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February 05, 2021 Feature

Being Evergreen: Avoiding Burnout

Roberta Tepper

Burnout. We’ve all heard about it, and many of us have experienced it. Perhaps you’ve felt that bone-deep, soul-wrenching weariness—the dread you feel when you know you need a change and cannot face your current practice anymore. Perhaps it’s exhibited as a short fuse—a lack of inner reserves in dealing with difficult cases, difficult people, or even situations or people in our personal lives. Perhaps you think you are ready to quit the practice of law. Burnout builds up over time—but there is no bright-line rule for how long that timeline is, or how quickly it may develop. Pinpointing the specific causes of burnout can be like identifying the stick that broke the proverbial camel’s back—it may be one thing, or a combination of factors, and it may be different for everyone.

Why Do We Burn Out?

You don’t have to be a long-time lawyer to experience burnout. Our susceptibility to it is partially based on our own resiliency, or lack of resiliency, and other pressures we experience. It is not uncommon to hear newer lawyers state that they are burnt out only a couple of years into practice. A combination of the stress of building a new practice and financial pressures, with a sprinkle of family strife, can be all that is needed.

Lawyers, regardless of our practice areas, are essentially helpers. And let’s face it—happy people need lawyers much less frequently than people having a problem. While our levels of empathy vary, we are all in the business of taking on a client’s problem and working to fix it. The relentless bombardment of problems, unhappiness, even desperation, eventually impacts us even if we don’t consciously realize it. The stereotypical “big law” culture can also contribute to burnout. You know how that sounds: “I’m so busy I never take time off” or “I worked all weekend” or “I live at the office and eat at my desk.” Firms still requiring upwards of 1,400 to 1,800 billable hours a month—yes, even in this age of lawyer wellness and well-being they still exist—contribute to this dynamic.

This topic resonates with me personally; I’ve learned that burnout can be insidious and creep up on us. For years when I saw my primary care physician, she’d ask about my work. Apparently, I’d routinely respond something like, “Oh, it’s a very busy stressful time now, but it’ll be better soon.” What I didn’t realize until she pointed it out was that I’d been giving that answer for years—each time when I came to her with an upper-respiratory ailment. It hit me like a ton of bricks. The stress relented and I was getting sick because I was used to having increasing levels of stress.

And Then There Is . . .

Like many other professions, the practice of law used to be confined to working hours. Perhaps working hours were long, 10 or more hours a day, but at some time each day the work stopped and we went home. Sure, maybe we took work home in the “good old days,” but before computers, smartphones, tablets, and WiFi, there was a limit to what we could do away from the office. Phone calls didn’t get forwarded; texts and emails didn’t come in at all hours. Clients didn’t expect that we would be available 24/7.

Welcome technology. Of course, technology has a myriad of benefits to bring to the practice of law. Practice management advisors like me would never argue otherwise; in fact, we have been at the forefront of urging the wise, considered adoption of technology, and those opportunities grow daily. But we don’t have rose-colored glasses on when it comes to technology. Technology comes at a price, particularly when we cannot, or choose not to, disconnect from it.

Technology has made everything urgent and immediately available. Clients, also technology users, now want to be able to reach us all the time. We go from looking at our computer screen in the office, to our car’s technology, to our smartphones, tablets, and smart TVs when we get home. Even if we read to relax, chances are that we do it on a screen. Many, if not most, of our waking hours—at work and at leisure—are now spent staring at screens. Overuse of technology, or too much screen time, can interfere with our circadian rhythms, making it impossible for our brains to wind down and keeping us on alert for longer than we should be. We are on digital overload.

COVID and the State of the World

The COVID-19 pandemic and the social justice crisis have exponentially increased our stressors. If you were worried about finances before, chances are that the changes and challenges the pandemic has presented, as well as the social justice upheaval, have made that worse. There is a heightened level of anxiety, agitation, and anger about these issues that magnify many of the other stressors. Business may be booming for some, but certainly not for all. Never has it been more important to stay well, and never has it been more challenging.

And Law Is Hard

The practice of law, even aside from the challenges of running the business side of the practice, is hard. It’s rewarding, it’s challenging, it’s satisfying, but it is also hard. It requires our full attention and lots of energy.

So, How Do We Become Evergreen?

Much as there is no one cause for burnout, there is no one simple answer to curing or preventing it and retaining our enthusiasm, our resilience, and our mental and physical energy.

Lawyer, Know Thyself

We all have strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. Take some time to consider yours. What gives you satisfaction, and what do you dread? Does your work leave you with a feeling of satisfaction even when it is challenging or even annoying? Or do you end your weeks dreading the start of the week to come? Is your practice setting giving you the quality of life you are striving for? Do you crave, and, if so, do you have, autonomy to make your own choices about the cases you handle?

These kinds of questions could go on and on. There are stressors and rewards for each of us, and for each of us those may be different. This part of avoiding burnout is a personal journey, and one that cannot be lightly undertaken or quickly resolved. It may take a while for you to have this discussion with yourself. If you do not feel that you are particularly introspective, there are people out there who can help: practice management advisors at your state or local bar, career counselors or advisors, counselors or therapists, or close friends or relatives with whom you feel you can have a safe space to have this discussion.

Setting Boundaries

Boundaries can help in the fight against burnout. Boundaries should include measures that limit the drain on your emotional or physical energy and time. No, don’t break away from all human contact, build a hut in the woods, and become a hermit or become inaccessible to co-workers, families, or clients. But reasonable boundaries help preserve your inner resilience and reserves.

When we are fully immersed in our practices, in our clients, and in our cases, it can be easy to forget to set boundaries, or to ignore them. Working remotely or virtually can make it even more difficult as demands on our time seem to have increased.

Some of you, particularly solos or those in small firms, may read this and think, “She’s wrong. If I’m not available to my clients 24/7, they will go to someone else and I’ll go broke,” or some version of that thought. While it may be true that clients feel entitled to your immediate time and attention, that doesn’t make it reasonable. No one works all the time. No one. Not doctors. Not EMTs. Not 911 operators. No one. An exhausted lawyer is more likely to become a burned-out lawyer.

It is best to start at the beginning of your lawyer-client relationship. Be realistic with your clients and let them know your working hours; discuss what is an emergency and what is not. Think about a way to provide them with the contact they want but still preserve your personal time. The solution may include using a virtual receptionist, using an automated email response, or having a coverage attorney available. For clients who bombard you with email after email, voicemail after voicemail, schedule a regular 15-minute appointment for them each week. Then, train them to accumulate their issues knowing that you will focus on them for that time and they can get your undivided attention—no putting them on hold, no “bigger name on the other line,” just you and the client and their concerns. Lawyers who have tried this have reported good success with reducing the client’s apparent anxiety and propensity to call repeatedly.

Boundaries between work and personal time are also problematic in this new normal of working remotely. It’s tempting to check that last email, work a little longer, not leave your home office, and delay personal time. If you need reminders to take a break—and some researchers suggest that working for extended periods of time without a break makes us less productive—then schedule them on your calendar. If you are midstream in something critical, you can always snooze the reminder, but try not to do that. A quick break, maybe five or 10 minutes, will refresh you.

Remember, an exhausted lawyer will inevitably become a burnt-out lawyer.

Self-Care and Self-Compassion

We are not superhuman. Lawyers are not robots. We have the same physical and biological needs as every other human being. And if we don’t take care of ourselves . . . well, we all know the answer to that. So, let’s spend a moment considering those needs, starting with good nutrition and exercise. Yes, even when we are too busy, we need these things.


I’m not sitting in judgment. I’ve done the same things that I’m now suggesting you avoid—fast or processed food because it’s quick and easy when you are busy. I’m not going to tell you that there’s one right or perfect way to eat—everyone has his or her favorite and I’m a juris doctor, not a medical doctor. With your doctor, pick the healthful eating plan that works for you and stick to it as much as possible (we all need a little splurge now and then). Do I even need to say, have regular medical checkups and medical screenings recommended for your age?


That can be a tough one too. For those who are regularly physically active, this may seem like a no-brainer. But we aren’t all inclined to exercise regularly. Nonetheless, there is something we can all do at least a few times a week for 30 minutes to make sure we are keeping not only our minds, but our bodies healthy. Maybe it’s a nightly walk, some vigorous housecleaning, or yoga. As with nutrition, do what works for you. As Elle Woods explained in Legally Blonde, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” Happy is the very opposite of burnout.

Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders

Lawyers suffer from substance use disorder, addiction, and mental health disorders at a rate higher than most professionals and much higher than laypeople. Lawyers self-medicate for stress, unhappiness, anxiety, depression, and much more. Frequently, that self-medication is alcohol, but not always. The opioid addiction crisis is still rampant—many (or most) times beginning with medication that was prescribed.

Thanks to AA’s decades-long campaign to destigmatize alcoholism (it’s a disease, not a weakness of character), people are more willing to admit they are suffering from substance use disorder and are therefore more likely to seek help. Lawyers, though, are great at hiding alcoholism. There is still a stigma attached for lawyers—a hesitancy based on fear, shame, and denial that keeps many from seeking the help they need.

That bar to well-being is dwarfed, however, by the undeserved stigma that still attaches to the admission that one is suffering from challenges to one’s personal mental health. Lawyers suffer from anxiety and depression at an alarming rate; in the lawyer assistance world, we see many lawyer suicides every year. Sure, it’s easy to say, “don’t be ashamed; get help,” but many law firms do not walk that walk, and there is a lot of fear that goes with admitting you need help.

Many confidential resources are available to lawyers. Most state bars have an assistance program. Virtually all of them are confidential. Not all provide treatment, but all can provide information, support, and resources. While lawyers may be hesitant to admit to their employer that they are suffering, many employers offer EAPs (employee assistance plans) through their insurance plan. Is it scary to admit you need help? Yes, for sure. But when you consider the alternatives—the negative consequences to your personal and family life, the potentially ruinous consequences to your career—there really is no choice other than to seek help. Speaking for the other directors of lawyer assistance programs nationwide, we are here for you.

Mindfulness and Meditation

These two practices usually go together. Most people are at least glancingly familiar with what meditation is, even if they’ve never tried it. Mindfulness is not a new concept; it’s been around a while but is not as familiar. Mindfulness can be summed up as being fully present in the moment, focusing on one’s awareness with a calm acceptance of one’s feelings and thoughts, even bodily sensations.

A long-time practitioner of mindfulness who leads sessions in Arizona has described it this way. Let’s say you are eating alone in a restaurant. Some people will take along a book to read to avoid feeling alone. They divide attention between the book and the food and probably don’t fully experience either. Instead, close the book and focus on the food you are eating and really taste it; if you feel uncomfortable about eating alone, acknowledge it without judgment. If you want to explore mindfulness further, check out the Mindfulness in Law Society.

Meditation can be a great way to build inner peace and resilience. If you’ve never meditated before and don’t know how to start, don’t worry. There’s an app for that. A variety of guided meditations are available as apps; Headspace, Calm, and Forest are just a few. Check your Google Play Store or Apple App Store. Many are free.


Lawyers compare themselves to others all the time. Maybe it’s because so many of us are competitive. One of the keys to avoiding burnout is to be kind to ourselves. Let’s give ourselves a break and measure success by what we want to achieve, not by competing with what our colleagues are achieving. If you’ve done the self-analysis I’ve suggested at the outset of this section, deciding to set your own goals and measure success by the progress you make toward achieving them will reduce frustration and negative self-judgment. Without the external pressure that leads to frustration and feelings of failure, we are more likely to be able to avoid the kinds of stressors that lead to burnout.

Digital Detox

It’s not realistic to think that as lawyers or people living in today’s world, we can completely unplug. But it is possible to detox for small periods of time; consider a digital diet—a short interlude when you turn off devices. Maybe it’s dinner with the family; maybe it’s seeing a movie; maybe it’s a day of digital vacation. That prospect can produce anxiety; it’s documented in the research. But it’s possible to do and will give your brain the break it needs to refresh. Everyone has a different tolerance based on his or her practice, but I’ll repeat what I said earlier: No one works 24/7. No one.

Can We Really Avoid Burnout?

Yes. There’s no one right answer: Some of the suggestions I’ve made may not resonate with you. Some may seem challenging but doable. Give one or two a try.

The first step is admitting that lawyers are not invincible. We need the same things other people need to stay fresh and excited about our careers. That includes rest, good nutrition, good digital habits, and strategies to achieve a balance with which we are comfortable. Don’t hesitate to ask for help or advice.

You aren’t going to solve this issue in one hour or one day. It will take time. Take baby steps; don’t be afraid to experiment and find a solution that works for you. Law is the best profession out there. We are so privileged to be able to help and take on the issues that can improve lives. No life and no career are full of sunshine every hour of every day. With a little work, you can cultivate and maintain a mindset that permits you your love of your career to remain evergreen.

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Roberta Tepper is the director of the Lawyer Assistance Programs for the State Bar of Arizona in Phoenix, Arizona, where she administers a variety of programs focused on assisting lawyers to achieve success in their practices. She is also the co-chair of the virtual 2021 ABA TECHSHOW.