Work-Related Stress: Avoiding Solicitor Burnout

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An image of battery that is "in the red" or close to depleted, which serves as a visual metaphor for work-related stress for solicitors that leads to burnout

While legal work can be incredibly fulfilling, by its nature, working as a solicitor can be stressful, which means that solicitor burnout and exhaustion can become a serious problem if left unchecked. Industry-wide, ultra-competitive professional cultures and excessive hours are leading to overworked solicitors, rampant work-related stress, and widespread wellness and solicitor mental health issues. Consider the following statistics related to solicitors’ levels work-related stress and burnout:

  • According to a survey by the insurance firm Protectivity, the legal profession is the second most stressed profession in Britain, with 63% of respondents reporting they suffer from stress on a daily basis. 
  • LawCare’s Life in the Law study for 2020/21 found that 69% of participants reported having mental health problems in the preceding 12 months. Of those surveyed, 61% said they suffered anxiety, 48% reported low moods, and 32% reported a strain on family/relationships.  
  • The same LawCare study found that 27.2% of those in the legal profession consumed two drinks of alcohol a day and 14% had three drinks per day. A further 12% reported that they were drinking four or more alcoholic drinks a day.
  • The effects of stress are pronounced among younger lawyers. A report from the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) of the Law Society of England and Wales found that over 93% of young people working in the legal profession are stressed at work, with almost 25% saying they felt severe/extreme stress. Three in four reported disrupted sleep, and just under 60% said they suffered from anxiety, fatigue, and depression. 

If left unmanaged, stress can lead to solicitor burnout or other mental health problems. But, solicitor burnout isn’t inevitable—especially if you can manage it before it wears you too far down.

To help, we’ve taken a close look at the causes, signs, and consequences of solicitor stress and burnout—and how you can take steps to avoid work-related stress and the subsequent burnout. Guided by a combination of our research and the expert advice of professional lawyer coaches Allison Wolf and Terry DeMeo, this article will outline why solicitor burnout and high work-related stress levels are such serious issues within the industry, as well as how to prevent burnout, or how to deal with it once you have it. 

What is solicitor burnout?

Burnout is not just a trendy term, an expected but unavoidable hazard of the job, or simply feeling tired at the end of a hectic day. It’s a serious medical condition that needs to be managed before it worsens. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is an occupational hazard—“a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 

The WHO outlines several signs of burnout, including:

  • Feelings of exhaustion
  • Pulling away mentally from a job
  • Work-related cynicism

While anyone in any profession can absolutely experience burnout and work-related stress, solicitors are particularly prone to suffering from it, and to suffering the consequences.

“You can be drawn into the practice of law for really good reasons, and it can be an appropriate career choice for you, and yet circumstances in your law firm and in your practice can lead you to burnout—even in a situation where it was something that you enjoyed,” Allison, a Professional Certified Coach who was interviewed along with Terry at the Clio Cloud Conference, noted.

In extreme cases, the impact of burnout for solicitors is vast, significant, and serious. As Terry, who is a Master Certified Coach, said, “The last information I saw indicated that lawyers had the highest alcoholism rates, the highest depression rates, the highest suicide rates. There’s a lot of dissatisfaction in the profession.”

Work-related stress and the average solicitor

While most people experience stress in their lives, solicitors and others working in the legal profession face a unique conundrum: For many, the drive and dedication that makes them so successful is also what causes stress and burns them out.

Many careers are high stress—so why are solicitors at a higher risk of burnout than many other working professionals?  Why do work-related stress statistics show that solicitors are experiencing greater levels of stress than their counterparts in other professions?

Usually, a combination of factors, like those listed below, work together over time to create overworked, stressed-out, burned-out solicitors:

Personality type

Solicitors generally have high-achieving, A-type personalities—from the earliest days of their traineeship and through their careers, that intensity and ambitious drive can lead to stress that, eventually, builds towards burnout. 

Perfectionism

Many solicitors are perfectionists—when dealing with a complex legal case, this trait serves them well.  However, that drive towards perfection can lead to greater lows and higher levels of disappointment with failures (or perceived failures) than non-perfectionist personalities experience.

Excessive hours

Solicitors work a lot. According to the 2018 Legal Trends Report, which asked solicitors about their working hours, 75% of lawyers frequently work outside of regular business hours. The report also found that lawyers work, on average, 140 unplanned hours a year—or about 3.5 weeks a year of unplanned work. These statistics alone make it clear why solicitors are burned out.

Professional culture

Law firms can be competitive environments, and traditionally overwork is seen as a badge of honour, something that starts early and continues throughout a legal professional’s career. Because the law is rooted in ideas that tend to value overworked lawyers, attitudes of strength, and “toughing it out,” it can be difficult for solicitors to ask for help when they need it.

Lack of support

Similarly, when some legal firms are hyper-focused on generating profits and billable hours, they might overlook lawyer wellness. By not taking breaks or having stress-relieving resources readily available, solicitor stress can build towards burnout. Solicitors may not be getting support to look after their mental health, or it may not appear to be a priority: According to LawCare’s Life in the Law study, just 54% of those surveyed said they were provided with mental health wellbeing training in their workplace.

8 signs of work-related stress and solicitor burnout

Excessive work-related stress and solicitor burnout doesn’t happen overnight—it builds up gradually over time. In order to deal with (and hopefully avoid) solicitor burnout, it’s important for solicitors to pay attention to their mental health and to know the signs of stress and potential burnout. Recognising when your stress has become unmanageable and knowing when you might be on the edge of burnout could help you to avoid a serious mental health issue. Essential to that process is catching rising stress levels early. A large part of that is paying attention to how you’re feeling.

“A lot of the early signs come from, ‘I used to feel kind of happy or excited when I got into the office or I felt enthusiastic about my day, and I’m noticing that I don’t feel that way at all and it’s starting to become a real drag,’” Allison explained, “that is a very, very big warning sign.”

For Terry, her own experience of lawyer burnout impacted multiple aspects of her life. 

“The stress level got so high that I didn’t want to get up in the morning and go to work most of the time,” she explained. “Even though there were aspects of my work I loved, the stress levels were so high that it was impacting my relationship with my children, my personal relationships, and it felt very close to what depression feels like—like you’re just slogging through molasses and don’t want to do it anymore.”

Detecting burnout in solicitors can be tricky, especially as many of the symptoms can be caused by other ailments (which is why it’s a good idea to consult with a doctor if you’re feeling burned out, but aren’t sure). 

That being said, while there’s no one experience of solicitor burnout, there are several common signs to be mindful of. Here are some of the common signs that you’re getting close to burning out:

1. You’re exhausted

Extreme fatigue, even when you get adequate sleep, could be a sign that you’re more than just sleep deprived after several long days at the office.

2. You feel detached

Was there once a time where you couldn’t wait to get to the office, but now you find it hard to muster the energy to pretend to care? Becoming disengaged from work and cynical (or, worse, completely dreading the day-to-day practice of the career you once loved) are classic signs of burnout.

3. You can’t concentrate

A lack of attention and missing key details could be signs of burnout. The big issue with this sign is it can impact more than just you if you’re accidentally overlooking details on cases. Have you noticed that you’re making small or careless mistakes that you wouldn’t previously have made, or that the quality of your work has decreased? If it’s just one bad day, that’s likely not something to be concerned about, but if you’re frequently struggling to concentrate in the office or at home, it could be a sign that you’re approaching or experiencing burnout.

4. You’re self-medicating

As American attorney and activist Brian Cuban explored through research and his own experience in The Addicted Lawyer, the legal profession is, unfortunately, an industry that suffers from addiction issues. When it comes to work-related stress, solicitors may find that they’re increasingly self-medicating. The LawCare Life in the Law study referenced earlier in this aricle draws a strong link between alcohol and burnout: it found that participants who reported that they consumed nine or more alcoholic drinks each day presented with the highest levels of burnout.

Don’t ignore it if you find your usual habits changing. Turning to alcohol and other substances to push through your day is a serious sign that something is off. 

5. You have no work-life balance

Working so much that you’re missing out on your family and personal time erodes your wellness. The human mind needs downtime and pleasant, stress-free experiences to recuperate. If you find yourself feeling chronically imbalanced and feeling stressed or guilty about missing out on time with family or friends, it can signal incoming burnout.

6. Your relationships are in trouble

As Terry explained, solicitors dealing with a lot of work-related stress or who are on the verge of burnout can exhibit irritability when they actually do have a moment of home time. “I think relationships, personal relationships, start to deteriorate. People get crabby with their partners; they get crabby with their children.”

7. You’re feeling “stuck”

Burnout can make you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere or making any progress, even if you’re working day and night. The self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy that come with this hard-work-no-results experience can be hard to handle.

8. You’re always stressed

Chronic stress (and the physical signs of stress like sweating and heart palpitations) could signal impending burnout and further mental health problems. 

How solicitors and law firms can prevent burnout

For overworked solicitors who are dealing with work-related stress and on the verge of burnout, it’s important to act quickly. You’ll be far better off slowing down for a bit and recovering than if you push yourself to the point of total mental and physical exhaustion. 

If you think you’re at risk of burnout:

  1. Step back.
  2. Assess your situation.
  3. Look for ways to curtail work-related stress and solicitor burnout.

Here are a few tactics we recommend solicitors use to take care of their mental health and keep work-related stress and burnout at bay.

Recharge your batteries

First and foremost, you need to sleep. One of the best things you can do is to rest and prioritise taking care of your body and mental wellbeing. Focus on just being yourself, rather than focusing on yourself just as a solicitor. 

As Terry said, the precursors for lawyers burning out are often simple things like “not having any personal time, not having any time to exercise, to take a yoga class, to feel like you can walk outside and get a breath of fresh air.”

Do things that make you happy—outside of work

Make a conscious effort to integrate non-work-related activities and hobbies into your day, as those non-billable hours can help make your billable hours more productive if you’re refreshed and energised. 

“It’s interesting, but engagement and activities that engage us are highly rejuvenating,” Allison noted. “It doesn’t have to just be meditation or downtime—other things can also be highly rejuvenating.”

Set boundaries

If you don’t want to burn out, you need to know (and respect) your limits. Solicitors need to know how to avoid work-related stress, by learning to say no and letting go of the belief that you can handle more than you actually can. 

For Terry, creating a new relationship with time is key to success

“When you talk to lawyers about what is bothering them so much, that will consistently tell you there’s not enough time, which is a lie,” she said. “That’s not a fact, it’s a belief. And when we ask ourselves, ‘Is that belief true?’ we find out that ‘there’s not enough time’ is really not a truthful belief. We can’t work 36 hours in a 24-hour day, and we can’t even work 24 hours in a 24-hour day. At some point, we stop. So it’s really coming to terms with the limitations of being a human in a human body, and honouring that.”

For more from Terry on the importance of boundaries, support, and self-care for lawyers during a crisis, listen to this episode of Clio’s Daily Matters podcast.

Be true to your values

If you’re working in a way that creates stress and at a pace that may lead to mental health problems, that is an unsustainable path that is like a roadmap to solicitor burnout. Instead, Allison recommended taking a look at where you are, and deciding what kind of firm you want to practice at. 

“What’s important is finding your own truth, and finding out what’s going to work for you, and not an unhealthy model that you’re necessarily being forced into,” she said. “You need not be forced. There are options. There are always options. You have choice.”

Automate aspects of your legal firm

This is a more practical way of dealing with potential burnout in your law firm. Any technology that streamlines workflows, saves time, and makes work easier can support a better work-life balance. It can also help relieve the time pressures of getting certain tasks done. 

For example, Clio’s Mobile App gives you the flexibility to be productive when (and where) you want to be—so you can disconnect when you need to.

What should you do if you experience burnout?

When faced with burnout, it’s best to take steps to manage the situation as soon as possible. Otherwise, you may need to take extreme action such as a long-term hiatus or even a career change.

If you’re coping with solicitor burnout or severe work-related stress currently, know that there is hope. Here are some tactics that can help you recover:

1. Acknowledge the situation

The first step to managing solicitor burnout is to acknowledge the situation for what it is. It can be tough for solicitors who’ve been conditioned to have an image of themselves as superhuman to acknowledge that they are under stress, but if you can recognise and admit when you’re getting burned out, you’ll be able to take better care of yourself and your clients in the long run. 

2. Ask for help

“Don’t go it alone,” Allison said. When you notice a change or shift in yourself, “talk to someone, talk to your mentor, talk to an advisor from one of the lawyer assistance programmes. Talk to a coach, but talk to someone in confidence about what’s going on, because at this point there needs to be a bit of an analysis.”

“Sometimes you just have to admit you need support,” Terry explained. 

There are a number of resources in the UK and Ireland that offer support services to those working in the legal profession. 

In the UK, LawCare, an independent charity, works to promote good mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession. They offer support through online emails and chats and also one-on-one support networks. Their website has a “Wellness Hub” that’s full of tips and resources for both physical and mental wellbeing.  

In Ireland, LegalMind is an independent and confidential mental health support that is available to members of the Law Society of Ireland and anyone with a Practising Certificate. They have a 24-hour helpline and also offer online video or over-the-phone therapeutic sessions with mental health professionals. 

3. Look at what needs to change to fix the situation

Once you’ve found a support system and someone to talk to, ask questions.  Allison advises looking at questions like: “What are the hours looking like? What’s causing the heaviness? What needs to happen? What can be brought in or introduced? What’s going to help rejuvenate? What can be an energising piece to add in?”

4. Take a break

Of course, it sounds obvious to take a break if you’re overworked. This can sometimes be easier said than done. But a break could be the best solution for an overworked solicitor. This could look like a holiday (without constantly checking your email), or it might mean taking a temporary leave of absence.

5. Reconnect with why you became a solicitor

Remember when you were fresh on the job, and how exciting it felt to be a solicitor? If you don’t, you should. 

“Nobody goes to law school because they want to be miserable,” Terry said. “Many lawyers go for really good reasons. They want to help other people, change the world, and do important work. So I think it’s critically important to get back in touch with what your initial goals were in the first place, admitting that you’ve really separated from that, and finding your way back to your initial motivations.”

6. Make a plan

Just as your legal firm has a business plan to help it succeed, Allison recommends making a personal plan to help guide you away from work-related stress and burnout. 

“What are the things that give you energy and what are the things that engage you on a deep level? And how can you make sure that these are part of every single day, and that they’re a bigger part than the energy drains and the energy sucks? And structure this, build a plan around it, make this [plan].”

Jobs for stressed-out solicitors

If you’re burned out completely and looking to leave the legal profession, there are less stressful jobs out there. This could look like switching practice areas, changing firms, practising law part-time, or on a freelance or contract basis, or something outside of the law altogether. 

But the answer might not lie in leaving the career you’ve invested in over many years. What do the least stressed out solicitors in a stressed out profession have in common? We can’t say for sure, but we strongly suspect they follow many of Terry and Allison’s tips above. Set boundaries, get clear about your “why,” and prioritise doing things you love when you’re not at work. This way, you’ll be on your way to the work-life balance you crave.

A light at the end of the tunnel

If you’re feeling like you might be a burned-out solicitor, know that you’re not alone. But burnout doesn’t have to be forever. Being a successful solicitor doesn’t need to mean pulling all-nighters non-stop. Work-related stress an expected part of solicitors’ lives. In fact, by not working to the point of burnout, you can be more productive and effective during your working hours—and enjoy your life more outside of work. It’s possible to thrive, as a solicitor and as a human being.

Positive change to curb burnout is possible on a personal level. It’s also starting to happen at more and more firms. “I am seeing a real shift in a lot of firms towards wellness,” Allison said. “There are different firms with different cultures emerging, and we are seeing a shift. 100% it’s not everywhere, but it is towards a healthier way of practising.”

Categorized in: Wellness and Mental Health

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