A lack of boundaries has increased lawyer burnout.

The conversation around lawyer burnout is seemingly never-ending. Though attorneys and legal staff have been disproportionately affected by feelings of stress and overwhelm for years, the term “burnout” entered the popular conversation in 2020 as Americans worked longer hours from home.  

Last year, Smokeball delved into burnout management as part of our Healthy Remote Lawyer series. There’s no way of “solving” burnout — firms must continuously tackle the issue. That’s why we’re revisiting the conversation, armed with new insights from our Law + The Great Resignation survey and analysis from Chelsy Castro, an attorney-turned-therapist and frequent Smokeball webinar presenter. 

First, let’s review the data.  

Smokeball asked 150 leaders at firms with 30 or fewer employees to tell us whether a) they themselves have experienced burnout since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and b) what percentage of their firm had reported similar burnout. We found a stunning divide: 

  • 68% of firm leaders say they’ve personally experienced burnout 
  • But 34% say less than 10% of employees at their firm have reported burnout. Just 3% say more than half of their team has reported burnout. 

An optimist might say this data shows leaders are doing a great job shielding their teams from burnout. However, based on the booming rates of burnout in all industries throughout the U.S., we suspect something else is afoot: Attorneys and staff aren’t sharing their burnout with firm leaders. That’s a big problem, Castro says. 

“Burnout has to be something that’s actually talked about,” she says. “That seems like the obvious answer, but sometimes it’s also the most helpful one.” In traditionally tough-it-out industries like law, attorneys and staff hesitate to show any signs of perceived weakness. The fight against lawyer burnout is also a fight against that mindset. 

Start the conversation — and lead by example

Frequently, the burnout conversation can set off a chain reaction: When partners and attorneys talk about their own burnout, it helps others at the firms feel safer taking alleviation measures. It’s most important for firm leadership to share, Castro says, but every voice added to the conversation helps.  

“Share specifics about how you’ve struggled with burnout and overwhelm,” she says. Detailing your battle to open and answer emails is a lot more helpful for identifying lawyer burnout symptoms than a Top 5 list of tips. Your vulnerability can truly open the floodgates.  

Create change with firm-wide cultural efforts 

Shifting your firm from a “tough-it-out” mindset to one that honors mental and emotional needs doesn’t happen with one conversation. Change requires repeated exposure and messaging from your leadership and HR teams — and the supportive action to back it up.  

“People might not initially believe it,” Castro says. “But the idea is to consistently expose them to the fact that [support] is an opportunity now.”  

Working at a law firm is tough no matter your role, and legal pros must intentionally work on not getting to the crispy burned-out stage, Castro says. That doesn’t mean quitting the practice of law. But it does require intentional, long-term changes that reflect the modern needs of modern professionals. 

Define work in a healthy way

Legal professionals often derive their self-worth from their performance as an employee and see exhaustion or overwhelm as signs of success. “I’ve worked with so many lawyers that, even if their boss is saying they want them to do less, anything less than 110% gives them anxiety,” Castro says.  

Attorneys are particularly prone to anxiety, depression and other mental health struggles, all of which affect on-the-job performance and compound feelings of burnout. The ability to name and identify exhaustion and overwhelm in the moment is an important first step toward addressing their effects — and taking steps over the long term to pause before you reach that point. 

“You don’t have to have that sense of urgency and overwhelm in order to be working enough,” Castro says. “Not having urgency and overwhelm is not a warning sign.” 

Set (and maintain) boundaries

High-achieving people naturally struggle to set boundaries with their time, and for many, working from home destroyed the natural barrier between office and personal space. Now, individuals must make an even greater effort to shut down their computers and put away their smartphones.  

That means setting boundaries not just with colleagues and clients around your work hours, but with technology. Just because you can respond to that 11 p.m. email doesn’t mean you should. Castro suggests tangible actions like: 

  • Setting an endpoint for checking and responding to emails every day 
  • Focusing on specific tasks by setting a timer and ignoring other distractions 

Castro’s most important takeaway for every legal professional: Fighting lawyer burnout must be an intentional, conscious choice every day. “It’s not the big efforts,” she says. “It’s the small choices we make every day.” 

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) is available 24/7/365.