Addressing burnout: your productivity depends on it

Because of the stress of practice, 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?

As an analogy only (and not as a diagnosis) compare major clinical depression with feeling down.  According to mental health professionals, the symptoms of the two are similar, but minor depression (feeling blue, dysthymia, etc.) tends to last longer and be more mild than major depression.  Where major depression is marked by an inability to function, someone who’s feeling down often sees the world in shades of grey, doesn’t enjoy life like he used to, and has reduced energy, but he’s still able to function.

Chuck Newton has recently posted on the “Cure for Lazy Lawyer Syndrome.”  It’s a terrific article that describes with a visceral clarity what it’s like to struggle with low-grade burnout:

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 to anyone else?  I’ve certainly been there, and I’ve talked with enough clients to know that it isn’t an isolated feeling — though lawyers who are feeling this way do tend to isolate themselves.  And that tends to add self-condemnation to the mix, and the result is not pretty.

But Chuck has 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’s post appears on the Solo Lawyer blog, and he even emphasizes that this advice is especially important for “home office lawyers, connected lawyers and Third Wave lawyers.”  To my mind, it’s critical for all lawyers, especially since most of us are now “connected” most of the time.  Although some of the suggestions that Chuck makes are difficult or inappropriate for lawyers who work in a traditional law firm (i.e., working 4-day weeks on a regular basis, absent a part-time schedule), the idea of short periods of intense focus alternating with period of complete disengagement can be applied in any practice setting.  I’ve referenced the book The Power of Full Engagement before, but I’ll mention it again now because it stands for the proposition that “full engagement” requires selective disengagement from work — which is, after all, exactly what Chuck espouses.

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 father, who’s practiced law since the mid-1960s, has given 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.

What’s your plan to address burnout?

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