A lack of boundaries has increased lawyer burnout.

In the legal profession, the term “lawyer burnout” is far from new. From the first year of law school to retirement, attorneys and legal staff are disproportionately affected by feelings of stress and overwhelm. It makes sense—you guide your clients through some of the most important (and sometimes traumatic) experiences of their lives, all while meeting tight deadlines, filing important paperwork, and making every court appearance. If it feels like you’re living in a pressure cooker, we get it.  

But for the general population, burnout has only entered the national conversation more recently. As Americans transitioned to working from home in early 2020, the lines blurred between professional and personal. Many employees worked longer hours, all while adjusting to caring for their families in new ways, coping with challenging news headlines, and navigating social unrest. 

So as our understanding of lawyer burnout continues to evolve and employers look for ways to better support their teams’ mental health, let’s take a look at how the legal profession has been affected by these recent trends. How are we experiencing burnout in our industry today, and how can we help our staff manage it better?  

What’s the state of burnout in the legal profession today?  

Last year, Smokeball delved into lawyer burnout management as part of our Healthy Remote Lawyer series, and one message rose to the top: there’s no one way of “solving” burnout. We have to work together to continuously tackle the issue.  

In our Law + The Great Resignation survey, Smokeball asked 150 leaders at small law firms to tell us: a) if 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 a third of leaders say that less than 10% of their employees have reported burnout. 
  • Only 3% of leaders say that more than half of their team has reported burnout.

An optimist might say this data shows that leaders are doing a great job shielding their teams from burnout. But based on the booming rates of lawyer burnout in all industries, we suspect something else is afoot: attorneys and staff aren’t sharing their burnout with firm leaders. That’s a big problem, according to attorney-turned-therapist and frequent Smokeball webinar presenter Chelsy Castro.  

“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 burnout is also a fight against that mindset.

4 Ways to Reduce Burnout at Your Law Firm 

As a leader, caring for your employees’ mental health is not only the responsible thing to do, but it can also go a long way in driving your business forward. 73% of employees said they’d be more likely to stay at a company that offered high-quality mental health resources, and 80% of employees who were treated for mental illness report higher levels of work effectiveness and satisfaction.  

So reducing burnout is crucial to helping you retain your staff and drive productivity at your firm. (And as a leader, you’ll personally benefit from a healthier work environment, too!) Here’s where to start.

1. Start with yourself

If burnout is happening at your organization, chances are you’re suffering from it as a leader, too. And as difficult as it can be, the first step is to acknowledge your own stress and overwhelm so that others can do the same.  

It’s a chain reaction: when attorneys talk about their own burnout, it helps others at the firms feel validated, and encourages them to take their own steps towards finding help. 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. Offering your real-life examples about your struggles to keep up with emails or meet client demands is a lot more relatable to your coworkers than any “top 5 list of burnout tips.” Your vulnerability can truly open the floodgates. 

This is how we destigmatize mental healthcare—by driving open, honest conversations that break down walls and help us connect with each other.

2. Shout it from the top down (and don’t stop)

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 messages and reminders from your leadership and HR teams — and the action to back it up. 

“People might not initially believe [that you’re moving towards a healthier culture free of burnout],” Castro says. “But the idea is to consistently expose them to the fact that [support] is an opportunity now.” 

What does that look like in practice? Remind employees to use their paid time off. Take your own vacations, and don’t respond to emails while you’re out.  Talk about therapy and mental health options, and share how you as a leader are using those resources (whenever you’re comfortable). Offer up your own stories about rest and relaxation, and encourage your staff to do the same—like spending time with family, going for a run or taking a yoga class.  

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 and constant reminders.

3. 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. In fact, according to the American Bar Association, 28% of lawyers have suffered from depression, which is higher than the 10% national average 

So, identifying new measures of success is crucial to helping your workforce find a better work-life balance. Anxiety and overwhelm do not equate to success: won cases, more efficient workflows, better client communication and a reasonable amount of time off do. 

“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.” Break those old expectations that 100 hours a week of work means you’re a good lawyer.

4. 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, we have to make an even greater effort to shut down our computers and put away our smartphones. 

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

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

Castro’s most important takeaway for every legal professional: Fighting 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 your team is struggling to find ways to reduce burnout, the Smokeball team is here to support you. Get in touch to find out how you can improve productivity without working more hours.  

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988) is available 24/7/365. 

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