Combating Lawyer Burnout and Recharging Your Career

By Bernard Knight
October 8, 2017

Do you feel fatigued by the long hours, demanding clients and little sleep?   At points in our careers, many lawyers feel like they don’t have a life and that their work defines them.   This is understandable given the demands of the job and the high fees clients pay for legal services.   Yet, you must find ways to recharge and maintain your momentum for the work.

It is nearly impossible to maintain your momentum if you are feeling burnt out.  Partners, supervisors and clients are demanding.   Everyone wants the right answer immediately.   If there is not a positive answer, they want to see quick “creative solutions.”

Do You Know What You Want in Your Life?

This phenomenon occurs at law firms, in Government and in corporations.   All lawyers are subject to the demands of the profession regardless of the venue.

Everything in life is a tradeoff.   A more balanced life may result in less income.   To me, the tradeoff is worth the price, but you must decide for yourself.

Many lawyers have financial demands of a family, including funding college educations.   It may seem like you don’t have a choice to have a more balanced life, but you may.   It doesn’t take much time to focus on yourself and recharge your career.   If you don’t, you may risk losing your enthusiasm and creativity in your work.

The key is to act now to deal with the burnout and recharge yourself.   Let’s look at some of the ways to do just that.

Being a Lawyer is a Part of Your Overall Life

There are several steps that you can take that will help to recharge your enthusiasm for your career and your life.   You need to deal with the burnout now or it will only get worse.   The first thing is that we all need a balanced life.   Some authors argue that you must be focused 100% on your job to get ahead and reach your goals.   That is wrong.

If all you do is the law, you are not going to be a very happy person or a very good lawyer.  You will wake up some day wondering what you were running to achieve without looking around to see what else in life is important.

A friend once gave me a book as a graduation gift when I got my psychology degree from Johns Hopkins.   It is a commencement speech by Anna Quindlen, A Short Guide to a Happy Life.   (Random House, 2000).   I recommend that you read it.

Ms. Quindlen explains what matters in life and it’s not money and power.   What really matters is the people around you and the experiences that are available to us every day for free.   Just taking advantage of our relationships and surroundings will help us recharge.   Ms. Quindlen writes:

Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work.  That’s what I have to say.  The second is only a part of the first.  Don’t ever forget what a friend once wrote to Senator Paul Tsongas when the senator had decided not to run for reelection because he’d been diagnosed with cancer:  ‘No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time at the office.’

Your life is the one thing that you and only you have complete possession of.   Live it well.

5 Areas to Examine

If you are unhappy, I recommend that you not take a drastic step like changing your career until you have an opportunity to sort things out and pinpoint the real issue.   You might need help from someone.   Don’t be afraid to seek help.

You might focus on these aspects:

  • Creating a more balanced life.
  • Looking for ways to enjoy practicing law and not change careers–just for the sake of change.
  • Explore ways to broaden your legal career and practice to make it more diversified and exciting.
  • Consider a change of firm or corporation legal department or even a switch to a non-profit or government employer.
  • Ask yourself how much money you really need and balance that with the cost of working harder.

The important point here is to explore your options so that you don’t regret the price you might pay for maintaining the status quo.   I’m not recommending a change; I’m just suggesting that you take a good hard look at your life and make certain that you are living it as you desire.   Accept the tradeoffs consciously, so that you have no regrets for the price that you paid later.

Staying Motivated and Happy Takes Effort

Like any profession, lawyers suffer from burnout.   Staying motivated, engaged and energized is difficult when you are working long hours and under stress.   First, you must recognize that you are suffering from lawyer fatigue and then develop healthy ways to get re-energized and re-focused.   The potential for more compensation is not enough.   Look at your life and explore new ways to restart your engine so that you can again excel in your practice and your personal life.

6 Methods to Combat Lawyer Burnout

  • Exercise Program and Personal Trainer.   Research has shown that exercise makes you smarter and more able to cope with stress.   My firm had a gym and I hired a personal trainer to meet me there twice a week to get exercise and save time.   It was an excellent way to get in shape and break up the day.   Make certain that you hire a qualified trainer with a degree in exercise science, not just someone to entertain you while you work out.
  • Diet.   Stop eating carbohydrates to make you happy.   Focus on a protein rich diet with fresh vegetables.
  • Meditation.   A great way to deal with stress and become more focused is to learn meditation.   I took a class on the telephone that a corporate lawyer taught.   It’s a great way to relax and focus your mind and body.   It has great benefits, including better sleep and less anxiety.
  • Walking.   Stop driving everywhere and taking every elevator.   You can get exercise on your daily routine tasks.
  • Volunteering.   Helping others in need gives us perspective.   It helps us get our minds out of our small problems at work and focus on the necessities of life that many people do not have.
  • Limit Alcohol.   There’s no problem with a drink or glass of wine at night.   The problem arises when we drink just “a few” drinks to relax.   Alcohol is not a good long-term remedy for stress.

Stay Focused on BOTH Work and Life to Be Successful and Happy

Successful people stay focused and attack the challenge at hand, while enjoying family, friends and their surroundings.   This is difficult to achieve if you are too tired and bored with your job.   You can develop ways to supercharge your career and make certain that you are on the path to continued success and happiness for the long-term.  If you would like more information on how to live a balanced life and avoid burnout, look at my website www.attorneyexecutivecoaching.com.

The Author

Bernard Knight

Bernard Knight is a partner in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP and is based in the Firm’s Washington, D.C., office. He focuses his practice on complex patent litigation. Prior to joining McDermott, Bernie served as General Counsel for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) from 2010 to 2013. As General Counsel of the USPTO, he led the development and legal review of the regulations implementing the new Inter Partes review, post grant review, business method review and derivation proceedings, as well as the regulations changing the United States to a first-inventor-to-file system. Bernie previously served as Acting General Counsel of the U.S. Treasury at the height of the financial crisis. From 2001 to 2006, he was Deputy General Counsel for the USPTO. Bernie began his government career in 1991 at the Department of Justice, Tax Division, where he served for 10 years. CLICK HERE for Bernie's firm profile page.

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