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GPSolo eReport

GPSolo eReport February 2024

Recognizing Burnout: Five Things You Need to Know

Melanie Bragg


  • The first installment of this three-part series on a mindful approach to navigating burnout focuses on how lawyers can recognize the signs of burnout.
  • Burnout is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon characterized by chronic emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion resulting from prolonged exposure to high levels of workplace stress.
  • Recognizing and addressing burnout in the legal profession is crucial for fostering a healthier and more sustainable work environment.
Recognizing Burnout: Five Things You Need to Know
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A couple of things happened recently that gave rise to my need to explore the subject of mindfulness and burnout more deeply this year. As the ABA GPSolo liaison to the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, I serve on a task force on women’s well-being. In a recent teleconference meeting, I talked about how becoming burned out is incremental and how it needs to be tackled step-by-step rather than all at once. The ladies on the teleconference encouraged me to write about the subject. I began to think back to when I experienced my biggest bout of burnout, which occurred around 1997, 15 years into my practice.

The second thing that led me to this subject was a recent experience I had on an elevator one morning with two young women who stepped inside in the middle of a conversation. I could not help but overhear one of them saying to the other, “All my lawyer friends want out of the law, and if I had it to do all over again, I would not have gone to law school. I’m miserable, and I just don’t know what to do.”

I could not believe my ears and knew I had to express my own thoughts to them about the upcoming day. I said, “Well, ladies, I’ve been practicing law for 41 years, and I am just as excited and happy about it as I was when I first got licensed. It’s such an honor to be a part of the world’s greatest profession, and you guys need to come talk to me. I am here on floor two.” I then asked the one who was speaking how long she had been out of law school—it turns out she had just graduated last year. She is too young to be burned out! But it can happen.

I immediately thought that it would be worthwhile to take a fresh look at the subject of burnout in this bimonthly column. A few days later, I saw the young girl, and she reported that she had already reached out to me on LinkedIn. We are scheduling a meeting. She may be in the wrong area of law. There is so much you can do with a law degree, and I hope I can reinforce her and encourage her to find a path where she can feel that she is fulfilled and living her life’s purpose. I’m not going to lie and say it was easy for me to get where I am today. I’ve had my share of ups and downs during the journey, and I want to share the work I have done to create what I feel is a burnout-proof practice. Rather than tackling it all at once, I thought I would, as author and motivational speaker Jack Canfield says, “chunk it down” into three columns.

This month, we will cover the first section, “Recognizing Burnout: Five Things You Need to Know.” In April, we will cover the second section, “Mindfulness Tricks to Reduce Burnout Symptoms,” and in June, we will examine “Maintaining Equanimity Post-Burnout.” We may keep the subject going from there if we need to, but we will have some good information and practice tips to help you recognize burnout, how to deal with it, and how to keep it at bay on a regular basis. One thing about burnout is that when you get it, you don’t want it again—it can be so debilitating. It is worthwhile to work at it on a regular basis to stay balanced, focused, and, yes, happy.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon characterized by chronic emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion resulting from prolonged exposure to high levels of workplace stress.

Does that sound like our long days of dealing with clients with trauma and high stress? It is not merely a transient feeling of tiredness but rather a state of profound fatigue that can significantly impact an individual’s overall well-being and professional performance. Below, I list five signs of burnout. I would ask that you think about which of these applies to you now. If possible, print out this article and make a check mark next to each area you struggle with. Hopefully, by the end of the series, you will have learned the signs of burnout, some ways to deal with it, and tips to stay on the other end of burnout and be completely refreshed and energized.

The five things you need to know about burnout are as follows.

1.      Emotional Exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion refers to the depletion of emotional resources, often resulting in a sense of detachment, apathy, and a reduced capacity to empathize with clients, colleagues, and the legal matters at hand.

My memory of the day in 1997 when I knew I was burned out is emblazoned in my brain. I was sitting at my lawyer desk. A staff member walked in and told me one of our wards of the state whom we took care of (I had 30 at that time) had just died. I brushed right past it and talked about the final account and the bill, as if someone I had the responsibility to take care of and whom I had worked very hard for had not just died. It was a little bit later that I realized what I had done, and I was in a state of shock that my senses had been so numbed and stunted that I did not even experience any emotions about it at all. It was a real awakening. I knew there was a problem, and I set out to solve it. We don’t want to care too much, but not caring at all is bad—and a big sign that something is wrong.

Manifestations: Lawyers experiencing emotional exhaustion may find themselves emotionally drained, experiencing a lack of enthusiasm for their work and struggling to connect with the emotional aspects of their cases.

2.      Mental Exhaustion

Mental exhaustion involves a state of cognitive fatigue, where lawyers feel overwhelmed by the demands of their profession, leading to difficulties in concentration, decision-making, and problem-solving. In this state, it is impossible for us to fulfill our duty of competency as the rules of professional responsibility require.

Manifestations: Lawyers may experience a constant sense of mental fatigue, find it challenging to focus on tasks, and notice a decline in their cognitive capacity, hindering their ability to effectively navigate complex legal issues.

3.      Physical Exhaustion

In the context of lawyer burnout, physical exhaustion refers to the wear and tear on the body due to prolonged exposure to stress, resulting in persistent fatigue, disrupted sleep patterns, and, in extreme cases, physical health issues.

Manifestations: Lawyers may experience chronic fatigue, disrupted sleep, headaches, and other physical symptoms that can impact their overall health and ability to perform optimally in their professional responsibilities.

4.      Prolonged Workplace Stress

Burnout is closely linked to chronic workplace stress, which arises from factors such as excessive workloads, tight deadlines, high client expectations, and the pressure to achieve challenging professional goals.

Manifestations: Lawyers facing prolonged workplace stress may feel a constant sense of pressure, find it challenging to meet demanding expectations, and struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

5.      Degraded Professional Performance

Burnout can significantly impair a lawyer’s professional performance, affecting the ability to provide effective legal counsel, maintain high ethical standards, and engage meaningfully with clients and colleagues.

Manifestations: Lawyers experiencing burnout may display signs of decreased productivity, increased errors, strained professional relationships, and a diminished sense of accomplishment in their work.

Early Warning Signs

Recognizing and addressing burnout in the legal profession is crucial for fostering a healthier and more sustainable work environment. It involves not only acknowledging the signs and symptoms but also implementing proactive measures to promote mental health, resilience, and a balanced approach to the demanding nature of legal practice.

Here are some of the early warning signs of burnout in the legal profession:

1.      Cognitive Challenges

  • Difficulty concentrating on tasks.
  • Forgetfulness and increased absent-mindedness.
  • Impaired decision-making abilities.

2.      Increased Absenteeism

  • Frequent unplanned absences from work.
  • An uptick in sick leave or personal days taken.
  • Repeated instances of arriving late to work.

3.      Diminished Job Satisfaction

  • Decreased sense of accomplishment in professional achievements.
  • Loss of enthusiasm and passion for the practice of law.
  • Dissatisfaction with the nature of legal work or specific cases.

4.      Changes in Work Relationships

  • Strained or deteriorating relationships with colleagues.
  • Reduced collaboration and teamwork.
  • Increased conflicts or disagreements with coworkers.

5.      Heightened Emotional Reactivity

  • Intense emotional reactions to minor stressors.
  • Difficulty managing and regulating emotions during work-related interactions.
  • Elevated levels of frustration or impatience.

6.      Health Complaints

  • Frequent complaints of physical ailments (e.g., headaches, stomachaches).
  • Increased susceptibility to illnesses due to a weakened immune system.
  • Unexplained physical symptoms without clear medical causes.

7.      Procrastination and Delayed Tasks

  • Procrastination in completing tasks or meeting deadlines.
  • A pattern of delaying work-related responsibilities.
  • Difficulty initiating and sustaining focused work efforts.

8.      Negative Self-Talk

  • Engaging in self-critical thoughts and negative self-talk.
  • Expressing feelings of incompetence or inadequacy.
  • Persistent self-doubt regarding professional capabilities.

9.      Escapist Behaviors

  • Engaging in excessive use of substances such as alcohol or caffeine.
  • Seeking escape through non-productive activities, such as excessive Internet use.
  • Using avoidance strategies to cope with work-related stressors.

10.  Lack of Enjoyment in Previously Enjoyable Activities

  • Withdrawal from hobbies or activities that were once enjoyable.
  • Loss of interest in social events or gatherings outside of work.
  • A pervasive sense of disengagement from non-work-related pursuits.

Recognizing these signs can contribute to early intervention and the implementation of preventive measures to address burnout effectively. It’s important for lawyers to be attuned to these indicators and take proactive steps to maintain their mental and emotional well-being.

Workplace Factors

Examples of workplace factors that can contribute to burnout in the legal profession are:

1.      Inadequate Resources

  • Insufficient support staff and resources to handle workload demands.
  • Lack of access to necessary tools, technology, or information for efficient work.

2.      High Client Expectations

  • Unreasonable client demands and expectations.
  • Frequent changes in client instructions or objectives.

3.      Lack of Autonomy

  • Limited decision-making authority in legal matters.
  • Micro-management or excessive oversight by supervisors.

4.      Unclear Job Roles and Responsibilities

  • Ambiguity regarding job roles and expectations.
  • Frequent changes in responsibilities without proper communication.

5.      Unhealthy Organizational Culture

  • A toxic or competitive workplace culture.
  • Lack of recognition and appreciation for hard work and achievements.

6.      Inadequate Training and Development

  • Limited opportunities for professional development and training.
  • Lack of support for skill enhancement and continuing education.

7.      Ineffective Communication

  • Poor communication channels within the organization.
  • Insufficient feedback on performance and unclear expectations.

8.      Time Pressure

  • Unreasonable time constraints on legal tasks and projects.
  • Frequent urgent and last-minute requests.

9.      Unrealistic Billing Targets

  • Pressure to meet high billing targets.
  • Inadequate compensation for the time and effort invested.

10.   Poor Work Distribution

  • Unequal distribution of workload among team members.
  • Lack of mechanisms to address workload imbalances.

11.  Job Insecurity

  • Fear of job loss or instability within the organization.
  • Frequent restructuring or downsizing activities.

12.  Limited Flexibility

  • Inflexible work schedules and lack of accommodation for personal needs.
  • Limited options for remote work or flexible hours.

13.  Conflict and Hostility

  • High levels of interpersonal conflict within the workplace.
  • Bullying or harassment from colleagues or supervisors.

14.  Insufficient Recognition and Rewards

  • Lack of acknowledgment for achievements and contributions.
  • Inadequate rewards and recognition programs.

I know this list may seem daunting, but it is important to realize that we all probably have experienced many of these factors at various times in our careers. The better we can recognize and pinpoint the problem areas, the faster we can seek to cure ourselves. We must remember that no one else is going to do it for us. This is our journey.

During my burnout phase, I began to think that maybe I wanted to go back to working at a restaurant. I romanticized that it would be easier and stress free. I had some good friends who owned a restaurant, and they needed some help. I volunteered to hostess one night just to see if my fantasy was accurate. Well, I didn’t even make it through the whole shift. I absolutely hated it and realized that I would need to overhaul the whole place to be happy with how things were run. The owners and I laughed about that night for years, and I woke up that next day ever so happy to be practicing law.

You must be able to recognize these workplace factors in order to begin addressing the systemic issues that contribute to your burnout. Implementing changes in these areas will make your work environment healthier and will improve your general well-being in the legal profession. Begin to assess yourself for burnout factors.

In my next mindfulness column, we will go over mindfulness tricks to reduce burnout symptoms. In the meantime, focus on your breath, take deep breaths in times of intense stress, take a few moments to walk around the office—or outside, if you can—and just know that you have the power to change your life, one step, one breath at a time.

Until next time . . . namaste. Please let me know if you have any tips, sources, or experiences with mindfulness you want to share at [email protected].

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour. —Zen proverb