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How to keep your legal career burning – proactive ways to avoid career ‘burnout’

by Hannah Cottam | 16 May 2019

Are you a legal professional and feeling constantly stressed and overworked? Do you feel demotivated and under a huge amount of pressure? Then you might be suffering from career ‘burnout’! In this two-part blog, Hannah Cottam, Group Director and legal recruitment expert looks at the physical effects of career ‘burnout’ and how legal professionals can avoid it to enjoy a long and healthy career in the profession.

With the rise in social media, increased caseloads and the need to be available all of the time lawyers have more to contend with than ever before, meaning that the role is becoming increasingly challenging for legal professionals. This, and the growing need for lawyers to be commercially minded and able to adapt quickly to change is resulting in many lawyers feeling the effects of ‘burnout’ at some point in their career.

As a legal professional, it is important to be able to spot the signs that you are ‘burning out’, and know what to do to rectify the situation before it is too late. In this blog I will look at some of the signs of ‘burnout’ and what you should do if you feel it happening to you. 

How can lawyers recognise they are ‘burning out’?

The term ‘burnout’ has no formal definition or medical diagnosis, instead it represents a stage that some legal professionals get to at some point in their career. It describes a point where lawyers and professionals in the legal field feel so stressed, they consider leaving the profession they love altogether, something we witness at Sellick Partnership all too often.

In my opinion, career ‘burnout’ goes hand-in-hand with many signs of stress or being over-worked and I believe there are a number of tell-tale signs that you should be aware of. Legal professionals that are ‘burning out’ will generally experience a drop in productivity and a reduced desire to work as well as some (or all) of the following signs of stress;

  • Exhaustion
  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Frustration, cynicism, and other negative emotions
  • Cognitive problems
  • Worsening performance
  • Problems at home and at work
  • Not taking good enough care of yourself
  • Decreased satisfaction at home and at work
  • Health problems

Each of these symptoms are common, however when someone experiences a number of them at once they are at risk of ‘burning out’. If these symptoms are not addressed people can begin to experience headaches, back pain and in severe cases heart attacks and strokes – not things that you would synonymise with a healthy work environment.

Why are lawyers more at risk of ‘burning out’?

Generally, from my experience working with legal professionals I find that the work lawyers do is very labour intensive and highly stressful, which is the core reason many begin to ‘burnout’ at some point in their career. According to The Lawyer, three in four lawyers will ‘burnout’, or show signs of ‘burnout’ at some point in their career a statistic that is frightening, and I fear that without change or education, this number could continue to rise.

In my opinion there are three main reasons why lawyers ‘burnout’ which need to be addressed.

  • Lawyers experience a different kind of stress – part of the reason lawyers experience more stress is because of the high level of emotional involvement in their day-to-day. Lawyers are generally very passionate, which leads them to experience heightened emotions – like stress and anger – more so than many other professionals.
  • There is a general lack of support across the profession – in a world of budget cuts and austerity, an increased requirement to do ‘more with less’ has become the norm. This is making the role of a lawyer more-and-more challenging, leading to increased stress and anxiety across the profession.
  • Generally, not enough action is taken by lawyers – lawyers often feel that they have a responsibility and a pressure to take the lead and show strength in stressful situations. They are expected to be calm under pressure and solve difficult problems. This unspoken pressure means that lawyers tend to work incredibly hard, without having the time or resource to make any changes that could rectify concerns or issues that they may have.

What can lawyers do if they feel like they are ‘burning out’?

In order to beat ‘burnout’, it is crucial that lawyers do things outside of work that they really enjoy. Lawyers need to create opportunities where they can completely switch off and relax, and what these opportunities or moments are will depend on each individual’s taste. Some candidates I speak to enjoying walking, others enjoy reading, listening to music or meditation. Whatever it is, it is important that legal professionals give themselves time to relax and recharge in order to truly concentrate and be ‘on it’ at work.

Some other tactics to think about include:

  • Taking a step back from work – I would encourage anyone that feels they may be close to ‘burning out’ to take a step back and take breaks from their day-to-day. Eat well, sleep well, be mindful of time, spend time with friends and family outside of the workplace and stop taking work home. These are all important to achieve a work/life balance that works. Without this, legal professionals are much more likely to suffer from ‘burnout’.
  • Define a purpose – legal professionals need to think about why they do what they do and work out what makes them get up every morning. Lawyers should be doing the work they love, and need to have a plan to ensure they do not resent work or ‘burnout’ in their current role.
  • Take action – once lawyers have defined their purpose, they need to put it into practice. Creating rituals or structured plans can assist with this. Rituals can include anything from habits and planning for the day ahead, to routines with the family. Rituals create boundaries and a clear line that enables people to take stock and prepare for the next challenge. 

I am aware that taking a step back is often easier said than done. Working at such a fast pace can become addictive, and when we operate at a high enough intensity for long enough, we can lose the ability to slow down. Today’s business environment celebrates hard work and activity, and at times, ignores renewal and recovery. Many of us fail to recognise that both are necessary for sustained high performance. The challenge for us is to consciously and deliberately create new boundaries, and enable ourselves to recharge when we feel we need it. We must learn to establish when we need to stop, and allow ourselves to train our brain to renew.

Long-term, legal professionals need to ensure that they enjoy the work they are doing and do whatever it takes to achieve happiness at work. This could be resolved by simply having a conversation with a senior member of staff to look at ways in which their role can be altered. Many managers will have experience in dealing with stressful situations, and there may be an easy solution. However for some, a change in direction may be required. Many legal professionals will get to a point in their career when enough really is enough, and, at this point they need to think about their current position, and decide what is best for them and their happiness long-term.

If you think it is time for a change and are interested in what legal jobs are currently available, speak with myself or a member of our highly experienced legal recruitment team in your area today.

Alternatively, you can view more legal blogs and insights from my colleagues here