Reasons Why Lawyers are Always at Risk for Burnout
Why are lawyers always so stressed?
It’s no secret that lawyers work in one of the world’s highest-stress professions. In fact, research shows that lawyers are nearly four times more likely to experience clinical depression than similar service professionals in other fields. But what specifically leads lawyers to get so stressed? Is it something inherent in the profession, or in the lawyers themselves? Let’s take a look at a few of the reasons why lawyers get burned out so easily—and what can be done to fix it.
Extremely high expectations of workplace performance
Unlike many industries, the legal profession often deals with very high stakes—and in many cases, when lawyers make a decisions, their clients’ livelihoods, lives, and futures hang in the balance, meaning that lawyers have little error for mistakes, errors, or lapses in judgment, no matter how well-intentioned they are. These high expectations, often rigidly enforced by a strict hierarchical management structure, means that new employees are often harshly reprimanded for mistakes and not often thanked for their hard work. However, this is only part of the problem. The way in which lawyers and law firms get paid for their work is also a factor.
Since the mid-1970s, the majority of law firms have used billable hours as the primary method of charging their clients for work performed. Unfortunately, this has many potentially negative side effects for the lawyers that work for these firms. Considering that law firms are charged by the length of time it takes to complete an assignment, project, or case, workers are incentivized to work as long and hard as possible, not as efficiently as possible. Billable hours and the quotas they create are some of the primary reasons why many lawyers are expected to effectively work 80+ hour weeks—far beyond that of the average American worker and closer to the workload of resident physicians and junior investment bankers (other professions notorious for overworking their employees).
Recent changes to the legal profession
The 2008 recession was not kind to lawyers. Huge layoffs and closures among once successful law firms, as well as hiring freezes, demotions, and pay cuts affected tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of lawyers across the United States– many of which are still significantly affected by those changes today. However, it can easily be argued that the 2008 recession simply accelerated the process of shrinking and consolidation that began in the 1980s.
Online legal help websites offering standardized contracts, and automated processes gobbling up much of the routine work that used to be the daily grind of lower-level attorneys has made finding, and keeping a job far more difficult– and a glut of new law schools churning out graduates throughout the early 2000s has only increased job competition among both recent graduates and experience lawyers alike.
The expansion of technology
Today, most major law firms expect employees to be on call nearly 24/7, and smartphone access is seemingly required at all times. It’s very important for workers, especially those in high-stress professions, to have a clear distinction between work and leisure—and the emergence of tech like smartphones, Skype calls, email, and other new forms of communications constantly blurs this distinction.
The adversarial nature of the legal profession
Beginning in law school, law students are trained to identify potential problems and find ways to defeat their legal adversaries. While it’s a lawyer’s legal duty to protect their clients interests’, it becomes problematic when these adversarial (and sometimes aggressive) personality traits follow an attorney outside the courtroom. This style of thinking can lead to lawyers seeing everyday individuals as enemies (such as a rude driver who cut them off in traffic) and to assume the worst in friends, relatives, and spouses.
What can be done to fix the problem of lawyer burnout?
There are many things an individual lawyer can do reduce their own stress and take more control over their attitude, mindset, and thought processes. These include meditation and mindfulness training, exercise, healthy eating, speaking with a counselor, advisor, coach, or therapist, and making sure to spend time with friends and family. If these do not solve the problem, then it may be time for the lawyer take a look at his or her working conditions and see how they may be changed or improved to reduce stress.
For a low level employee at a major law firm it may be difficult or impossible to change or improve your working conditions without simply leaving the firm. However, a partner at a larger firm, a senior employee at a smaller firm, or a solo practitioner may find they have many more options. Some ideas for senior employees, partners, or solo practitioners include creating policies to reduce the amount of professional communications that occur outside work hours, to increase vacation time, among many others. Additionally, many firms are shifting the emphasis away from billable hours (or even getting rid of them altogether) in an attempt to fix many of the issues inherent in charging clients and tracking attorneys by billable hours.
It’s important at times to understand that in terms of working policies and conditions that make employees happy, being a lawyer is just like any other job—and law firms are just like any workplace. Employees given reasonable working hours, clear work expectations, positive reinforcement, and a respectful understanding of the difference between work and leisure time are much more likely to thrive– both personally and professionally, than those who are not provided with these working conditions. While many– if not most law firms struggle with employee burnout, small steps, like those detailed above, can go a long way towards making lawyers happier and more engaged at work.
To learn more about law firm management and other legal industry tips, contact Boss Reporting today for a free consultation.