The road to attorney burnout is the same road as the road to success; the difference is your attitude and perspective.
The worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself.
When I burned out after 27 years of being a trial attorney in 2004, I thought I was doing everything right. However, I was working longer and longer hours and enjoying my practice less and less. I couldn’t sleep and was irritable as a result. I suffered from stress, anxiety, and depression. I felt exhausted: mentally, emotionally. and physically. I was suffering from a classic case of attorney burnout.
What I didn’t know was that I did this to myself. I had followed the road to attorney burnout with the best of intentions. As the old saying warns, “What you don’t know can kill you.”
Attorney Burnout: 4 Traps to Avoid
Here are the four traps I fell into while trying to be a perfect lawyer who would make my clients – and the firm’s partners – perfectly happy.
1. The People Pleaser
One of the first things I learned as a child was that if I could make others happy (and sacrifice myself), my life was a lot easier. I believed that if I did everything people wanted, then they would see what a great person I was and like me. As a lawyer, I thought “being a team player” and taking on every task would help my career.
Working as an associate I volunteered at every opportunity and took on problem clients that no one else wanted. What I didn’t know was that compliance comes at a cost. I was spending far too much time working on cases that had no merit and consumed high levels of unbillable hours. I wanted to be seen as willing to work hard and do what no one else would do. I did not consider that there was a reason no one else wanted to work on those cases.
People pleasers generally believe that by sacrificing for others, they will be rewarded. It is an indirect way of manipulating the opinion of our peers, usually with negative results. When I agreed to take losing cases to show I was a “team player,” instead of being appreciated, I ended up getting criticized. I often won awards from the local state bar for my pro-bono efforts. The awards were all put into the hall closet at the law firm where I worked.
I often won awards from the state bar for my pro-bono efforts. The awards were all put into the hall closet at the law firm where I worked.
It is really important to ask the question “am I being a team player or am I being a people pleaser?” When you take on work you think will please your superiors, make sure that you’re not sacrificing your well-being needlessly. You have a right to be assigned to lucrative cases and you have a corresponding right to only work on rewarding work. Whether you are in a firm or a solo practitioner, be careful of your motivation, especially if you think taking a meritless case because you are trying to gain approval from someone else.
2. The Yes Man or Woman
Don’t be the lawyer who is fearful or reluctant to say “no.” If you are offered work that is counter-productive, decline. Say NO! Show your colleagues and your clients that you have a brain capable of discerning whether work is beneficial or detrimental to your career.
Most lawyers can tell whether a case has potential or is a train wreck waiting to happen. You probably will get more respect from your superiors if you decline work you know is a losing project than if you take it. I can remember when an associate had the integrity to tell a partner “No” on a losing project. All of the other associates were shocked. I jumped at the chance to take it on. He made partner; I didn’t.
3. The Perfectionist
How high do you set the bar? How unreasonable are your expectations? We often confuse the quest for excellence with an expectation of perfection. The problem is our definition of perfection is continually changing, raising the bar of acceptable results higher and higher.
Actor, author, and Parkinson’s Disease advocate Michael J. Foxhas stated: “I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.” Setting high standards is a key component of success. Setting unreasonable standards is a key component of burnout. If we compare ourselves to others and we always judge ourselves to be lacking, true misery is ours.
Remember that there is a difference between being competent and being perfect. When we are satisfied with a document or pleading, let someone else proofread it and let it go. Endlessly looking for typos that aren’t there will negatively impact our wellness. Do your best and be content with that.
4. The Imposter
When I was hired out of law school, I had a dreadful realization that I had no idea of what I was doing. I had the same feeling when I was promoted, made partner, accepted a challenging case or went into the courtroom. I prayed and prayed and prayed that no one would find out I had no idea of what I was doing and find out what a fraud I was. I worked so much harder than anyone else trying to make up for this irrational feeling, but rather than becoming more confident, I burned out.
We can be our own worst enemy and self-criticize ourselves into a fetal position. We become victims of our thoughts, but the reality is our inner critic is our own best friend. The Imposter Syndrome is based on the core fear that if people really knew us, they would not like us. An irrational fear at best, a paranoid one taken to its logical conclusion.
The truth is none of us is in total control of our life. As John Lennon famously sang: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” Some people are more resilient than others, we have to know that we have the talent and intelligence to sort it out.
Sometimes I look at all of the framed diplomas, awards, and certificates I put on the wall to remind myself I can do some things right. The question is: “Am I a problem solver or an emotional wreck?” Talk to your associates and colleagues on how to solve problems. If you are a solo practitioner, develop relationships with other lawyers who can help solve problems.
We become imposters when we try to do everything alone. No one can do everything by themselves. That is called solitary confinement. We build relationships, families, and friendships to give meaning to our lives – and to have someone to reach out to when we’re at the end of our rope. When we help others, they tend to want to help us. There is nothing more real or authentic than saying: “I need help.” There is nothing fake about that.
The Road to Attorney Burnout vs. the Road to Success
The road to attorney burnout is the same road as the road to success; the difference is your attitude and perspective. Some people see stumbling-blocks while others see stepping-stones. Being aware of self-sabotaging behavior can go a long way towards avoiding it.
One of life’s imperatives is to be authentic with integrity. It is acceptable – even advisable – to be yourself, as long it is your best self.
See the article as it first appeared in Family Lawyer Magazine here.