Overcoming Lawyer Burnout//

Lawyers: Why Stamina Can’t Keep You Going Forever

It's the one intangible quality that has fueled the aura and culture of the Big Law lawyer for decades. For the sake of the industry, it's time for change.

Zoltan Tasi (unsplash)
Photo credit: Zoltan Tasi (unsplash)

Above all the attributes that have long been expected, even admired, in the legal industry, ‘stamina’ is the unspoken winner.

Particularly among trainees and junior lawyers at Big Law firms across the world, “pulling an all nighter” never fails to draw in gasps of praise or silent high fives among their peers. But for many lawyers, the fabled ‘burning the midnight oil’ has never been, or ever will be, sustainable for them.

It’s why, after 3-4 years of this lifestyle and having built sufficient technical legal knowledge, a significant number of lawyers consider switching from private practice to in-house legal roles, or even leaving the profession altogether, in search of more stable and regular working hours.

There is now plenty of data and research to back up the premise that longer hours do not result in corresponding productivity or happiness. Rather, there is an optimum level to which people can work, after which productivity not only stagnates, but also starts to fade dramatically (as does happiness and the perception of how much time you have).

It’s the law of diminishing returns.

Yet, it’s a vicious cycle brought on by multiple client demands, ever increasing internal billing expectations, and a seemingly innate fear of losing a client’s business.

The situation is exacerbated by a lack of proper rest, for example, where the lawyer gets 2-4 hours’ sleep and is expected to be back in the office by 9:30am, after a quick shower and change of clothes.

Rinse and repeat.

Rinse and repeat.

But where a transactional lawyer previously would have several weeks to recover from a gruelling deal, the number of deals that lawyers are working on have increased to the extent that the amount of ‘downtime’ between deals has significantly decreased.

Sure, there will be some lawyers who will thrive on this lifestyle, but for many others who are talented and ambitious in their field and wanting to do the very best for their clients, there is equally a deep yearning to have a fulfilling life outside the office and a healthy lifestyle overall.

When weighed against the perceived stigma of not matching their employers or fellow partners’ expectations when it comes to billing, the lawyer is likely to suffer in silence (which could affect their mental and physical health) until he or she reaches breaking point.

And whilst technology has aided the legal industry to become more efficient, it’s also heightened expectations on what a lawyer can produce and by when.

But there is no flashing neon sign to tell them when to stop, so lawyers are pushing themselves to be even bigger, faster, and stronger than generations of lawyers before them, even though their body says, “Please, I can’t take any more!”

Mental and physical illness is brought on by pushing your body beyond its limits. And the well documented excessive alcohol consumption and drug taking in the industry simply masks the symptoms.

Something’s got to give.

But there are signs that perhaps times are changing with law firms increasingly:

  1. recognising the need to look after the welfare and well-being of their staff with an overhaul of their official policies which includes offering greater work and work location flexibility, and other changes in working practices;
  2. making heavy investments to improve their IT infrastructure and software and hiring network professionals to improve all round efficiencies in working practices and operations;
  3. recognising the need (with the aid of pricing analysis tools) to have early, frank discussions and continual dialogue with their clients, both on time management (on cases and transactions) and the utilisation of themselves and their lawyers;
  4. acknowledging that their partners are individuals with individual needs and with different contributions to the firm; and
  5. promoting and implementing diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workplace, (for only the largest of law firms) hiring a dedicated D&I Manager, and incorporating time spent on pro bono work into a fee earner’s overall targets.

Further, more clients (particularly those with in-house counsels who have worked in Big Law) are acknowledging that they’re not the only client to service, and they need to work with realistic timetables for lawyers to turnaround the work. That means also holding pragmatic discussions on time frames and expectations with other parties involved in a deal.

This long-standing culture of glorifying stamina in the legal profession needs to be stamped out, as do other anachronistic alpha male traits that are hindering the modernisation and progression of the legal industry.

Ultimately, law firms need to ensure that their employees feel safe and protected in working for them, not working in fear that they must work to ever increasing and unattainable targets at whatever price.

If a firm reboots its core values and practises, it’s not just great for talent recruitment, it’s great for talent retention.

But more has to be done. A whole lot more.

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