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GPSolo eReport

GPSolo eReport June 2024

Mindfulness 101: Maintaining Equanimity Post-Burnout

Melanie Bragg


  • The third and final installment of our three-part series on mindful approaches to navigating burnout focuses on maintaining equanimity post-burnout.
  • Post-burnout, you must allow yourself adequate time for recovery and self-reflection.
  • Evaluate your career goals and values and adjust them so they align with your new sense of personal well-being.
  • Inspiring others by sharing your experiences and the lessons you’ve learned will keep you on the healthy end of the spectrum. 
Mindfulness 101: Maintaining Equanimity Post-Burnout
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This month is already heating up, and it looks like it is going to be a hot summer. Hope you have some great summer plans and time to incorporate what you have learned about burnout and mindfulness.

This is the final installment of our three-part series on mindful approaches to navigating burnout. In part one, we discussed five warning signs of burnout and practices to alleviate them. In part two, we explored five mindfulness practices that can reduce the symptoms of burnout. Here, in part three, we will explore how to maintain equanimity post-burnout. Before jumping into this final topic, let’s review what we have covered so far.

Recognizing Burnout

In the legal context, burnout is characterized by chronic emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion resulting from prolonged exposure to high levels of workplace stress. It can lead to detrimental avoidance strategies and behaviors that diminish your effectiveness as a lawyer and lower your immune system as well as steal your joy in life.

As we discussed in part one of this series, there are five warning signs of burnout:

  1. Emotional exhaustion. You are emotionally exhausted when your emotional resources are depleted. Emotional exhaustion often results in a sense of detachment, apathy, and a reduced capacity to empathize with clients, colleagues, and the legal matters at hand. After a full day of listening to and empathizing with the traumatic things my clients share each day, I sometimes must just stop. Whether it is 3:00 pm or 4:00 pm, I move to another task that is still productive but not as emotionally charged. If we are emotionally exhausted, we are probably both mentally and physically exhausted by then, too.
  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. Sometimes, we want a good outcome so desperately that we freeze up, fearing that we’ll make a mistake. I have heard the saying, “Perfect is great, but done is better.” It’s okay to rest and recharge. We don’t have to drive ourselves into the ground.
  3. Physical exhaustion. Physical exhaustion in the legal context 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. Stop pushing yourself beyond your human limits. I see and hear about lawyers doing this on social media and am thankful for my mindfulness practices. They help me really enjoy my life on a day-to-day basis.
  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. If you are in a job you hate, make a move. Don’t let fear rob you of your precious life force. You are valuable and worthy of greatness.
  5. Impacts on professional performance. Burnout can significantly impair lawyers’ professional performance, degrading their ability to provide effective legal counsel, maintain high ethical standards, and engage meaningfully with clients and colleagues. Address your burnout before this lifestyle leads to malpractice suits or grievances. Substance abuse and other dangerous addictive behaviors can sneak up on you in times of burnout.

Mindfulness Practices to Reduce the Symptoms of Burnout

In part two of this series, we explored five mindfulness practices to reduce the symptoms of burnout:

  1. Mindful breathing. Learn to practice mindful breathing, which will reduce stress, improve oxygenation, and balance your nervous system.
  2. Mindful meditation. Learn mindful meditation techniques, which will help you focus your attention on the present moment, rather than the past or future, and will help train your mind to observe your thoughts without attachment.
  3. Gratitude practice. Establish a gratitude practice, such as gratitude journaling, writing gratitude letters, doing mindful meditations, taking gratitude walks, and being involved in gratitude circles or discussions.
  4. Boundary setting. Establish clear boundaries between work and personal life. For me, learning to talk to clients in the initial consult and teaching them about the attorney/client relationship has been a game changer. It is something that builds trust and sets a foundation for the relationship. I don’t always get it right, but I explain what we do and what our purpose is in the office. I tell them what we are trying to get done, and I help them with their expectations. Think about it: Most people do not hire lawyers all the time. The only way they are going to know is if we teach them. Learning to say no, set clear work hours, prioritize self-care, create physical boundaries, communicate boundaries clearly, delegate, and prioritize tasks is not easy, but it is crucial to self-growth and happiness.
  5. Mindful communication. Practice mindful communication, which will help you build trust, strengthen interpersonal relationships, deepen your understanding of others’ needs and goals, resolve conflicts, foster collaboration, and create a supportive network within the legal community to help lessen the effect of burnout. You do these things by practicing active listening, empathetic communication, and mindful conflict resolution.

Maintaining Equanimity Post Burnout

Now, then, let’s discuss the theme of this final installment in our series. There are several things in the post-burnout period that you need to explore to maintain a state of equanimity: allowing yourself an adequate recovery period, reassessing your priorities, continuing your mindfulness practices daily to stay on track, continuing your professional development, and focusing on community engagement. We will explore each section briefly.

Allowing Yourself an Adequate Recovery Period

The first phase is to allow adequate time for recovery and self-reflection. If you had a chance to take some time off after a bout with burnout, gradually return to work responsibilities. In many instances, taking time off is not possible. Cases move, and the need to earn a living is ever-present. But you can slow it all down a little bit by setting your intention each day. Realistically address the importance of taking some time off, seeking professional help if needed, and gradually reintegrating into work responsibilities.

A friend I know kept telling me he did not have time to get some necessary medical work done. It sounded so outlandish to me because I knew he needed the work done, and I realized that he was most likely afraid of the work and was using the heavy workload and an exaggerated notion of how important he was to the office to avoid the process. I wanted to tell him that the office would be just fine without him long enough to get himself taken care of. Then, I realized I sometimes have the same problem. The gym where I strength train is literally next door to me at the office. And there are times when I feel as if I am abandoning my clients by walking 20 steps to train for 30 minutes! It sounds crazy, but our human minds are like that. I tell myself that unless I stay strong and fit, I won’t be able to take care of my clients. Over time, the fears recede, but it is a good idea to really assess whether some of the things we drive ourselves to do are necessary. Is taking a ten-minute break really going to blow the case, or will it energize and enhance your productivity? Our mental and physical health should be our number one priority.

Reassessing Your Priorities

The second task for the post-burnout period is to evaluate your career goals and values and to adjust them so that they align with your new sense of personal well-being. When we truly value ourselves, we can take care of ourselves in new ways. You want to reflect on what is deeply important to you and what practices will keep you from repeating the burnout you just experienced. Having renewed strength and purpose is invigorating and exciting. Begin to make the necessary adjustments required so that your professional pursuits align with your personal well-being.

Continuing Your Mindfulness Practices

Post-burnout, you must commit to developing your daily mindfulness habits further. I know they can get wobbly sometimes, especially when you are feeling good and it seems like things have turned around. I struggle with this, too. Habits are funny things, and we must learn to shake things up rather than abandon our practices. If we get bored with one thing, we can switch to another. Developing the habit of giving yourself a quick pat on the back and acknowledging what you have done right rather than beating yourself up about what you didn’t do is a good start during the day. Your goal is to build resilience for long-term career satisfaction, and deeply ingrained mindfulness practices beyond the recovery period will get you there. You surely have a few minutes each day to do something for yourself, so do it.

Continuing Your Professional Development

Another key to success post-burnout as a lawyer is to continually seek ongoing education and skill development. Programs that embrace a professional and personal growth mindset are helpful, and thank heavens, there are many out there now to choose from.

Staying engaged and having your mind active will help. We are blessed that bar associations are now allowing courses on these subjects to qualify as ethics credit. Our duty of competency encompasses all of this. We only stay competent if we stay healthy.

Focusing on Community Engagement

The last item on your list of post-burnout activities is to contribute to a supportive legal community. Inspiring others by sharing your experiences and the lessons you’ve learned will keep you on the healthy end of the spectrum. At first, my journey of personal growth was mine alone, and I was private about it. No one really knew what I was doing out there in the desert (literally) alone. I had some things I needed to learn and to understand, and I wasn’t ready to share them with anyone. Later, I began to share; I first wrote about mindfulness in the 2015 ABA book How to Capture and Keep Clients: Marketing Strategies for Lawyers (second edition, edited by jennifer j. rose).

Since then, an amazing community has sprung up in this area. I joined the State Bar of Texas Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP) Committee and am now starting my second three-year term. Just earlier this month, I attended a conference that is celebrating its 35th year: Texas Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. It is a group of lawyers in recovery who have supported each other and shared their stories to serve the legal community. The learning never stops. There is value in contributing to a supportive legal community. It’s important for us to actively engage with our peers, share our experiences, and collectively work toward a healthier and more sustainable work environment. And the net effect is to have better lawyers better serve a public in dire need of competent help.

I hear stories every week of clients who can’t get in touch with their lawyers and who are not satisfied with the services rendered. We want to serve them well while also having a fun and enjoyable life. By dedicating ourselves to the practices outlined in this series on burnout, we can get there much faster with less negative impact. Don’t wait until you are forced into rehab or a recovery facility because of exhaustion or substance abuse. Don’t wait until your family is split by divorce. Don’t wait until the grievance committee starts calling. There are resources and help available to you, and you are your best resource.

In the meantime, focus on your breath, take deep breaths in times of intense stress, take a few moments each day 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