Burnout. It’s a term that has been circulating often, as of recent. Within various professions, particularly the legal industry, the prospect of burnout has become an enduring issue that is gaining wider recognition and for good reason. A lawyer’s job is typically depicted as being ‘fast-paced’ and ‘ever-evolving’: it is characterised by a flood of paperwork, hefty workloads, strict deadlines and long, unpredictable work hours fuelled by the need to be constantly available for your client. So, despite being rewarding in its own way, legal practice is, by its very nature, stressful and intense.
It is no surprise, therefore, that lawyers were surveyed as being the second most stressed professionals in the UK(1). A report from the Law Society’s 2019 Junior Lawyers Division also found that 93.5% of lawyers have described feeling stressed in their roles, with 24.8% describing such stress as ‘extreme’ – a principal sign of burnout(2). While it is not a new phenomenon, the problem of lawyer burnout, and its inflicted consequences, has amassed greater attention, due to it having been further exacerbated this past year with the Covid-19 pandemic. So, what exactly does burnout entail?
What is Burnout?
‘Burnout’ is the term used to characterise the resultant state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion caused by unaddressed chronic and excessive job-related stress and overwhelm. The World Health Organisation officially classifies burnout as an occupational syndrome that is “[conceptualised] as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed…”(3). Over the past year, the number of people experiencing burnout has increased after the Covid-19 pandemic forced many of us to conduct our work remotely from our homes. Not only has the need to isolate away from office colleagues, friends and social gatherings placed a considerable strain on the collectives’ mental health and well-being, but it has also, and quite problematically, blurred the lines between work and home life and distorted the necessary balance of both. This, in turn, has hastened the road to burnout by aggravating both the existing pressure of the ‘always available’ mentality of lawyers and the, at times, mundane and repetitive tasks that form part of a lawyer’s work.
Common Causes, Signs and Consequences
Lawyer burnout is oft attributable to excessive workloads, increasing competition, high client expectations, unrealistic timelines and compounded, unresolved stress. Some of the general indicators of burnout include emotional exhaustion and depletion, a feeling of detachment or cynicism towards one’s job(4), and possibly, a compulsion to try harder in the face of such obstacles(5). While burnout is much more complex than many give it credit, it is crucial to pay attention to the earliest signs and percolations of it. Prevention is better than mitigation, as the damage inflicted by burnout is multifaceted. Not only can it hamper mental focus and productivity(6), leading to lower quality work that may impact client trust and loyalty, but studies have also found burnout to be linked to physical ailment, such as immune system weakening and cardiovascular disease(7). From a business perspective, the consequences of burnout experienced by lawyers, if not addressed, could lead to increased absenteeism and turnover, reducing team efficiency, disrupting organisational function and inevitably, resulting in a loss of institutional knowledge(8).
What are the Numbers?
Though a significant problem on its own, burnout is part of a bigger mental health crisis taking place within the legal industry. Several factors contribute to this issue. A 2018 Legal Trends Report showed that around 75% of lawyers regularly work well outside business hours, with 39% stating that this negatively affects their personal lives(9). Another survey of 2,500 trainees and junior associates at around 100 UK firms reported a finding of work-days extending to over 12-hours(10). Law students have also reported experiencing depression, with the percentage increasing from around 9% to 40% with the progression of years in education(11). It is for such reasons that it becomes crucial for lawyers and members of the legal industry, alongside all other professionals, to take a step back and reassess how well they are coping by being mindful of their on-going emotional, mental and physical state towards their work.
The Need for Solutions
There are a number of ways that lawyer burnout could be tackled, and crucially, it should be a concern for individuals and institutions, alike. Job satisfaction and engagement contribute to higher productivity, greater client satisfaction and overall profitability for law firms. Thus, it is crucial to provide lawyers that are experiencing or showcasing signs of burnout with organisational support. These could include training in-house specialised departments to spot, tackle and work through early signs of burnout that lawyers may be experiencing. Flexible work accommodations and mental health awareness events could also help shed light on burnout as a serious workplace problem and cement the notion of mental health and well-being as forming an integral part of firm culture.
Interestingly, LegalTech could also be quite useful in tackling burnout. For instance, legal software can be useful by helping reduce the time typically spent on mundane or tedious tasks through digitisation to free up more time to get involved with work that is more rewarding and fulfilling for lawyers. Moreover, by cutting down excessive work time, LegalTech software could help alleviate some of the additional stresses on lawyers and help them restore and maintain a healthier work-life balance, providing the added benefit of increased productivity.
It is important to understand that burnout for lawyers is a more common phenomenon than is typically assumed, and as such, it should be given due regard. There is a need to dismantle the normalisation of a culture of overwork and self-exhaustion that could, not only be detrimental to one’s health, but also counterproductive to work efficiency. Consequently, it would be conducive for lawyers in both a personal and professional capacity to become conscious of the levels of stress that they are experiencing at work. Firms, in turn, should ensure that there are systems and solutions in place to support lawyers that are experiencing burnout. The good news is that there is a growing appreciation towards the issue of lawyer burnout, with some firms and organisations driving cultural changes to promote lawyers’ mental health and well-being. Ultimately, it is through raising awareness on the pertinent issue of burnout that positive changes could be implemented. These developments can make work for lawyers more engaging and fulfilling while simultaneously increasing overall profitability and productivity and contributing to a healthier work environment.