February 2019

Burnout: A Necessary Part of Lawyers’ Lives?

By Randall Christison

Christison Law Firm

Talking to a lawyer-friend recently, one in practice for many years, I asked how he was.  "Working harder; enjoying it less.”  Far from flippant, he was deadly serious.  Everything in his voice and body language suggested he was at the end of his rope.  I asked what he does after he leaves his office each day: "home to my networked computer.”  In essence he’s in the office many hours and telecommutes the rest.  I asked about his résumé, down at the bottom, where we put hobbies and personal information, what did he have there?  With a mirthless laugh he responded, "You mean those things I haven’t done in decades?  That was a different lifetime.”  Maybe more accurately, that "was when I had a life, before the law sucked it out of me."

The conversation of any group of lawyers often turns to the stresses and frustrations of our colleagues–and often of ourselves–following years of practice.  We lawyers easily identify the source; we work in an adversarial, pressured, high-speed environment.  Long hours are often marks of success, even badges of honor.  An unstressed lawyer?  I’ve not met one.  Burned out lawyers?  I’ve met several–including one in the mirror.

A Profession in Trouble

Since the problem began garnering attention in the late 1980s, survey upon survey shows a profession in trouble.  The signs are hard to miss:

  • Large percentages, even majorities, if they had to do it over again, would not become lawyers.
  • Many lawyers drop out of the profession altogether.
  • Remarkable numbers, well more than 30%, qualify for mental health intervention, and not just for depression and substance abuse.
  • Lawyers suffer nearly quadruple the clinical depression rates of the average occupation, easily the highest of any occupation studied.

As asked by one author,1 "Lawyers have never wielded more political and economic power than they do today.  [They] are the wealthiest in the world.  In influence, affluence, and prestige, practicing lawyers surpass most other occupational groups.  Why are so many lawyers so sad?’  Why indeed?  Part of the answer lies in a lawyer’s distinct personality.

Lawyers Are Different

Studies suggest entering law students are not markedly different from other graduate students, at least as far as psychopathology.  But other studies show these students are different from the general population in several ways, a difference law school intensifies.  By the end of law school, law students are markedly different from their graduate school peers, and the difference is not healthy.  The well-known Myers-Briggs tests show lawyers and law students are appreciably different from the rest of the population.  They are detached thinkers, not empathetic feelers, abstract intuitive thinkers rather than concrete ("sensing") ones.  Surprisingly, they are more introverted than extroverted.  Some suggest this reflects self-selection and law-school winnowing; much of law training rewards those whose hours of studying resembles less a courtroom performer than a monk.  Susan Daicoff2 summarizes the "attributes associated with effectiveness as a lawyer,"

  1. Need achievement;
  2. Be extroverted and sociable;
  3. Be competitive, argumentative, aggressive, dominant, cold;
  4. Show low interest in people, emotional concerns and interpersonal matters’
  5. Have disproportionate preference for Myers-Briggs thinking v.  feeling3;
  6. Focus on economic bottom-line and material concerns.

Not only do lawyers have a distinct personality, but also they work in a distinct environment.  In the lawyers’ world, we measure success (too often) by revenue and by billable hours.  We gain success by putting in long hours, in a constantly pressured, highly adversarial environment, often carrying the burden of emotionally charged clients and situations.  Dennis Kozich4 and Peter Lattman5 list the common sources:

  • Long, dehumanizing hours;
  • Burdens of responsibility for someone else’s money, family, freedom, even life;
  • The omnipresence of trained adversaries eager to pounce on any opening;
  • Judges, juries, others constantly passing judgment on your performance;
  • Ever-present deadlines;
  • Ever-present interruptions–telephones, emails, iPhones;
  • Instant communication causing ever-faster documents and decisions;
  • Competition for clients;
  • Clients’ stress, anger, and unreasonable expectations transferred to their lawyers;
  • A gap between the ideals of those entering the profession and the reality, and
  • Too often, a gap between lawyers’ intelligence and the mind-numbing nature of the work.

In years past, mail and telephones controlled our time.  Now instant communication make such memories seem quaint.  Vacations once were a way to get away from these pressures.  Now 24/7 Internet access is presumed and iPhones are in your pocket, vacation or not. In essence, lawyers are called on to assume the burdens of responsibility for other’s fortunes, family, and freedom, and to carry that burden every hour of every day.

Indeed, to help and protect others is why many became lawyers (including me).  But unlike the other helping professions, lawyers have trained, skillful, even ruthless adversaries waiting to jump on any mistake.  Getting a 90% grade in college was not bad; in law practice it’s an invitation to embarrassment, if not to a malpractice claim.  For many of us, judges, juries, even the news media, are passing judgment on our performance, a judgment that is visited upon our clients.  And as lawyers progress from novice to veteran, their passage is monitored, scrutinized, and frequently harshly criticized by the firm’s more senior lawyers.  Under these circumstances, it’s hard to imagine a lawyer not suffering from stress.  And added to it are the inevitable economic expectations and pressures.

Next installment: Recognizing, Treating, and, Especially, Preventing Burnout.

1. Mary Ann Glendon, A Nation under Lawyers: How the Crisis in the Legal Profession Is Transforming American Society, 1994, p.15.

2. Lawyer, Know Thyself: a Psychological Analysis of Personality Strengths and Weaknesses, 2004, pp. 40-41.

4. “Stress: What Is It?” in Julie Tamminen, ed., Living with the Law: Strategies to Avoid Burnout and Create Balance, 1997, pp. 1-2.