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Law Practice Today

July 2023

How You Can Avoid Burnout (Until We Change the Legal Profession)

Kate Ahern


  • Many early-career lawyers consider the legal industry synonymous with burnout, overwhelm, and long hours.
  • Young lawyers feel they must choose between a draining, traditional practice, or a fulfilling, balanced life, assuming the two to be mutually exclusive.
  • Learn about how you, personally, can take back control of your own time, priorities, well-being, and fulfillment in life and in practice.
How You Can Avoid Burnout (Until We Change the Legal Profession) Yuno

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Many early-career lawyers consider the legal industry synonymous with burnout, overwhelm, and long hours – demanding constant connection and perfection.  Young lawyers feel they must choose between a draining, traditional practice, or a fulfilling, balanced life, assuming the two to be mutually exclusive.  Unfortunately, they are not misunderstanding the current state of our profession.

It’s no coincidence that our profession is facing a mental health crisis.  The work culture of legal practice, law firm expectations, perceived client expectations, insufficient associate support, and lack of diversity all contribute to concerning levels of overwhelm and burnout among lawyers.  To its credit, our industry is now realizing the importance of well-being for lawyers, but we are very much in the initial stages of that realization and have a long way to go in acting on it.

When I began working with lawyers on issues like well-being, fulfillment in practice, focus on priorities, and time management over a decade ago, those topics were rare in our profession.  In contrast, today, many firms wisely invest in their lawyers’ well-being, with some firms even employing well-being officers or investing in external well-being support.  However, attempts to focus on lawyer well-being largely remain superficial, disconnected, impractical, and insufficient across our industry as a whole.  Current well-being efforts are also relatively small in comparison to the consuming, draining, current culture of legal practice.

For example, even those in our industry hired to focus on well-being claim associates cannot realistically expect to set meaningful boundaries or count on time off, citing the importance of responsiveness in practice.  In other words, even those charged with promoting lawyer well-being consistently struggle to answer questions about how lawyers can practically avoid overwhelm and burnout, find fulfilment, truly rest, or balance legal practice with the rest of a well-rounded life.

The struggle of well-being leaders in our industry to envision how legal practice can realistically align with lawyer well-being serves as an enormous, illuminated, brightly colored, flashing neon arrow pointing to the culture of our profession.  We should all be quite alarmed by this culture.  The way we currently operate as a profession is extremely damaging to mental health, diversity, client service, and access to justice, among other issues.

Unfortunately, such an engrained culture is not likely to be upended overnight, particularly given how long it took for our industry to begin even discussing the idea of well-being with any regularity or credibility.  Making matters worse, given early career pressures, it’s quite difficult and unfair to expect young lawyers to challenge or change practice culture.  It will take time for the legal industry to examine how it operates, including associate expectations, billable hours, legal practice design, financial structures, and the strange, unquestioned links between responsiveness and responsibility, as well as accessibility and reliability.

Now we’ve put into words, and into context, some of the frustration with legal practice you might already be feeling, so let’s get into action!  Perhaps the last few paragraphs quite fairly caused your shoulders to slump dishearteningly and your head to spin.  However, it’s very important you know, and can clearly see, why you cannot and should not wait on the culture of the legal profession to change.  Instead, let’s talk about how you, personally, can take back control of your own time, priorities, well-being, and fulfillment in life and in practice (so you can get those shoulders back up!).

Three Steps You Can Take Right Now

Take back control of your time and priorities.

Most importantly, focusing on your own priorities, values, and needs is key to your happiness as a human, while ignoring them promotes burnout.  In other words, it’s important to regularly consider what makes you happy, what you want, and what makes you feel like yourself.  Unfortunately, our industry sends consistent messages indicating our individual priorities should take a back burner to practice, threatening lawyer well-being.  Impacts are often dramatically compounded for marginalized lawyers regularly facing bias, which acts as an additional threat to well-being.

Many lawyers have lost touch with their own priorities, particularly after years of law school and early practice, so you may need time reconnect with what is most important to you.  To counteract the negative influence of our industry on your priorities, you’ll need to first clearly identify your own priorities.  After you do so, you’ll next need to regularly revisit your priorities and consider whether your own values and needs are getting consistent time and attention.  Allocating even a small amount of time to your own priorities can have an enormous impact on your well-being and fulfilment.

Build the skills you need to avoid burnout and support your well-being.

Next, you’ll need to identify any missing skills needed to support your renewed focus on your priorities and well-being.  For example, in today’s society and legal practice environment, with so many pressures on our time and attention, time management skills are crucial. Unfortunately, lawyers rarely learn foundational time management skills.  An effective time management strategy is grounded in your priorities and therefore supports your well-being.  In other words, when you start with clarity around what’s most important to you, you can take back control of your time by allocating it to what’s most important, whether in your practice or your life, as you start to filter out the rest.  An ineffective time management strategy, on the other hand, leaves you feeling overwhelmed, unfocused, and can even burn you out more efficiently.

Lawyers and law firms can greatly enhance well-being by identifying and investing in time management skills, priority management skills, and other skills directly supporting well-being.  Lawyers who do so can better maintain control of their own time and life.  Meanwhile, law firms that do so are well-positioned to be leaders in associate retention, diversity, and innovation in practice.

Surround yourself with others on the same mission.

Remember, you’re likely being regularly pressured to ignore your own priorities and well-being.  In addition, research shows you can greatly increase your chances of being successful in your efforts by surrounding yourself with others aligned with those efforts.  In other words, intentionally and regularly interacting with or listening to others on the same mission to avoid burnout can dramatically boost your success.

Until we rebuild the system of the legal profession, you’ll need a regular reprieve from any environment or people making you feel strange, selfish, guilty, uncommitted, or like an outsider for wanting to live a fulfilling life inside and outside of the law.  You’ll also need consistent, ongoing support from others who are on a similar mission to avoid burnout, who respect your efforts to put your priorities back in the driver’s seat, and who cheer you on for doing so.

You worked hard for many years to become an attorney and to build the amazing, fulfilling life your level of education can bring.  If instead, you feel like being a lawyer is burning you out, the three actions above can be your first steps out of overwhelm and into designing the life you dreamed of, inside and outside of legal practice.  If you are feeling overwhelmed by life as a lawyer, I invite you to connect with me to let me know this article resonated with you.  Please know I’m here cheering you on for taking these first steps, and I am honored to be one of the people you surround yourself with to boost your success!