Lawyer Burnout: How to Spot It and How to (Help) Solve It
If you’re managing a law firm, you’re in human resources. That may not be the title on your desk or above your office. That may say, Partner, Founder, Managing Partner, Managing Director, or any number of things. No matter what’s on the business card, the driving force that makes the firm go is its people, and the most significant drivers are the attorneys.
You don’t want your engine to fail. A healthy engine makes a healthy firm. Make no mistake, though – your engine is at risk and may be in a very bad way as you read this.
It’s time to face a few ugly truths of the legal industry and be part of the solution. The happy byproduct? Happier lawyers and a healthier engine for your firm.
Lawyer Burnout: A Problem That’s Bigger Than It Looks
The WHO recently classified “burnout” as an occupational phenomenon, stopping short of calling it a medical condition. Bloomberg Law conducted a survey in the last quarter of 2021 and found that 52% of lawyers surveyed were experiencing burnout. And the number was rising. In other words, if none of the attorneys in your firm are experiencing burnout, you’re either 1) a statistical anomaly or 2) missing something.
But what’s beneath the burnout? Those who reported a decline in their well-being (46%) increased. Issues noted included disrupted sleep (83%), anxiety (81%), problems with personal relationships (47%), and depression (43%).
The lawyer burnout statistics don’t stop there. A study involving nearly 4,500 active Massachusetts lawyers in early 2021 revealed that 77% reported burnout. And while 66% of those surveyed reported overall satisfaction with their lives, anxiety (26%), depression (21%), suicidal ideation (7%), and unhealthy alcohol use (42%) also came up.
How Does Burnout Affect Lawyers?
It depends on whom you ask. According to the WHO, burnout symptoms include:
- Energy depletion or exhaustion
- Negativity or cynicism about the job, or being mentally distant.
- Reduced professional efficiency.
That just makes it sound inconvenient. It can be much worse, as the Massachusetts study shows. You can probably classify the effects of lawyer burnout in three ways: physical, emotional, and professional.
Signs and Predictors of Burnout Among Lawyers
Physical signs or effects of burnout include disrupted sleep, fatigue, headaches, stomach or intestinal issues, and even frequent illness. Taxing your body and mind beyond healthy limits has genuine consequences.
Emotional indicators of burnout can include procrastination, outbursts, withdrawal, substance abuse, helplessness, cynicism, feelings of detachment, self-doubt, and many others. Be aware of changes in behavior.
Professional signs or effects of burnout may vary, from reduced performance, mistakes, falling productivity, missed work due to illness, or even resignation.
The long and short of it is this:
- More lawyers are experiencing burnout than anyone probably thought.
- Firms want to keep their lawyers from burning out.
How do we do it?
Stress Management for Lawyers: How Law Firms Can Prevent Burnout
There are many resources where people can find methods of preventing burnout. We’re going to focus on things law firms can do. As a law firm manager, you should have a finger on the pulse – more literally than you might know. Lawyer health and firm health are intertwined, after all.
Here are three things law firm managers can do to help their lawyers avoid burnout.
#1 Monitor the Productivity Data
Having and being able to visualize data enables you to spot trends. You can monitor everything from caseloads to calls made. Most of the time, you’re looking for productivity. Now, think of it as sort of a vitals monitor. Fluctuations can be your warning sign. Is that productivity drop a sign of burnout? Dig into the data and look for signs.
If you’re sharp, you may be able to spot the signs of burnout before the lawyer who’s experiencing it. Better yet, as the manager, you may be able to adjust workflow in such a way as to relieve it without the lawyer ever knowing it.
#2 Watch the Time
Whether your firm bills by the hour or not, your case management system likely has the means to track when a lawyer is online and working. Some lawyers may work better at odd hours. Get to know how your team works and look for warning signs. Are they working more hours than usual on the same caseload?
Maybe hours increase, but productivity doesn’t. Or maybe hours and productivity both decrease. Whatever happens, ask yourself why the change is happening.
#3 Manage Caseloads and Resources
You’re already doing this. Handing cases to the attorney with the lightest load? Attorneys often say they can take more because that’s what they know is expected. Making Partner or billing more is a goal. Or many they want to help more people. But attorneys have egos and can bite off more than they can chew.
Every person will have a slightly different functional maximum workload, and even those maximums may change due to changes in personal life, health, or numerous other factors.
#4 Keep Lines of Communication Open
Stress management for lawyers isn’t just for lawyers to practice – those who manage them can help. Get rid of the “loaded question” mentality. Productivity questions often provoke defensive reactions. Word your questions carefully. “Are you feeling ok? Your work is great, but I’m concerned about your health.” That’s a very different approach to “I noticed your billable hours are down.”
Communication is a firm-to-firm nuance. You hopefully know your attorneys well enough to approach them, get an honest assessment, and help them.
#5 Give Them Better Tools
This is not meant as a sales pitch. The old saying goes, “A good craftsman never blames his tools.” However, not all tools are created equal. Whether it’s case management software or the firm-issued hardware it runs on, ensure you’re not adding stress by cutting corners on what your lawyers depend on to work.
If you can automate the mundane tasks, your lawyers can spend more time with the fulfilling part of the job. If they’re drowning in busy work, worried about a computer problem, or having to find workarounds for software shortcomings, that’s not fulfilling. It’s a hurdle in the middle of a marathon.
#6 Offer the Right Perks
It’s not about money. It’s about support. Does your office have a gym? Or offer a gym membership or help obtaining one? Exercise reduces stress, increases fitness, and improves health. Does your health plan provide anonymous support for people experiencing mental health difficulties or crises? Consider your firm’s benefits package and what you may want to add, change, or reiterate.
In the mind of most lawyers, anything and everything is “on the record,” and any sign of weakness is often considered a career wound – never to be forgotten. They feel like there are no safe spaces and burn out when it could have been avoided. That’s a cultural issue. Is it one your firm has?
Make Lawyers’ Lives Easier With GrowPath
If your software is adding stress and not subtracting it from your lawyers’ daily lives, consider the advantages GrowPath offers. It is cloud-based and will work anywhere with a connection. It has patented security features, so no one has to worry about infosec. The complete suite of case management features includes easy-to-use and customizable tools to help firms and attorneys work more efficiently.
Lawyers can get more done in less time. They can be more productive without spending more hours. They can automate menial tasks and make others easier. Meanwhile, you can see what’s getting done, who’s overloaded, and who may succumb to the stress.
Schedule a demo if you think your firm could benefit from GrowPath’s patented tools. It’s a small investment of time that could save your firm’s attorneys some grief.