May 01, 2015

How to Avoid a (Less than) Spectacular Burnout in Your Law Practice

Shawn Healy

What is one of the most common desires most people have for their career? Even above making the big bucks, it’s having a rewarding job that they enjoy and finding their work meaningful and significant. And what is certain to block the achievement of this goal? The dreaded burnout. No one starts a job with the goal of getting burnt out, yet it happens quite often. The effects of burnout can range from mild (feeling weighed down and depleted of joy) to severe (clinical depression, leaving a career altogether). Given the amount of time and money you have invested in your education and the start of your legal career (dealing with the stress of law school, incurring debt, sacrificing countless hours of your life, passing the bar, finding a job), it makes sense to protect this investment and adopt some simple strategies to avoid burnout. Burnout, by the way, is very preventable.

In order to prevent burnout, we first need to understand what burnout is and what it is not. These days the words “stress” and “burnout” are often misused as synonyms. The two words are different in very important ways. I like to describe stress as resistance. Resistance can be either positive (a challenge to be met that gives you an opportunity to achieve something you never would have attempted otherwise) or negative (a perceived impassable blockade that makes your current path futile). The difference between a positive stress and a negative stress has everything to do with your perception of the resistance, your perception of yourself (and your abilities), and your resources. Burnout, on the other hand, only has one side, and that is negative. Burnout is an emotional (feeling depressed and overwhelmed), cognitive (having low motivation and concentration), and physical (being tired or restless) reaction to a prolonged negative stress. Where stress might make you feel worried, burnout makes you feel defeated or depressed.

Preventing Burnout Before It Starts

Benjamin Franklin said “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The easiest way to address burnout is to prevent it from happening in the first place. To do this, you need to know what causes it. Burnout is often caused by a combination of factors. One of the most influential is a reaction that psychologists refer to as learned helplessness. This is the reaction you might have after putting in considerable effort to achieve a goal, only to see that no progress has been made; you feel as if you have ended up right back where you started, and your disappointment makes you believe that nothing you can do will change your situation. This belief then leads to discouragement and a feeling of helplessness. Learned helplessness can occur as a result of not understanding something about your current situation (“I just don’t know why I’m not getting interviews—I might as well give up”), having unrealistic expectations (“I expect that I will be able to achieve my largest goals immediately”), meeting active resistance from others (“I feel like people are working against me”), or being told that certain things are just not possible (“They tell me, ‘this is how we do things’”). The result of learned helplessness is a feeling that you shouldn’t even bother trying anymore, that nothing will change, that you have no control over what happens. This line of thinking transforms you into a pessimistic psychic who thinks that your current dissatisfaction is a predictor of your future.


  1. Find ways that you can have a noticeable impact (even a small impact). We all have the ability to impact our situations. If you can identify small, preferably daily, ways to impact your situation, you learn that you do have power to make changes.
  2. Set achievable goals and track your progress. It can be easy to forget the small progress you make each day. Tracking your progress (even small progress) can be a helpful reminder of how much things have changed over time.
  3. Fight procrastination daily. Get into the habit of breaking tasks into smaller steps so that the pressure of the ultimate goal is spread out over time. Adopt the two-minute rule: If a task can be completed in two minutes, do it now.
  4. Get a different perspective. Thinking there is only one path to your goal is a recipe for disaster. Talk to others about the decisions they made along their career path (not what their path was exactly, but how they responded to opportunities and roadblocks).

Prioritizing Self-Care

The pressures that lead to burnout can also be handled more effectively if you feel well resourced. People experiencing burnout commonly feel that their stressful job is depleting them and they have no other area in their life that they feel replenished by. Self-care is a term that describes daily life practices that replenish you. These are the habits that are good for you, that improve your health, and that make you feel good as a result. They are life giving, as opposed to life draining. With some simple, regular self-care, you can feel resourced to handle stress with more confidence and determination.

A metaphor, if I may: You probably have spent a large amount of money to get your law degree. For many people, the amount they will pay for their education is equal to or greater than the amount needed to purchase a slightly used, exotic Italian sports car. If, in fact, you had spent this amount of money on a car, I bet that you would not abuse that vehicle. You likely would take care to garage it, get it tuned up regularly, see a highly trained professional for maintenance, and avoid driving it non-stop in hazardous conditions until the check-engine light forces you to stop. Yet, you probably would identify that last phrase as an accurate description of how you treat yourself on a regular basis. If you wouldn’t treat your expensive car this way, you shouldn’t treat yourself this way. After all, you are worth more than a car.

Self-care is in large part about making a regular self-maintenance schedule. Most people know what would be healthy for them to do (exercise, eat well, keep hydrated, get regular checkups with a doctor, etc.). Yet most of us either do not do these things or we put them off. Beware of the “waiting until _____ occurs” trap. This is when we tell ourselves that we just don’t have time to do that particular life-giving activity, but instead we need to wait until we have accomplished something (“once I graduate,” “once I finish this important project,” “once I get through this case”). The truth of the matter is this: If you cannot make changes to your current situation to integrate these life-giving activities, then it is unlikely that you will make these changes after a certain event has occurred. If you feel busy now, most likely there will be other things in your life to make you feel busy in the future, too.


  1. Make a list of activities that you find life giving. The items on this list could include finding a hobby, spending time with friends, doing an activity with someone, exercising, helping others/volunteering, having quality time with family, or doing innumerable other activities, but make it a priority to engage in these activities on a regular basis.
  2. Use the power of your calendar. Many times we feel that we are busy because we have things on our calendar that we cannot get out of. Use this to your advantage by scheduling life-giving activities that you decide you cannot “get out of.”
  3. Expand the opportunities to have meaning or make a difference in the world, both professionally and personally. Difficult work can be life giving if there is a meaningful reason for that work. If you do not find your professional work meaningful, find meaningful activities in your personal life.
  4. Make simple, small, attainable goals to regularly eat better, exercise a little, and spend time with good friends.

Using Your Strengths and Knowing Your Values

Identifying your strengths will also add numerous opportunities to make an impact on your situation. Without clear goals and expectations, it is very easy to feel as if your energy is being spent but you’re not getting anything good in return. How do you know when your efforts have been successful if you don’t know what success looks like? To remedy this, identify what you do best (the things that come somewhat naturally to you—related or unrelated to your job), make a simple and clear goal, and attempt to make an impact in this area.

For example, if your work environment feels unsupportive, yet you know that you are a supportive listener, then you might choose to use your strength as a supportive listener to make your colleagues feel supported. This would then have a general impact on how supportive the environment feels, and you would feel some sense of control having had a positive impact on your work environment.

By focusing on your strengths, specifically on the things that you do well and do naturally, you will be able to try smarter rather than harder. Trying smarter focuses your efforts in areas where you have the greatest impact.

Another strength that you have (that gives your work meaning) is your deeply held values. When you find yourself doing work that violates these values, your work can seem meaningless and therefore be life draining. In these cases, burnout is not far behind. While compromise is often necessary in life, it is important to stay on top of how your compromises and your values are co-existing. If it feels as if your values have had to take a vacation for a while, it might be time to find a job where your values can come to work with you.


  1. Make a list of the things that you enjoy and naturally do well. Try integrating these things into your work life in small ways.
  2. Take stock of your values and priorities. Find ways that your work can support your values.

Healthy Boundaries

Finally, one of the biggest contributors to burnout is a lack of boundaries. The result of poor boundaries, of never saying “no,” is that tasks begin to build up and the pressure eventually becomes unbearable. Whether you feel that you can’t say “no,” that you have to take any client who walks through the door, or that you need to show everyone that you can handle anything and always come through in a pinch, the reality is that the world and the people in it will continue to go on if you set some healthy boundaries. In fact, you will be a better lawyer, a better friend, a better parent, and a better partner if you learn how to set good boundaries and stick to them.

For those who find setting boundaries difficult, I recommend starting with setting small boundaries in areas that are insignificant. For example, try saying “no” to someone asking for a small favor. Practice setting boundaries and saying “no.” You will live through it, and you will be better off in the end.


  1. Practice saying “no” or “no, thanks” every day in your personal and profession life without justifying your response or using an excuse.
  2. Face your fear. If you fear that saying “no” will result in some terrible outcome, face this fear by thinking about how you would handle the feared result.


The more you invest in prevention now, the bigger the payoff will be later. Start today by taking small steps to address burnout, to take care of yourself, and to use your strengths and values to your advantage. Your future self will thank you.


Shawn Healy

Shawn Healy, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and a member of the clinical staff of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Boston, Massachusetts.