July 30, 2020 3 minutes to read ∙ 600 words

Women in Law: How to Prevent Legal Burnout

By Mala Sharma

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This year, we are reminded that the 19th Amendment was ratified 100 years ago after a decades-long movement for women’s suffrage. But did you know that the first female lawyer in the United States was admitted to the bar 151 years ago? In 1869, Arabella Mansfield took and passed the Iowa bar despite a state law restricting the bar exam to males over 21 years of age. But where the practice of law begins, stress and burnout often follow. Although lawyers today do not have to face the same challenges as Ms. Mansfield, lawyer burnout threatens thriving legal careers. It compounds the risk of heart disease, suicide, alcohol-related illness, and overdose.

Lawyer burnout is a process of disengagement that takes place when there are too many job demands, too few job resources, and too little time to recover. It is a chronic process of disengaging from family, friends, work, and personal health. The most common symptoms include deep exhaustion, cynicism about life, a sense of helplessness and inefficiency, and difficulty controlling attention. Burnout physically manifests as headaches, digestive issues, difficulty sleeping, and chest pain. Although some practices are more stressful than others, burnout affects a wide swath of lawyers: big firm lawyers with high billable hour requirements, solo practitioners who feel isolated from their peers, and litigators who deal with the inherent confrontation from their job.

But identifying a problem is not enough: How can legal burnout be dealt with? Knowing the symptoms and carefully monitoring oneself may help identify when we are operating in what I call the “red zone.” Focusing on proper sleep and eating habits are a good starting point, but they are not enough. Mindfulness, when used in conjunction with these other practices, has many benefits. A strong mindfulness practice can calm and heal the body, plus provide an effective tool to combat burnout. At the physical level, meditation has been linked to better sleep, stress reduction, slowing the aging process, and reduced physical pain. At the psychological level, it assists in greater learning ability, sharpened focus, quieting mental mind chatter, and a more positive mindset.

How does one practice mindfulness? First, discard your stereotypical ideas about meditation—it does not need to involve chanting, incense, and sitting in the lotus position for hours at a time. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Here are two major styles of meditation that may benefit you:

  1. Focused-attention meditation. This approach involves concentrating the attention on a single object, thought, sound, or visualization. It emphasizes clearing your mind of distractions. This meditation may focus on breathing, a mantra, or a calming sound. It is the traditional practice that many people think of when they hear the word meditation.
  2. Open-monitoring meditation. This approach encourages broadened awareness of your environment, your train of thought, and your sense of self. It may include becoming aware of thoughts, feelings, or impulses that you might normally try to suppress. In this practice, you sit with awareness of what your mind is doing. You are a dispassionate observer watching the flow of thoughts without judgment. As you observe these thoughts, you ultimately understand why they take place and learn to deal with unresolved emotions, thoughts, and fears.

Whether you choose the traditional approach, modern approach, or some other approach, make sure that you regularly practice for at least 21 days. It is said that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, so this initial period is crucial for forming new neural pathways in the mind. Over time, you will look forward to your mindfulness practice. For those reasons, more and more lawyers are using mindfulness practices to increase their productivity and avoid burnout. Try it out for yourself and see how it benefits you.

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Mala Sharma practices family and personal injury law with her family at the Law Offices of Sharma & Associates, founded in 1997. She has been appointed to leadership roles in the American Bar Association GPSolo and YLD Divisions, is a board member of the Houston Trial Lawyers Association, past president of the Houston Northwest Bar Association, and prior board member of the South Asian Bar Association. She is also a member of the Houston Bar Association. Mala has been named in 2019 and 2020 as a Texas Rising Star by Super Lawyers and included in Texas Monthly's Top Women Attorneys in Texas special section for 2019 and 2020. Mala has also been selected as one of the 10 Best Attorneys by the American Institute of Personal Injury Attorneys for 2018–2020, a Top 40 Under 40 by the National Trial Lawyers for 2018–2020, and a Texas Top 10 Personal Injury Attorney by Attorney and Practice Magazine for 2019-2020. Mala is also an avid yoga instructor and practices mindfulness meditation to deal with the stress of litigation. You may contact her at her office number 281/893-8644 or by e-mail at mala@sharmalaws.net.

Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 9, Number 12, July 2020. © 2020 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.