If you were to design a perfect machine for stress and burnout, what you’d end up with would look a lot like the legal profession. You start by recruiting from a pool of young, ambitious, high achievers with a strong tendency for perfectionism. Then you set up a system based on billable hours, so they’re incentivized to do nothing but work for years on end. You tell them that their metric of success will be whether they can work more hours than any of their co-workers. And all without ever making a mistake. Sleep is for the weak. All-nighters and 24/7 availability are the way they’ll signal their dedication. Oh, and as a final bonus, you saddle them with crushing college and law school debt that makes it much harder for them — impossible for many — to consider opting out for a more healthy way of living and working.
And yet, that’s a pretty good description of what daily life is like for way too many lawyers. To borrow from an old saying, burnout is nine-tenths of the law. The epidemic of stress and burnout, of course, is a global phenomenon, affecting every sector of our society. Awareness is growing and workplace culture is shifting in many fields — even other boiler rooms of burnout like finance and tech. But not law, where overwork is still so built into the business model. The law is based on precedent and tradition. But burnout is a tradition that needs to be overturned. That’s why we’re launching Overcoming Lawyer Burnout, a new section specifically devoted to the legal community.
The need for it is clear. According to a study by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, over a quarter of lawyers experience depression, 21 percent have a drinking problem and 19 percent suffer from anxiety. Last month, The American Lawyer released its 2019 Midlevel Associates Survey. In responses to open-ended questions, the word “burnout” appeared 95 times, almost double the number from 2017. “Mental health” came up 24 times, six times the number from last year.
So, the stakes are high. And not just for the health and well-being of lawyers. When lawyers are vulnerable, so are the clients, businesses and people they serve. Lawyers are paid for their counsel, their decisions, and their ability to help a client manage risk. And the science is clear on the consequences of stress and burnout. Studies show, for instance, that sleep deprivation impairs decision-making and lowers risk-inhibition.
Changing the way the legal profession works is in everybody’s interest, including and especially law firms. Well-being isn’t just an add-on or employee perk, it’s a competitive advantage. According to Law360’s Lawyer Satisfaction Survey, 42 percent of in-house counsels and 47 percent of associates say that in the next year they’re likely to look for a new job.
A thriving, healthy society needs thriving, healthy lawyers. And that’s the mission of Overcoming Lawyer Burnout. The section will be led by James Cook, General Counsel for Thrive Global, and Anjali Bindra Patel, coach and consultant to leaders in law firms and law schools. You can read what they have in store here.
So please come back and be a part of this effort. We all have a stake in “overruling” burnout in the legal profession.