Burnout is a real issue for lawyers. Just about every lawyer has at least an occasional period in which it seems that work is pressing 18-20 hours a day, and most of us know intuitively that it’s important to recover following that kind of exertion.
But what about the kind of day-to-day grind that can cause low-level burnout? Especially in the economic environment that’s existed over the last few years, many of us are delaying or even skipping vacation and working as much as possible, in part from fear that even a tiny “misstep” could jeopardize an entire practice.
You know something is wrong. You intend to get into work early to catch up, but fail to do so. You just cannot seem to make yourself finish that brief that is due in a week. You avoid phone calls you know you should take. You take a phone call and you know should make a note, but you just cannot make yourself get around to it. Then you forget the necessary details. You know you should call your client, but it is so-o-o-o inconvenient. You start to feel overwhelmed and you cannot find a starting place from which to even begin to catch up. You are just feeling tired, depressed and rundown. Vitamins do not seem to help much.
Does that sound all too familiar? As I’ve noted before, the issues that arise in consulting with my clients tend to be cyclical, and this level of burnout seems to be pervasive right now.
Low-level burnout is especially challenging in the context of business development, especially for reluctant rainmakers. If you’re not seeing enough results (or not seeing them fast enough), it’s easy to get sucked into taking on more activity—often without pausing to create a strategic plan—that gets almost frenetic. Without a good plan, it’s often random activity that leads to random results, which leads to burnout plus a sense of I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a rainmaker failure.
Chuck’s post offers a solution, and he’s hit the nail right on the head:
My suggestion is that you will feel better about yourself, your practice and your competence if you will concentrate harder on the practice of law for shorter periods of time. When you are in the zone, be in the zone. Focus, but not so long that you get eye strain.
Short times away from your work (and I mean absolutely disconnecting from your work) will help you to be more productive and energetic back at your work.
Chuck emphasizes that this advice is especially important for “home office lawyers, connected lawyers and Third Wave lawyers.” But to my mind, it’s critical for all lawyers, especially since most of us are now “connected” most of the time.
The idea of short periods of intense focus alternating with period of complete disengagement can be applied in any practice setting. The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz uses the analogy of sport to promote the proposition that “full engagement” requires selective disengagement from work. If you’re feeling burned out, set aside a weekend to read and reflect on this book.
The risk of low-level burnout is that it makes everything less pleasant; it leads to reduced energy, reduced efficiency, and reduced productivity; and if left “untreated,” it can lead to major burnout. My late father, who was also a lawyer, gave me much good advice, but one piece is especially relevant here. Make it a habit — an occasional habit, but a habit nonetheless — to escape from the office midday, whether it’s to see a movie, to visit a bookstore or museum, or to take a walk somewhere. Although the escape is great therapy to cure burnout, it’s even better applied to avoid it.
In the past, I’ve shared that I’d joined a gym, and I drew some parallels between getting into the regular gym-going habit and regularly engaging in business development. If you missed those notes, you can read them here and here, and I recommend you do so.
When things went a bit haywire in my personal life and got frantic with business, I quit going. Isn’t that the story? I worked out on my regular schedule while I was away on vacation, but when I got back to “real life”, real life crowded out my goals. (At least, that was my story. The truth, of course, is that I allowed that crowding out to happen.)
The lessons I’ve learned from this experience apply equally to business development.
- Take full responsibility for your choices. I would love to blame circumstances for my gym interruption. And, in fairness, I could – life threw several big curve-balls that boomeranged around over and over. But if I blame circumstance, that puts circumstance in the driver’s seat and I can only play along. Thanks, but no. I’d rather take responsibility for my choices because doing so creates an easy-to-see opportunity for change.
- Do what you can even when things fall apart. Even though I wasn’t able to stick with the workout schedule I’d planned, my fitness goals remained important and so I focused on eating well rather than using my “inability” to go to the gym as license to abandon the goal completely. Results? I went down 30 pounds since I started going to the gym, despite the 3 months of not working out. And my first day back to the gym was much easier than it would have been had I used the lack of workouts as an excuse to spend time with my pals Ben and Jerry.
- Get back to your plan as soon as you can. The more fully you observe the first point, the quicker “as soon as you can” is likely to occur. But even when you lose sight that the timing is largely within your control, keep a sharp eye for the first opportunity. As soon as you see it, seize it.
- Consider whether the disruption reveals the need to revise your plan. I was going to the gym for an hour a day four or five days a week. That pace isn’t realistic for my life right now. However, I can revise my plan and go two or three times a week and supplement with neighborhood walks. That change takes account of my own changed circumstances and makes it much more likely that I’ll stick to the plan.
Let’s face it: sometimes we let life or business get in the way of our goals. If you keep these tips front-of-mind, however, you’ll find a lot more success even when you might be tempted to throw in the towel and wait for things to settle down.
What suggestions do you have for staying on track under adverse circumstances? Leave them in the comments. I’d love to hear what works for you!
An excerpt from The Reluctant Rainmaker: A Guide for Lawyers Who Hate Selling
Take note of the attitude you bring when you engage in client development activities. Do you dread them? If so, identify specifically what you dislike and find a way around it or a way to make the prospect more palatable.
For example, John, a self-identified “nice but introverted guy,” detested the idea of business development because he felt like a fish out of water. When we began to explore the reasons for those feelings, John recognized that he believed that the goal of business development activities is to target people and use connections to get business, and he was uncomfortable with that approach.
He wanted to be thoughtful to those with whom he came into contact and could not see a way to engage in rainmaking activity while meeting that objective. When we discussed what he did for clients and the appreciation he sometimes received (as well as the satisfaction he felt in a job well done, even when it went unacknowledged by the client), John recognized that he was not using anyone and that providing legal services was in fact helping his clients. Moreover, he came to see that withholding his skill from someone who needed it would be destructive, not thoughtful.
Instead of viewing potential clients and referral sources as a “target” that, if “bagged,” would generate extra income and other benefits for him, John began to view them as individuals who have or know others who have legal needs that he could meet. This recognition, while it might appear elementary, was a significant shift for John. It changed the attitude with which he approached client development activity from an uncomfortable “what can I get” to a thoughtful “what can I give” attitude.
John even altered the methods he used for business development to focus more on education and resource provision, in essence marketing his services by giving a taste for them. He felt aligned with this content–focused approach, which in turn made him feel more comfortable, which in turn made others feel more comfortable with him, and in the period of a few months John began to view rainmaking through an entirely different lens.
John continued to struggle with some activities, such as networking among strangers when he felt a pressure to uncover their needs, so he focused on activities that were a better fit for him. When I last spoke with John, he had developed a reputation as a client service provider par excellence and had brought in several new matters from and through existing clients.
What attitude are you bringing into your business development efforts? If it’s a positive one, terrific! If not, take a few minutes to examine your attitude, see where it comes from, and how you might shift it. While attitude alone won’t ensure success (or failure), it may well impact both what you do and how you do it, which will impact your success.