through a number of products and services, including organizational consulting, individual coaching, surveys, seminars, retreats, books and articles. Among his many publications, are two books entitled Stress Management for Lawyers and Success Briefs for Lawyers.
When individual lawyers seek the help of a counselor, it is not unusual for the conversation to start with: “I have been thinking about quitting my job or law altogether, but I am not sure what I should go into.” My usual advice on such matters is “slow down. While quitting your job or the law may in fact be the right thing to do, given the risks and costs involved, these should be options to consider only after you truly understand what has happened to you.”
I give this advice because by the time many lawyers seek professional help, they are often “burned out.” People who are experiencing burnout commonly want to make drastic decisions, but they are usually driven by desperation rather than inspiration. Because their thinking often lacks clarity, I ask them to take some time to just ponder.
“Burnout” is a term used to describe professionals engaged in people-oriented services who are experiencing emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of accomplishment. A typical symptom is feeling drained and unable to give to others, wishing that “they would all just go away.” Sometimes this can result in callous, rude, and inappropriate responses toward clients, colleagues and staff. The person may also feel inadequate and lacking in personal achievement and purpose.
It should be noted that although mental health professionals use the term “burnout” regularly, it is not an official mental health diagnosis. However, people who are seriously “burned out” usually exhibit the symptoms of at least a mild form of depression (e.g., pessimism, sadness), which is a mental health disorder. And so, it may be more accurate to think of “burnout” as a form of depression.
Although not all of the problems that lawyers encounter can be blamed on their line of work, the fact that they experience particularly high rates of burnout suggest that certain stressful characteristics of being an attorney must have at least a contributory effect.
The most stressful occupational demands of attorneys include: time pressures, work overload, competition, the need to keep up with a wide range of legal topics, balancing a personal life with professional obligations, and dealing with difficult people. Another stressor relates to the fact that the American system of justice is highly adversarial. Some lawyers also experience conflict and ambiguity about their roles, such as when they are forced to hurt people or to advocate for what they know are unjust results.
In addition to these external stressors, there are several personality characteristics among lawyers which may make them less prone to withstand the demands of their profession. The most significant one is “perfectionism.”
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.
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. Either way, when what you do is in conflict with what you think you should be doing, that triggers chronic feelings of guilt and unhappiness.
If you have experienced burnout for a long time or the symptoms are severe, it is best to seek professional help. However, if the symptoms are not severe enough to warrant professional intervention, there are a number of self-help techniques that are worth trying. All I can do here is to describe a few of them very briefly.
First, you must understand that the human stress response goes through a sequence of four events:
Stimulus > Thought > Emotion > Behavior
There is usually a triggering incident or stimulus that causes you to respond. Your initial response comes in the form of a conscious or unconscious mental appraisal. The thought causes an internal physiological response that results in one or more emotions. The emotions drive your external behaviors.
Using this model, your first attempt should be to try to change the external environmental demands that cause you stress. For example, if you are constantly being put under the stress of unreasonable deadlines, go to the person(s) involved and attempt to change the time lines. Or, if you don’t have enough support in the office, ask for additional support.
One would think that such advice is obvious, but I find that too many lawyers don’t even try these simple steps because they suffer from the illusion that it is a sign of weakness to do so. Their thought is that a “real lawyer can handle anything and that if I can’t take what is handed to me, I must not be good enough for this job.” Typically, this sort of misguided logic is a sign that the lawyer is a “perfectionist.”
This brings us to the second level of intervention one should try, namely to reduce one’s level of perfectionism. You do that by first becoming aware of how your perfectionism plays itself out on a daily basis, and then by interrupting your automatic thought patterns until you change them.
For example, let’s assume that you are a perfectionist and your senior managing partner asks you to take on a particularly difficult project (stimulus). Furthermore, let us assume that you are given an unreasonable deadline (stimulus), given all of the other matters for which you are responsible. Your initial reaction might be to think, “I have no choice. I must take on this case. I must accept this deadline. To do otherwise would be to show that I am incompetent.” In the eyes of perfectionist, being less than perfect or just plain human is a equivalent to being incompetent.
Inwardly, you might also be thinking: “If I don’t take this on without any hesitation, I will expose myself as being inferior. I don’t want anyone to find out who the real me is – – that I’m just an imposter and that I am not as good as others think I am.” Such thoughts will trigger emotions like fear of failure and rejection, as well as guilt. As a result, your outward response will probably be to reflexively say “yes” and to take on the project without any hesitation.
These reactions create a vicious cycle. Your inability to say “no” causes more stress because it creates an impossible workload and increases your chances of making sloppy mistakes. It reduces your ability to have a personal life and eventually leads you to feel burned out.
In order to improve your predicament, you must start by becoming fully aware of types of thoughts and emotions outlined above and by slowing them down. The best way to do this is to keep a daily log of them for two weeks and break all stressful experiences down into four elements: stimuli, thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
Once you are fully aware of your perfectionistic thoughts and emotions, you need to force yourself to begin interrupting them. The problem is that because so many of our dysfunctional thoughts and emotions are products of years of repetition, they tend to be driven by an internal automatic pilot. By continually interrupting such thoughts and emotions, however, it is possible to regain conscious control of them. Once you have done this, you need to begin cross-examining the validity of your automatic thoughts and emotions and considering other choices.
For example, using the scenario outlined above, you might ask yourself the following questions: “Would it be possible for me to suggest that someone else take on this project given the other things I have on my plate? Is it possible for me to delegate some of my other work to other attorneys? Is it really true that if I legitimately can’t do everything, I must take on this work anyway or be labeled a failure? Are my colleagues that unreasonable? Isn’t it true that I am the one who is being unreasonable with myself?”
Of course, it is possible that the realistic and true answers to the questions just posed would suggest that your organizational culture is fully to blame for your stress and burnout – – that you are not imagining it and there is nothing you can do about it, except leave. On the other hand, if perfectionism is responsible for much of your problem, then you should come to the realization that no matter where you go, you will still be you. The stresses that perfectionism cause will emerge on any job. Leaving your current job because you feel burned out may not be the long term answer to your problems after all.
Another intervention to try is to assess the extent to which your stress is caused by the fact that your work life is not in alignment with your values. Some misalignments are caused by internally conflicted or mutual exclusive values (e.g. high ambition vs. family). Other misalignments are created by the fact that there is a conflict between your values and the values of the organization for which you work (e.g. financial success at any cost versus ethical behavior).
If your value misalignments are internal, they must be resolved internally. Again, leaving your job or the law will usually not resolve such conflicts. If, on the other hand, your values conflict with those of your organization, then you are “a fish out of water” and a separation may be in order.
The interventions I have described are simple to comprehend, but they could be among the most difficult tasks you will ever undertake. Rather than running from your job or the law altogether, they require you to examine the issues that cause you stress more deeply before making any major moves, and to consider less drastic changes. You might still decide to leave your job or the law, but at least it will be for valid reasons.
Copyright Amiram Elwork. This article is reprinted here with the permission of Dr. Elwork. Dr. Elwork can be contacted at the Vorkell Group, 1422 Tanglewood Drive, North Wales, PA 19454. Telephone (215) 661-9330. E-mail aelwork@vorkell