How to Avoid Burnout in Law School

Written by Sharon Miki9 minutes well spent
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A graduation cap with flames for a tassel representing law student burnout

No one expects law school to be easy, and law school burnout can happen to even the highest-performing students. Many law students struggle with the mental, physical and emotional exhaustion that often comes with earning a law degree.

For law students, burnout can be a vicious cycle that can impact everything from mental health to career success. Students work so hard to succeed that they burn out, which makes it hard—sometimes even impossible—to be successful as a law student.

Thankfully, there are strategies to help students avoid burnout in law school. Below, we’ll explore some of the reasons why law students may be especially vulnerable to burnout, and some of the signs to watch out for. We’ll also offer some tips for how to help prevent or overcome burnout in law school—and after graduation.

What is burnout?

First, let’s look at what burnout actually is. While it’s not a medical diagnosis, burnout is an occupational phenomenon that arises when people find themselves under chronic workplace stress.

The American Psychological Association defines burnout as “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others” stemming “from performing at a high level until stress and tension, especially from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload, take their toll.”

So, put simply, when someone experiences extreme stress and overwork for a prolonged period of time, they can “burn out”—or feel so exhausted and drained that they stop caring. Eventually, this state of burnout can lead to being unable to move forward in their job or field.

Are law students more likely to burn out?

But what makes people who want to work in law susceptible to burnout?

While burnout can happen to anyone in any field, it tends to thrive in industries that are highly competitive and stressful with heavy workloads. Qualities like strong work ethic, dedication, and ambition that drive success in the legal profession—from law students to lawyers to paralegals—can make someone more vulnerable to burnout.

A 2022 survey of Massachusetts lawyers, for example, found that more than three quarters of respondents reported experiencing burnout, and nearly half were considering leaving their professions.

Law students are typically ambitious and high achievers by nature—they need to be to make their way into law school. Unfortunately, once in law school, many students struggle to balance their mental health and wellness. The combination of long hours, competing with peers, and pressure to perform at a high level can lead to law student burnout.

Stress is also a key contributor. Unmanaged stress leads to burnout in any industry, and most law students report significant stress—even when compared to other graduate students. Specifically, 96% of law students say they’re under significant stress, compared to 70% of medical students and 43% of graduate students.

What does law school burnout feel like?

While it’s normal to feel tired as a law student, there’s a fine line between working hard and feeling so drained that you become apathetic to school or your future career.

While it’s important to always check with your doctor if you experience new signs or symptoms that could indicate a change in your health or wellness, some common signs could indicate burnout.

Here are some potential signs of burnout that law students can watch out for:

  • Feeling like you’re in a constant state of stress
  • Experiencing overwhelming, ongoing exhaustion and a lack of energy
  • Feeling detached, cynical, or apathetic towards your studies or achievements
  • Having a lack of motivation and increased procrastination
  • Acting irritable or impatient with your peers or professors
  • Noticing changes in your sleep or eating habits
  • Feeling like you no longer care about your achievements
  • Observing an increased dependence on substances like food, drugs, or alcohol

Tips to avoid burnout in law school

While burnout has the potential to negatively impact a student’s law school experience, it’s not inevitable. The pressures and workloads of law school aren’t going anywhere, but there are steps you can take to help prevent or recover from burnout.

Consider the following strategies to deal with burnout in law school:

Prioritize work-life balance

You can’t sip from an empty cup, yet the lifestyle habits that support foundational wellness (what fills a law student’s hypothetical cup) are often the first to get dropped.

While certain lifestyle factors take time and may not mesh with the stereotypical vision of the law school grind, succumbing to a culture that glorifies overwork can leave law students feeling depleted and more susceptible to burnout.

Intentionally making time for things that boost work-life balance—like getting enough sleep, eating a nutritious diet, and fitting in daily exercise or physical activity—can go a long way towards managing stress and combating law student burnout.

It’s also a good idea for law students to be wary of things like drinking as a way to cope with stress, as they may be at risk of substance abuse and addiction. Substance abuse and addiction are prevalent among lawyers and law students, with a 2021 survey of law student well-being finding that nearly 27% of law students were at risk for alcoholism. If you or someone you know may be struggling with substance abuse, it’s important to seek qualified help.

Socialize with friends

Sometimes, the best way to pull yourself out of the waves of stress is to spend time with friends or family. While spending time together in person is ideal, a phone call or video chat with someone you care about is a good way to maintain a sense of social connection and feel supported.

Being friendly and social with law school peers is another way to feel less isolated and stressed. And, creating and maintaining relationships while in school is great practice for the networking that you’ll benefit from once you become a lawyer.

Practice a hobby

Taking a break from thinking about law school to spend time doing something that brings you joy may actually make it easier for you to focus on your studies when you return to them. Whether you choose a creative pursuit (like writing poetry or painting) or a sport (like a recreational volleyball league or morning jogs), scheduling some time to engage with a hobby that you find fun is a good way to recharge and de-stress.

Bonus points? Take up a hobby that you can pursue with a friend to get a boost of social connection at the same time.

Make mindfulness a habit

Law school is inherently stressful, but learning to manage and respond to that stress  through mindfulness can help you avoid burnout.

Mindfulness—the practice of bringing your attention to the present moment, without judgment—can help combat stress and anxiety while increasing focus and productivity.

New to the concept of mindfulness? Clio’s guide to how to practice mindfulness and avoid burnout and webinar on mindfulness and the practice of law are great places to start.

Improve time management

Feeling like there’s never enough time to tackle a law school workload can be a major source of stress, and can contribute to burnout. Implementing time-management strategies to help stay organized and work more efficiently can save time and, perhaps more importantly, help reduce feelings of stress and overwhelm.

Some ways to improve time management as a law student include:

  • Set up a routine. A structured routine (for example, a planned morning routine that you follow every day) can help reduce decision fatigue and stress.
  • Get organized with your schedule. Use a virtual calendar to keep track of classes, assignments, deadlines, and life commitments before they pile up or important commitments are forgotten.
  • Make a to-do list. Whether you’re a pen-and-paper person or prefer to use an app, getting your tasks written out can reduce the overwhelming feeling of everything swimming in your head.
  • Learn to prioritize. Not all tasks are of equal importance, so create a system (or use a productivity app) to keep track of what needs to be done, and what can wait until later. The Eisenhower Matrix, for example, is a popular way to balance urgency with importance.

Adopt time-saving tools

While the number of hours you have in a day is finite, the right tools can help you optimize your time, streamline repetitive tasks, and reduce your mental load.

Many of the best productivity apps for lawyers can also help law students save time. For example, law students can consider using:

  • Evernote to help you take, save, and organize notes more efficiently
  • Dictate+Connect to turn your smartphone (iOS or Android) into a dictation device
  • Penultimate to store your handwritten notes electronically
  • Fastcase to streamline legal research

You may also want to consider ways to ethically use AI tools to help streamline your daily tasks as a law student. ChatGPT, for example, could be useful to help you summarize and organize your notes—just be sure to make sure you verify anything you’ve used it for. One of ChatGPT’s weaknesses is that it occasionally generates false information, known as “hallucinating”.

Clio’s Academic Access Program (CAAP) offers another way for law students to streamline their workflows to help avoid burnout. With CAAP, students can request a free, full-featured demo account.

As a law student, you can use this free Clio account to help manage your course schedule, track time (for example, during your externship program), and learn how to use cloud-based technology to streamline tasks.

Once you graduate, knowing how to use Clio’s cloud-based management software can set you up for success as a new lawyer.

Final thoughts on law school burnout

Being a law student isn’t easy. While law students should be proud of their work ethic and achievements, it can be all too easy to cross the line from high-performing to burnt out. Ultimately, burnout makes the law school experience harder than it needs to be. It can potentially even derail your legal career before it starts.

The proactive steps you can take to mitigate burnout during law school can be carried forward to manage stress in your legal career—hopefully setting the bar to support lawyer mental health for the next generation of legal professionals.

A recap of how you can manage law school burnout:

  • Learning the signs of burnout, to better recognize when you’re at risk.
  • Taking pre-emptive measures like practicing mindfulness, taking time to connect with friends and improving your time management.
  • Using tech tools to streamline your tasks and make the most of your time. There are many low-cost and free options for students.

When it comes to burnout, prevention is easier than remedy, but both are possible if you take the necessary steps.

Request free access to Clio’s Academic Access Program to start streamlining some of your academic tasks.

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