GPSolo Magazine - October/November 2004

Preventing Burnout Live Well, Laugh Often

The practice of law is a labyrinth of discomforts. As lawyers, we deal with people in trouble with the police, the tax collector, employers, employees, customers, suppliers, partners, and family. We work with interpersonal conflict in circumstances that invite moral discomfort. Our profession is aggressive, adversarial, competitive. We criticize our own without hesitation or mercy.

Our careers are made up of winning and losing, and our practice avoids or destroys opportunities for collegial support. Those of us in the non-adversarial areas of the law find ourselves swimming and sinking in a sea of mind-numbing paperwork and soul-destroying detail. Insight, creativity, resourcefulness, and instinct may find an outlet in our hobbies but rarely in our practice of law.

Many of us choose to work as sole practitioners or in very small offices. Even in large firms, isolation and alienation are common.

The challenge of meeting ever-higher public expectations and standards of performance while facing ever-lower public respect and understanding leaves us alone and resentful.

We learn to exhibit a professional demeanor and to hide our own alarm, fear, disgust, abhorrence, confusion, and boredom. We develop a tough exterior. We learn to expect little support from our colleagues. We learn to work with other lawyers as professionals and not as people. It is no surprise that many lawyers find themselves alienated and alone.

Lawyers and judges are notorious for working excessive hours throughout their professional lives. The process starts with young lawyers who feel they must excel just to keep up. Workweeks of 50, 60, 70, even 80 and 90 hours have become the accepted norm in some firms. Lawyers are actually boastful of the crushing schedules they keep, while secretly dreaming of another life.

We agree that our profession is becoming increasingly stressful owing to competition, specialization, and complexity. Lawyers are trained to develop a facade of imperviousness and implacability to personal problems. Some would suggest that lawyers are allowed to continue this steady progression of self-destructive conduct without interruption or intervention by their colleagues. Lawyers are rarely under the close supervision that is routine in other jobs.

Burnout and Workaholism

Burnout is a type of depression characterized by fatigue, apathy, declining productivity and effectiveness, and negative feelings about work, career, and life. It often is accompanied by illness, increased substance abuse, and personal relationship difficulties. Burnout is often diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome or clinical depression.

Many lawyers suffering burnout admit to excessive hours over long periods, with little or no vacation. High levels of stress and job pressures are common factors, as well. For these lawyers, the treadmill eventually loses meaning. They experience a loss of control and personal power over workloads and deadlines.

So, what tools help us enjoy our law practice and avoid burnout?

Having Fun

Laughter. The first trick to a happy life is to laugh a lot. Laughing reduces stress, improves your immune system, and reduces anxiety and tension in your body. People will like you more. People will trust you more. People will want to be with you, and the people who want to be with you are the sort of people you would like to be with.

Exercise. Keep active and make sure you get exercise every day. It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic: You can take a 10-, 20-, or 30-minute walk everyday, often with little change in the rest of your life. Let me give you an example. I have bicycled to work since 1963, and it rarely takes any longer than driving or using public transit. I do it all year round. It wakes me up in the morning and calms me down at the end of a difficult day. It gives me an hour’s exercise, and this is a great base for a healthy life.

Whatever it is—biking, swimming, walking, gymnastics, competitive sports, gardening—do something every day. I mention gardening because, for me, gardening is an investigation into the very workings of the center of the universe. Get some exercise every day, and try to get strenuous exercise three times a week.

Sleep. Most men and women require seven to eight hours of sleep every night, but few of us make this a priority. You will find yourself fresher and more vigorous if you get a proper night’s sleep. If you have trouble sleeping, just relax, lie quietly, and think nice thoughts. Force yourself to stop thinking about work or difficult personal issues. It takes practice, but you can do it. Avoid foods or drinks that will keep you awake.

Sex. It is no secret that sex is fun, exciting, fulfilling, relaxing—and it burns calories. Bottom line: Having sex with someone you love is healthy.

Sunshine. We need sun on our bodies for physical health. A little sun every day or so restores vitamin D and brings a whole army of health benefits. “A little sun” means about 20 minutes of direct sun contact or longer using sun protection. We all have to be aware of the dangers of over-exposure to the sun. As a cyclist, sailor, and canoeist, I have to take special precautions with my nose, the back of my hands, and the top of my knees—all areas exposed during these activities. I use a hat, clothing, and sunscreen to cover them. The best sunblock is often an old white shirt from work. Hats are probably the most effective and underused form of sun protection. Seventy percent of skin cancers can be avoided by wearing a hat.

Doing what you like. What is it you really like in life? Reading? Music? A weekly bird-watching trek through a park? Canoe trips? Pickup baseball? Whatever it is, make sure you do it. If possible, do more of it. Keep your mind open. Be willing to learn new things about your likes and maybe even explore new activities. If you have an interest in something, read about it and learn about it. Remember to use your imagination and to use your mind. Both are like muscles: You need to exercise them.

Friends and keeping in touch. Remember to keep close with the people who are close to you. I keep a dozen postcards in my travel bag. When I am in a waiting room, sitting outside a courtroom, or if I have a few minutes to wait, I will write short notes to friends, just to keep in touch. Similarly, when I am out walking, I will use my cell phone to call people who might not otherwise hear from me. You can really brighten the day of an older relative, a next-door neighbor, or a friend with a very short phone call. It will brighten your day as well.

Every day of the week, make sure you talk to a friend. If the day is almost over and your schedule hasn’t given you the opportunity to do so, get out your personal address book and look for someone who would like to hear from you. Send an e-mail, postcard, or short note. We cannot choose our families, but we can choose our friends—and these often make the best families. You have to invest in them, and that investment will pay off for the rest of your life.

Dogs and other furry friends. In my experience, the greatest source of unconditional, unlimited, perfect love and acceptance is to have a relationship with a dog. Who else will get so excited every time they see you? Who else will forget that you were cranky this morning and overlook the fact that you are exhausted tonight? Who else will want to go for a walk or have a cuddle? Who else will be happy with the dinner you serve? Dogs are wonderful. One of my dogs saved my life. One of my childhood pets saved my mother’s life. My best friend would have died of a heart attack but for his team of dogs. My dogs enrich my life, each and every day.

If you can’t fit a pet into your busy schedule, try to borrow one! Many of my friends have a surrogate relationship with my dogs and visit them often. If dogs are not your favorite, live with a cat, or a bird, or any other pet to add joy to your life.

Helping others. One of the best ways to build value in our lives is to find a way to give to others in our community. There is an old saying that we get to keep the happiness we have by giving it away. There are so many opportunities to help others; you can choose something that works for you. Let me share a secret: Helping others can replenish your energy, focus, and serenity. I sometimes go to a community group and pour coffee, set up chairs, and wash dishes. People love to see a big-city lawyer wash dishes! No matter how tired I am when I start, I always feel refreshed and invigorated by helping others. It’s magical. By the time I get back home, I feel like a new man. Give it a try. The tough part is getting out the door.

Keeping active. Life is to be lived—this is not a dress rehearsal. Don’t confuse having a career with having a life.

Relationships. Invest in, renew, and maintain your connection with your significant other. Remember the magic when you were first dating? Recapture it.

Schedule a weekly date with your spouse every week or several times a month for theater, dinner, sports, or just a walk. Be sure it’s something you both enjoy and value. Find out what works in your relationship and try to do it. My wife loves it when I leave her a short note. Just a few words and she is cheered all day. Some people suggest the ten-second kiss, an open mind, or lifetime curiosity about your spouse. Others suggest that we stop listening like lawyers or forgo constructive criticism or ignore annoying habits in our spouse.

Being grateful. On a daily basis, remind yourself of the things you have to be grateful for. An attitude of gratitude can make a huge difference in your day and the way you treat those around you. Learn to want what you have, rather than having what you want.

Food and Diet

Everyone knows that we should follow the National Food Guide and eat a balanced diet of food that is low in calories, rich in nutrients, and high in fiber. Still, many of us find ourselves eating fast food, often fried and high in fat and sugar, rather than the fruits, vegetables, and grains we need every day.

Below are some constructive ideas to help busy legal practitioners eat healthier and live longer. These ideas come from lawyers working in the trenches. Remember, the goal is progress, not perfection.

Breakfast. Have breakfast every day. My breakfast always includes protein (low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese) and mega-fiber (unsweetened cereal). Last year, I ended my 20-year romance with raisin bran when I learned that it has more sugar than any other cereal, including the sweetest children’s brands. If you are one of those people who has trouble eating in the morning, find something you can handle and get into the habit every day. The important thing is to eat something to get your day started.

Lunch. Salads are a great choice for lunch. Ask for the salad dressing on the side and dip your fork into the salad dressing instead of drenching your salad with it. Don’t forget protein in the form of white cheese, nuts, or meat. Most work days, I have a Greek salad with small strips of roast chicken on top. It’s inexpensive and delicious. Better yet, bring your lunch on some days and then go for a walk with a colleague or take your cell phone and call your spouse, your mother, or an elderly neighbor.

Dinner. Eat before you are actually starving. Try not to overeat and remember to avoid caffeine and other stimulants from early afternoon onward.

Protein. I find that I need to eat protein throughout the day. For years, I thought it was normal to feel light-headed, spacey, and frantic as the workday progressed. Now I know I was mildly hypoglycemic. The simple cure is protein. Surprisingly, it doesn’t have to be very much, but it does have to be every three to four hours. When my work schedule interferes, I will grab four or five plain almonds from a jar in my desk drawer. On the go, a small tub of yogurt is more than enough.

Vitamins. Make sure that you have a diet that includes all the necessary nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Some nutrition experts swear that vitamin supplements are a waste of money. Others claim they are salvation itself. Personally, I have no idea who is correct. I compromise and use low-cost generic store brands for the basics—a good American compromise.

Health Issues

Weight. Try and keep a constant and desirable weight. There are index scales available that allow you to check your body mass index (weight to height ratio). Forget the fad diets and miracle weight-loss programs. If your weight is too high, develop better eating habits. Moderate your diet until you achieve a healthy and desirable weight.

Aspirin. It is helpful for men over 40 and for women over 50 to take aspirin. We need only about a quarter of a regular-strength tablet. I cut generic aspirin into four parts and take a quarter at a time, but you can now buy 80 mg tablets for this very use. Some folks prefer coated aspirin, which is easier on the stomach.

Cholesterol. Check your levels every year. Unfortunately, many people check their cholesterol only after a heart attack. This is a little late. Sometimes, the first symptom of heart trouble is a fatal heart attack. Fatal means dead. Enough said.

Menopause. Every woman should check hormone levels every year or two. Most women expect to go into menopause in their middle 50s, but some women start menopause in their early 30s. Get the best professional advice about hormone replacement therapy and keep on top of the literature. Talk to your friends who are older or who have personal experience.

Alcohol. Drink alcohol in moderation. One or two drinks a day (standard quantity) are absolutely fine for most people. In later life, alcohol consumption should be reduced, as aging reduces the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol safely. Many doctors say that a glass or two of red wine a day actually improves health. For people who can drink safely, this may well be true. Those of us at risk for alcohol abuse or addiction should be very, very careful. This includes those of us with a family history of alcohol or drug abuse or addiction. If you have a problem, contact your lawyer assistance program (LAP).

Prescription drugs. Drugs play a major role in medical treatment and health, including preventing and curbing disease, relieving pain, controlling psychological problems, and speeding recovery from illness and surgery. But they also play a devastating role in the lives of many who become dependent on or addicted to them. Popular myths suggest that people become addicted because of personality problems or that only young people have problems with drugs or only illegal drugs are addictive or dangerous. In fact, the majority of lawyers with drug addiction or dependency use legal prescription drugs. The elderly may be the fastest-growing population to become addicted or drug dependent. If you need help, information, or recovery services, contact your LAP.

Moderation. Work and play in moderation. Don’t burn yourself out in any area of your life. Consume in moderation: meats, fats, sugar, coffee, chocolate, alcohol. Participate in moderation: running, weight training, aerobics.

Smoking. If you smoke, quit. If you don’t smoke, never start. Mark Twain once said, “To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did. I ought to know because I’ve done it a thousand times.” Personally, I finally quit more than 20 years ago, but I still get cravings. Smoking dependency or addiction is no joke. It is just about the most damaging thing we can legally do to our bodies. When you are ready to quit, get help and stick with it.

Managing Your Business and Your Personal Finances

Finances. You can avoid tremendous stress and day-to-day trouble by living within your means. Money worries are the biggest stress in marriage and certainly in professional practices as well. Far too many of us live beyond our means by borrowing on credit cards, lines of credit, and term loans. Be sensible about your finances and about managing your business.

Networking. Every business day of the week, make sure you contact two people who could give you work or help your practice or your career. Keep a note in your business diary or appointment book of the people you contact. Keep the calls short. You will be surprised how much work you can pick up simply by keeping your contacts active.

Workload. Don’t take on work you can’t or shouldn’t handle if you don’t have the necessary expertise or experience or energy or time; if the fee will be so low that it isn’t worthwhile; if you have a personality clash with the client or the project; or if you just don’t like this client.

Quick tips:

• When all hell is breaking loose, pause and identify your true priorities.

• Anticipate problems and prevent them from happening.

• When problems do occur, jump on them as soon as possible.

• Break down big tasks into smaller parts and get started.

• Resist the temptation to do everything yourself.

• If you just can’t decide if it is a good idea, you have already decided that it just isn’t worth it.

• When taking on new staff, follow your gut instinct. If it “feels” wrong, it will turn out badly for you and your practice.

• And perhaps most important of all: Dump the 5 percent of your clients who are the source of 95 percent of your problems!

Adrian Hill, LSM, Ph.D., LLB, JD, ADAC, CCGA, is executive director of the Legal Profession Assistance Conference of the Canadian Bar Association and clinical supervisor of the Ontario Bar Assistance Program. He practiced law for 30 years. He can be reached at The author urges readers to visit for more resources.


The text of this article may be reproduced for classroom use in an institution of higher learning and for use by not-for-profit organizations, provided that such use is for informational, non-commercial purposes only and any reproduction of the article or portion thereof acknowledges original publication in this issue of GPSolo, citing volume, issue, and date, and includes the title of the article, the name of the author, and the legend, “© 2004 by the American Bar Association. Reprinted by permission.”



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