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December 01, 2022 Well-Being

Firms are employing burnout advisers to keep their attorneys from getting overwhelmed

By Danielle Braff
It’s no secret that attorneys are burned out—but the surprising news is that firms are finally taking action to combat it.

It’s no secret that attorneys are burned out—but the surprising news is that firms are finally taking action to combat it.

Illustration by Sara Wadford/ABA Journal.

It’s no secret that attorneys are burned out—but the surprising news is that firms are finally taking action to combat it.

Some legal teams are hiring burnout advisers to address attorney mental health in the hope that this will tackle attorney fatigue, detachment and other issues stemming from the competitive environment, long working hours and perfectionism that comes with the job.

“A lot of our work is emotionally draining, and the long hours and tight deadlines make it very difficult to take care of your well-being,” says Jonathan Brockman, a personal injury attorney in Georgia. “We lose a lot of good lawyers because of burnout.” That’s why he hired a part-time burnout adviser in January 2022.

Burnout advisers are not tracked across firms, so it’s unknown how prevalent they are. But they appear to be a relatively new concept, as several of the firms interviewed for this story reported hiring them after the pandemic began. According to those firms, there is no official licensing to become a burnout adviser, and these professionals can be anything from social workers to psychiatrists to holistic therapists and everything in between.

But they are all joining law firms with one common goal: Helping lawyers contend with the overwhelming burnout and stress that targets them specifically.

A whopping 71% of lawyers say they are experiencing anxiety, and 37% are depressed, according to a 2021 American Lawyer Media mental health survey.

And Bloomberg Law’s Attorney Workload and Hours Survey said lawyers felt burnout in their jobs 52% of the time. Nearly half of those surveyed say their well-being worsened in the fourth quarter of 2021, compared with just 30% in the second quarter.

While burnout is a significant issue across the board in many careers, there’s something particularly difficult about working in the legal sector, says Anastasia Allmon Riley, an attorney with Farris, Riley & Pitt in Birmingham, Alabama. “It’s often incredibly draining emotionally and physically,” Riley says. “We’re always working long hours, and often bringing work home with us as well. Burnout advisers don’t just cheer us up; [our burnout adviser] helps us build healthy habits and mindsets that can help us all a lot.” Her firm hired a full-time burnout adviser last year after the legal team returned to the office. The burnout adviser has weekly meetings with each employee and is available to chat outside those meetings as well. She offers techniques and strategies to avoid burnout and to recover from it—such as meditation, unplugging completely and knowing when to take time off work.

Best for business

Not all burnout advisers are full time—nor do they need to be to achieve their goals. Hach & Rose, a personal injury firm in New York City, hired its burnout adviser about halfway through the pandemic, and she pops in for an afternoon weekly to speak with the staff. The burnout adviser is a counselor who makes recommendations based on her staff evaluations and charges about $300 for each afternoon session.

She steps in when needed to help employees who feel burned out and to prevent others from approaching that point, says Michael Rose, one of the founding partners of the firm. “It’s always better to do everything you can to prevent a fire from happening instead of trying to put it out once it’s started,” Rose says. “And I’d do whatever I could and can to ensure that none of our employees ever have to endure or suffer from burnout due to work-related pressure, stress and anxiety.”

Law firms tend to be staffed with high achievers—people who are most comfortable when they exceed expectations and are terrified of letting people down or making a mistake, explains Kara Hardin, the principal and founder of Kara Hardin Mental Health Consulting.

Hardin, who is based in Toronto, is a former practicing corporate and securities lawyer. She did a coaching certification about a decade ago and then returned to school to pursue a master’s in counseling psychology before closing her legal practice to focus on psychotherapy and mental health consulting. She works with law firm leadership to lead with mental health in mind, ranging from individual coaching to board strategy sessions to leadership retreats.

“From a business perspective, preventing burnout from happening and supporting burnout recovery ensures you have the talent and people necessary to stay in business,” Hardin says. “It’s fundamental.”