It’s Time to End Burnout Culture in the Legal Industry
The legal sector is infamous for the toll it takes on professionals. What changes must be made to better safeguard lawyers' mental and physical health?
Law: The Burnout Profession
Law has long been, and still is, known as the burnout profession, an association unbecoming of what is widely considered a most prestigious profession.
Sure, law firms do what they can to look after the wellbeing of their employees, but the hard truth is that burnout is still incredibly pervasive. Why? Because meaningful steps to change burnout culture into a true wellbeing culture have not been a priority for most firms. Many might even say they are not in the business of personal and professional life optimisation – that is traditionally the sole responsibility of the individual. We know that what happens within offices and behind desks remains heavily influenced by what peers do, and thus, this culture of ‘bite the bullet, burn out or die out’ wins out.
Stress at All Levels
Trainees, associates and partners all work extremely hard and face pressures unique to their positions. Partners are under pressure to keep clients happy and ensure the firm delivers on key performance metrics. Associates are up to their necks in workload, with the added pressure of trying to make partner. And trainees, while being slightly terrified, want to impress everyone. They want to get the best seat, be an excellent liaison within the firm and please their associates, all the while making sure that partners can see all the heavy lifting they are doing. The work cannot be underestimated and is an enormous amount of pressure. As trainees progress through the hierarchy, the cumulative chronic stress becomes greater. The longer you are exposed, the more likely you are to succumb to the negative aspects.
Trainees, associates and partners all work extremely hard and face pressures unique to their positions.
The Lead-in to Burnout
Working ‘hard’ and pushing yourself beyond even your maximum limit is still perceived as a status symbol. The race to clock in the most billable hours as a sign of stellar performance is real. The stakes are high and the rewards are huge: the social prestige, working with industry-leading clients, the financial incentives and glorious paychecks, and the sense of belonging to an intellectual elite.
These are things that many people, myself included at one time, would be willing to sacrifice a lot for. It is this tunnel-vision approach that means many lawyers are blind to the signs of burnout and cannot or do not want to take proactive measures to mitigate against chronic stress. Instead, they mask the warning signs and opt for a quick fix, i.e. another coffee or another late night in order to power through. After all, that is what everyone else seems to be doing, so it is logical to think that it is the most successful coping and success strategy.
Whilst intellectually challenging, as lawyers are consistently performing brain gymnastics, law is also one of the most physically sedentary professions. This combination of continuous and extraordinarily demanding mental focus with long periods of sedentary work make burnout particularly prevalent.
The damage is physical, emotional and psychological. Over years, it accumulates into a state of total exhaustion and can lead to mental and physical collapse. Research shows that almost every system in the body is impacted by chronic stress and when it goes untreated, it suppresses the body’s immune system which can lead to illness. Not only do these effects become detrimental to the person’s health, but they also begin to impact family, work and social relations.
Whilst intellectually challenging, as lawyers are consistently performing brain gymnastics, law is also one of the most physically sedentary professions.
Speaking From Personal Experience
I remember working to an early morning deadline for one of my former firm’s largest clients. There were more than a dozen of us on the case and we all had a sense of needing to power through it, so we pulled an all-nighter as none of us wanted to show signs of weakness. In fact, I used to consider myself an endurance marathon-runner of legal nights.
Despite the exhaustion and concerns from family and friends, I could not wait to get back into the office the next morning after only a couple of hours of sleep. I was on an adrenaline-cortisol-excitement-pride-fear kind of ‘high’. It was thrilling to be part of something so big. The sleepless nights (sleep often ended up as a non-consideration), the upset spouse, irregular meals, personal sacrifices and my ‘Red Bull Bercocca’ magic potion to start off the day and last through the night, all seemed worth it each time I opened an email to positive feedback from a client.
I was so invested in the work that I overlooked my own health and basic wellbeing needs. I was just mimicking what seemed to be the norm within my industry, until the chronic stress caught up and I burned out. It never occurred to me that chronic stress could have such negative effects.
Overthe past ten years, I have had many connections and peers who have left the industry due to exhaustion, been severely burned out, had mental breakdowns, been diagnosed with work-induced health issues, and even made attempts on their lives. And this is just my personal and professional circle. If we extend it to the legal industry at large, these issues affect thousands of people every day, globally, across all jurisdictions, ages, cultures and genders.
What is important is not so much the number of people who make it to becoming a lawyer as much as the number of lawyers who can sustain being a lawyer through their whole career while maintaining a healthy body, mind and life. Unfortunately, I was not one of them, so my mission now is to make that possible for as many lawyers as I can.
Although the industry is robust, and it may seem like there are plenty of lawyers to go around, it urgently needs a culture shift now for any lasting change to happen. We owe it to all those who work in the profession to commit to doing this.
A Culture Change
Law firms do implement some good wellbeing initiatives. But while lunchtime yoga, some healthy lunch options and subsidised gym memberships are great and should be maintained, these are far from being enough.
The change that needs to be made is deeply rooted in the culture of ‘law life’ itself and should start at law school and university. The culture is already endemic at university – the competition to get the most prestigious summer vacation scheme is brutal, and then comes the pressure of getting top grades to obtain the holy grail: the training contract.
The change that needs to be made is deeply rooted in the culture of ‘law life’ itself and should start at law school and university.
Law firms should encourage vacation schemers, all the way up to senior partners, to attend and contribute to wellness seminars, learn about wellness optimisation tools and techniques, and have regular check-ins with professional wellness consultants to properly foster wellness as a culture. Law firms are great at building presence at law fairs to attract young talent, so why not educate them about the benefits of proactively looking after their health from the outset?
On an individual level, it is important to build and maintain healthy habits. This means that sleeping adequately, spending more time outdoors outside of in working hours, taking regular breaks, learning how to breathe well to regulate stress, eating nutritious food, practicing mindfulness techniques and exercising regularly, can have a significant impact on whether you thrive or burn out.
Partner with fellow colleagues to implement these habits. Why not encourage a ‘walk and talk’ group instead of a sit-down brainstorming session? And push for regular wellness workshops so all lawyers are educated individually on the benefits of cultivating wellness for performance. It is about shifting the mindset around health and wellness from a ‘nice-to-have’ to a ‘non-negotiable’. Ultimately, a healthier lawyer can only be a better lawyer, and better lawyers collectively make better law firms! It is a win-win-win situation.
Charlène Gisèle is a health coach and consultant dubbed the “Soulicitor” by her clients. A former London lawyer, Charlène coaches her clients on personal and professional life optimization through a combination of diet, exercise and lifestyle shifts.