Aug 04,2020 | 08-10 min read

Mental Health In The Legal Profession: Recognising And Dealing With Professional Burnout


By Medhavin Bhatt And Anjana Sridharan

Every profession has the potential for burnout; lawyers are equally at risk and should keep an eye out for the common signs and symptoms. In a John Hopkins study, lawyers were rated the highest affected in the rate of depression among 100 occupations. It is a demanding profession on a number of levels, and this can take a tremendous toll.  We live in a culture of disconnection, distraction, and overload that is a perfect breeding ground for burnout. And the law, with its unforgiving culture, long hours, and billable time, presents especially acute risks for burnout.

What is a 'Burnout'?

The term burnout is used casually and frequently, but a formal definition is surprisingly elusive. Burnout is not an official medical diagnosis. Davis-Laack, who has a master’s degree in positive psychology and frequently works with lawyers, defines burnout as “a disease of disengagement.” It’s a chronic process of unplugging and disconnecting from work, friends, family, and health. The key term here is “chronic”.

Burnout develops when someone is dealing with a high level of stress but doesn’t have access to adequate resources, such as social support, helpful advice, feedback from friends or colleagues, or control over how they spend their time. The legal profession, quite evidently, doesn’t allow practising lawyers control over their time. It is a profession that is increasingly demanding of your time and mental resources leaving little to mental health and stress management.

Identifying Burnout as it Develops:

  • The core symptoms of burnout include:

  • Fatigue:
    No matter how much someone rests or sleeps, one feels an unending sense of fatigue. This is a type of exhaustion that runs deeper than sleep deprivation, and it cannot be cured by taking off for a couple of days.
  • Cynicism:
    Nihilistic feelings
    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, says Davis-Laack.

  • Physical Clues:
    Frequent headaches, digestive issues, difficulty sleeping, and chest pain. 

  • Psychological indicators:
    Include panic attacks, anger, irritability, hopelessness, helplessness, and a general loss of enjoyment.

  • Drop-In Productivity:
    People heading toward burnout may also experience a drop in productivity and an increased desire to be alone.

    The Unforgiving Attitude Toward Vulnerability:
    Lawyers are at especially high risk for burnout, both because of the job and because of the personality traits we tend to have. Lawyers notoriously work long and stressful hours, which can mean that the demands of the job are intense. One of the key causes of burnout is that demands exceed the resources to meet them, and the long and difficult work of practising law can easily place too many demands on a practitioner. Our resources and support often fall short. Our tough-it-out legal culture also creates burnout risks.
    Very often, lawyers work in environments where the credo is something like “you can sleep after you’re dead” or “work hard, play later.” Combined with the 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. 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.

  • Moving Towards Practicable Solutions:

  • Actively Forming Safe Spaces to Discuss Stress and Burnout: One of the key solutions to dealing with a culture like this is to develop high-quality relationships in which it feels safe to discuss burnout. Cultivating relationships with people who won’t deem the stress and burnout a sign of weakness can make a huge difference. Unfortunately, for many lawyers, there might not be any high-quality relationships in the workplace. If that’s the case, seek out non-work relationships.

  • Solo Practitioners May Seek Assistance for Clerical Work: Solo practitioners may be an especially high-risk group. Solo practitioners “lose the camaraderie and synergy” that lawyers practising in groups have. They also tend to do everything from billing, business development, and law themselves, which can be a recipe for a big gap between demands and support. A little bit of help could go a long way in addressing burnout in such cases.

  • Let Go of Perfection: “Perfection is the enemy of good enough.” Easing up on perfection is critical. You may need to turn on your skepticism and perfectionism to represent your clients, but it is important to ensure that this does not seep into the other aspects of your life.

  • Build Awareness of Your Stress, Your Feelings, and Your Triggers: You can’t solve a problem you do not acknowledge. Learn to recognize the signs that you are being pushed to the edge, whether they are headaches, anger, irritability, or something else. Lawyers tend to be a tough, stoic lot, and we can be very good at playing through the pain. An important part of protecting against burnout, though, is recognizing when it’s coming and when your life has become too much.
    Try to identify precisely what is stressing you, especially if there is a chronic mismatch between demands and your resources. Are there activities you can cut? Can you hire someone to help you or delegate something?

  • Manage Your Energy: Manage your energy, not your time. Studies show that humans cannot really focus for much longer than about 90 minutes. After that, we get inefficient and a bit fried and less effective. So try taking a good, recharging break after 90 minutes. Try to do the tasks that energize you first, when your energy is likely to be high.
    Finally, it is important to keep in mind, too, that burnout is not a personal failing. Burnout tends to hit the best employees, those with enthusiasm who accept responsibility readily and whose job is an important part of their identity. 

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Medhavin Bhatt

Medhavin M. Bhatt is a Solicitor registered with the Bombay Incorporated Law Society and enrolled as an Advocate with the Bar Council of Maharashtra and Goa. Mr. Bhatt has significant experience in advising start - ups, real estate sector, infrastructure, construction and development, documentation, civil and commercial disputes, litigation and arbitration. Mr. Bhatt regularly appears before the High Court of Bombay and Bombay City Civil Court.