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What Lawyers Can Do to Prevent and Combat Burnout

January 31, 2019

By Jennifer L. Gibbs
To read this article in PDF format, please click here.

Those practicing law for even a short period of time are likely familiar with the term “lawyer burnout” — a growing condition threatening thriving legal careers, with the added grave risks of heart disease, suicide, alcohol-related illness and overdose.

Burnout has been called a “romantic disorder” because it is characteristic of a work ethic admired in the legal culture. Long hours and a selfless dedication to work — to the exclusion of self-care — can lead to burnout.[1]

Even the word “burnout” implies that at one time the attorney was on fire, but his or her flame has now flickered.[2]

What Exactly is Burnout?

“Lawyer burnout” is a non-medical term often used to describe a “process of disengagement.”[3] It stems from a mismatch between demands and resources. Burnout occurs, when there are “too many job demands, too few job resources, and too little recovery.”[4]

According to Paula Davis-Laack, an attorney and burnout expert, lawyer burnout is a chronic process of unplugging and disconnecting from work, friends, family, and health — with emphasis on the word “chronic.”[5]

Core symptoms of burnout include:

  • Fatigue — This is an exhaustion that runs deeper than sleep deprivation, and it cannot be cured by a few days off.
  • Cynicism about life or a feeling that nothing a person does really matters — Burned out people are not excited about their work, even major successes in things they once loved, and they feel generally disengaged.
  • A sense of inefficacy — Burned out people feel like they are exerting significant effort but are not making any progress or gaining any recognition.
  • Lack of attention — Inability to control your attention is a key symptom of burnout.[6]

Attorneys can also exhibit signs of burnout via the “if I could only get sick” syndrome. For example, one lawyer reports fantasizing about getting hit by a city bus so she could simply lie in a hospital bed and not worry about anything.[7] 

In addition to the core symptoms of burnout, physical clues can include frequent headaches, digestive issues, difficulty sleeping and chest pain. Psychological indicators can include panic attacks, anger, irritability, hopelessness, helplessness and a general loss of enjoyment.[8]

What Causes Burnout?

Burnout risks appear to be a natural consequence of our tough-it-out legal culture where all-nighters are often encouraged, and high billable hours are rewarded with hefty end-of-year bonuses. “Combined with pressure to appear tough and invulnerable to both clients — for whom lawyers are often the rock of stability in stressful situations — and colleagues, lawyers often exist in cultures that just don’t tolerate the discussion of burnout or stress.” [9] This kind of culture can prevent lawyers from acknowledging that they are burning out, talking about it or seeking help, all of which are essential to preventing serious burnout.[10]

Solo practitioners may be an especially high-risk group because solo practitioners miss out on the “camaraderie and synergy” that lawyers practicing in groups have. Solos are commonly tasked with everything from billing, business development and law themselves, which can lead to a big gap between demands and support.[11]

Litigators also burn out at an especially high rate due, in part, to the inherently confrontational nature of litigation. Moreover, litigators can have little control over their schedules. Vacations and weekends are often at the mercy of opposing counsel and the courts, who could have little-to-no incentive to respect much-needed downtime. This combination of lack of control over time, confrontation, long hours and high stakes can run lawyers ragged.[12]

Of course, law demands acute attention to detail, and the price for making a mistake can be quite high. Thus, many lawyers are served well — professionally — by their perfectionism. “But this same perfectionism can make them feel like their work is never good enough. This sort of perfectionism is a major risk factor for burnout.”[13]

Combating Lawyer Burnout

The best way to combat lawyer burnout is to prevent it in the first place. To that end, one must first recognize behavior changes in those possibly suffering from it. Thus, building and establishing relationships with colleagues is a critical part of this equation. “Developing strong relationships and having people you can rely on — plus being a reliable partner to others — goes a long way toward preventing burnout.”[14]

And even if a lawyer is beginning to show the signs of burnout, healthy lifestyle behaviors such as exercise and a healthy diet can stop it in its tracks. For example, a history of poor eating, or eating the wrong kinds of foods, can contribute to burnout. “However, when you make changes to your diet, it can also heal you. In other words, you want to eat foods that make you better, while avoiding those that make your burnout worse.”[15]

Additionally, a strong mindfulness meditation practice can not only calm and heal the body but can provide an effective method of combating burnout. Notable physical benefits of meditation include better sleep, stress reduction, slowing of the aging process and reduced physical pain. Psychological benefits of mediation are even greater, such as increased learning ability, sharpened focus, quieting of mind chatter and a more positive mindset.[16] For those reasons, more and more lawyers are utilizing mindfulness practices not only to increase their productivity, but also to avoid burnout.

Limiting alcohol is also a critical piece of avoiding and/or combating lawyer burnout. In fact, research shows that alcohol can lead to anxiety due to the brain-chemical changes, alcohol withdrawal symptoms, feelings regarding the negative consequences of drunken behavior, adverse impact on the ability to learn vital coping skills and interference with restorative sleep. Unfortunately, many are unaware that even moderate drinking could be causing or exacerbating the anxiety that is plaguing the legal profession, beginning in law school.[17] Swapping out that nightly glass of wine for an early bedtime could go a long way in combating anxiety commonly experienced by an attorney in burnout.

Others state that the real cure for burnout is a proper vacation. “The definition of a proper vacation is one that you actually take, where you stay somewhere pleasant long enough, doing nothing vaguely related to law (including checking email), to remember who you are. That means remembering who you used to be before this madness consumed your life.”[18]

There is no “one size fits all” approach to preventing and/or combating lawyer burnout but a simple approach could be characterized as “take care of yourself.” Although common sense dictates that pulling an all-nighter while eating Cheetos from the vending machine and washing it down with a fancy IPA is not the recipe for a long, prosperous legal career — sometimes common sense goes out the window while in the heat of battle. This is why keeping the symptoms associated with lawyer burnout on our radar is important, in that we as a profession can assist our colleagues so burned out, they can no longer care for themselves.

Like it or not, lawyers play a significant role in a democratic society. Thus, by addressing and combating attorney burnout, we can not only save the lawyers, but in the process, possibly save the world.

Jennifer L. Gibbs is a partner with Zelle LLP.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its​​ or their respective affiliates. This article is for general info​​rmation p​​urposes an​​d is ​​not intended to be and​​ should not be taken as legal advice.


[2] Id.




[6] Id.




[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.




[17] Jeena Cho, Can We Finally Talk About the Elephant in the Room? Mental Health of Lawyers,


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