Why do Lawyers Burnout?

Why do Lawyers Burnout?

Why do Lawyers Burnout?

Most lawyers experience some degree of burnout at one point in their career. So, why are lawyers susceptible to burnout?

Just before I answer that… What exactly is burnout?

In simple terms, burnout can be described as the negative psychological, behavioural, and physical consequences of chronic job stress. Burnout has three components; emotional exhaustion, reduced personal efficacy and cynicism. Exhaustion is related to a range of negative outcomes for individuals and organistations such as poor mental health and poor performance.

Causes of Lawyer Burnout

Research literature to date has focused on the degree to which both self- selection and socialisation processes play a part in the development of psychological distress and burnout among lawyers.

Here are some of the common factors that have been found to contribute to the high prevalence of lawyers experiencing burnout:

1.    Entrance into the Profession

Law school entails running one marathon after another. The competitive nature of law students, excessive workloads and time pressures, tend to exert a huge amount of pressure.

Research carried out in Australia by Nelk and colleagues found high levels of psychological distress among law students when compared to the general population and medical students. Thirty five percent of law students reported high or very high levels of psychological distress, comparted with 18% of medical students and 13% of the general population aged between 18-34 years.

Another interesting longitudinal study conducted by Sheldon and Krieger found that law students in Florida exhibited similar levels of intrinsic motivation and values and subjective well-being as other advanced undergraduates at the beginning of law school. By the end of the first year, it was found that law students were more likely to be motivated to achieve goals in order to impress others, in other words extrinsic goals. This is an important finding when trying to understand burnout in lawyers. Psychologists Deci and Ryan argue that it is the attainment of intrinsic goals that enhances well-being through their ability to satisfy the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness.

2.    Long, Unsociable Working Hours

It is common for lawyers to face prolonged, unsociable working hours. All this translates to little or no time for relaxation. The often, unpredictable late working nights makes it very difficult to sustain a healthy social lifestyle outside the office.

3.    Common Lawyer Traits

Research has focused on the possibility that some traits, common among lawyers, make them susceptible to psychological distress. They include:

●      Preference for rational thinking and perfectionism

Rational thinking involves deriving a conclusion from the situational variables. This is often the day to day thinking processes of a lawyer.

Unmitigated perfectionism seen in lawyers is characterised by the urge to be flawless and set very high standards which can contribute to chronic dissatisfaction levels, eventually leading to burnout.

●     Acquired or inherent pessimism

One of the key personality characteristics associated with psychological distress is pessimism. Pessimistic personality types tend to believe that the negative events are likely to be long lasting, their fault and will affect everything in their lives.

●     All or nothing thinking style·

An all or nothing thinking style is related to perfectionism. Over time, this can lead to maladaptive perfectionism. Due to being switched on for long periods of the day, lawyers are likely to suffer from sleep deprivation, skip meals and enter into other maladaptive coping mechanisms. All these eventually contribute to burnout.

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4.    Support and Mentoring

Research has shown that lawyers who perceived a lack of social support available to them or who reported that their colleagues were unsupportive were more likely to be dissatisfied with their job. The availability and quality of mentoring from supervisors and colleagues have been shown to enhance job satisfaction among lawyers and protects against psychological distress and burnout. However, if you combine a competitive work environment with a perfectionist thinking style then mentoring and coaching can sometimes be perceived as a ‘weakness’ and are either not taken up when offered or not requested when needed.

5.    Role Clarification Problems

Unclear work roles and responsibilities is a major cause of occupational stress. Lawyers who experience role ambiguity can be unsure how to behave or conduct themselves at work. The thin line between what is right or wrong can over time become a psychological stressor, especially for a perfectionist. In an attempt to handle to the stressor, lawyers often find themselves constantly overworking in addition to the baseline long hours and succumbing to burnout.

6.    Work/Family Conflict

Since lawyers work long working hours, it can make it difficult to undertake family commitments. As a lawyer advances, higher salaries mean some of these practical duties can be ‘outsourced’ but the emotional and relationship building aspects of family life can suffer. This is particular important as positive emotional connections and relationships are protective factors against burnout.

Achieving satisfaction in both work and family life is a balance that requires good communications skills and a mental agility to switch and be present in each role.

7.    Anxiety Transference

As a lawyer, working on intense matters is part and parcel of the job. Client themselves can be also very intense. Some lawyers find themselves suffering from anxiety transference. They hold on to their clients’ worries and anxieties. This is understandable given the amount of time spent at work. We are all influenced by the people we surrounded ourselves with.

How Does Burnout Manifest?

Although there are early warning signs to burnout, quite often it is only recognized and treated when psychological problems such as depression and anxiety become unmanageable.

●     Depression

Depression is characterised by low moods and loss of interest in activities. All of a sudden, waking up seems arduous, taking a bath or fixing a healthy breakfast turns into a ‘difficult’ action that you don’t have the energy for.

●     Anxiety

Anxiety is displayed by restlessness and intense worry/ uncertainties about life. It is also characterised by irrational thinking that impacts your thought and decision-making processes.

What’s the good news?

Well, without a doubt, law is a demanding career. However, there are also factors that protect lawyers from burnout such as a sense of job control which can be influenced by assertiveness and good communication. Work engagement which is a relatively new psychological concept, can assist employees in coping with intense work demands and achieve peak performance. Work engagement is different to job involvement as it encompasses emotions, thoughts and behaviours at work. Psychological meaningfulness and psychological safety both influence work engagement. Psychological safety refers to the experience of feeling able to be yourself without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status or career. Achieving work engagement often requires coaching psychology input at an organizational and individual level. However, individual coaching is often reserved for more senior lawyers. As a psychologist who regularly works with lawyers suffering from burnout, I have found that once my clients recover from burnout, I need to move into coaching to provide the skills to positively and assertively manage the workplace. I believe providing and accepting the offer of coaching, at all levels of a career in law, could be a factor in preventing burnout in lawyers.

About the author
Specialising in healing and elevating professionals in high-pressure environments, particularly partners at law firms in the City of London, Dr. Sykes brings a wealth of expertise to the realms of self-discovery, self-elevation and leadership. Drawing from her extensive tenure working alongside individuals in demanding roles, Dr. Sykes offers a unique perspective rooted in practical experience...