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How and Why to Avoid Burnout: Part 2 of 2

Dr. Giugi Carminati


  • Burnout is the chronic overuse of emotional, intellectual and physical resources of a person.
  • To avoid burnout across teams, managers must create an environment that is conducive to self-care for all.
  • Litigators must also recognize that time is finite and work must stop at some point so we can have fun, care for loved ones, and engage in hobbies and interests.
How and Why to Avoid Burnout: Part 2 of 2

One of the fallacies of the legal profession is that seniority automatically grants management competence. As a junior, then mid-level, then senior attorney, and eventually as a law firm owner, I espoused the notion that practicing long enough made me qualified to manage folks. It doesn’t. Even more importantly, I was unaware of the ways the legal profession had taught me profoundly toxic management mottos. So here are three ways you can prevent burnout around you and in your teams as a “managing attorney.”

1. Self-Care Without Team Care Is Futile

“We really need to talk about self-care and ways to reduce burnout,” said the lawyer on the other end of the line. “Let’s do one-word check-ins and get people to share what they are doing for their own self-care.” She thinks she is being helpful; she thinks she is tapping into this “very important” topic. But she isn’t, and these suggestions are making my skin crawl. Lawyers all around are attempting to “address mental health” and “prevent burnout,” as though there is an easy-to-deploy magic solution. But these attempts, too often, are performative. So, my response was, “As managers, we should hold ourselves accountable and share, within our management group, what we’ve done in the past two weeks to avoid burnout among our team members, and how, if at all, we’ve failed to do so.” Crickets.

The same way people quit managers and not jobs, people don’t burn out because they didn’t take care of themselves. People burn out because they are working in a profession that does not understand how to reduce stress levels. People burn out because law firms put out CLEs and memos regarding “taking care of ourselves,” while expecting 15-hour days, all-nighters, and a 24/7/365 availability in offices that are still using paleolithic management systems.

Asking people to take care of themselves without having teams that take care of each other is window dressing. If people are asked to address their own burnout but management does not create an environment conducive to reducing burnout, then we are shifting the burden of solving this issue to one side of the equation (workers) and absolving the other side (management).

2. Serve the Client but Protect the Team

Your motto, whether you are in a team or on your own should include the following philosophy: Serve the client but protect the team. The enemy is not the waste of resources; rather, it is the waste of people. Here is an example that illustrates the approach.

When I ran my own law firm, we painstakingly created cloud folders for clients to upload their documents. They would get a link when they first started, and then they would receive it every 30 days thereafter with reminders to provide additional documentation. They could also ask for it at any time. Inevitably clients would email me or my staff their documents, including photos of their bank statements (instead of PDFs). While convenient for them, this system was unreliable because it depended on someone seeing the email, not forgetting about it, understanding they were responsible for saving the document (as opposed to anyone else on the distribution list) and downloading everything, each time. Multiply this by 30, 40, or 50 cases and this becomes a full-time job of its own. So, I stopped it. How? I told clients that emails sent to me with documents “did not count,” and they should not expect any documents emailed to anyone on my team to be saved in their folders. Boom. Everyone figured out how to get it done. And my paralegal’s workload changed dramatically and their inbox calmed down. Serve the client but protect the team.

When a team’s bandwidth is exceeded, there is too much work, and something must happen to cover that work. It is no longer okay to simply ask the folks around you to “do more.” The client may be a priority, but teams need to survive from one client to the next and from one case to the next. We serve the client, but we also protect the team.

3. The Workweek Is Finite

Time is not only finite but also a person’s most precious resource. We only get so many seconds, minutes, and hours in a life, and when we’re out of them, we’re done. Time is also finite in the sense that there are only so many hours in the day, and a number of those hours must be assigned to activities necessary to our survival: eating and sleeping. A number of hours have to be used for activities that are integral to our well-being and, therefore, to our longevity: working out (or being active), resting, hobbies, recreation, and tending to the relationships that feed our emotional landscape. There is also time that needs to be dedicated to taking care of loved ones, like children, extended family, parents, and romantic partners. We also want to devote time to our community, politics, volunteering, school activities, or the arts. And finally, our work life requires an investment of time. To fit all these activities in a day, a week, or a month, we have to recognize that time is finite and that in order to fit these things in our lives, time has to be compartmentalized.

So, I am going to ask you a simple question: When does your workday end? When does your team’s workday end? That question seems simple in most professions and the answer is often tied to a schedule, a calendar, or some sort of start and end time. In the legal profession, however, the question is not simple, and the answer is vague. An answer to that question by a lawyer often begins with, "I usually stop working around..." and is followed by "But I get back down to work for a few hours after dinner/the kids are in bed/my partner is asleep/the dog is down for the night." Even more common is the email checking, texting, or phone call during dinner, or game night, or other family moments. Stop. Your workweek is finite, the workweek of people working with and for you is finite.

If work seeps beyond those work hours, you need more personnel or more efficient processes. Either way, asking the same people to do more is not okay, even if that person is you!