The Burnout Question

The email came just after 8am.  ‘The Partner would like to see you as soon as you are in the office please.’  Already the stress was pulsing through my body – what had happened?  Was a client unhappy?  Did I miss a deadline?  Was I seriously lagging behind in my billables?  Or maybe I was about to be put on that big transaction? 

Entering his office I knew it wasn’t good news.  ‘It has come to our attention that you have been leaving the office in the evenings before the rest of your colleagues.  Last night we noted you left at 9pm when the Senior Associates were still hard at work.  This is a team and you need to be an active member of it.’

I was shocked.  My work had all been completed and I had asked my team members if they needed any help – all had said no.  I had then asked my immediate supervisor if I could leave or if I was needed to assist on another project.  She told me to go home and get some rest.  I stood there dumbfounded, but more than anything else, I stood there afraid, stressed and extremely tired.  Each day I was up at 5.30am to make the morning bus which would get me into the city by 7.30am.  I had time for the 15 min walk and to order my take away coffee so I could be in my chair by 8am.  And if working from 8am until 9pm everyday as a junior lawyer was not pulling my weight then I knew something was very wrong.  And I knew that this world was not for me.

No, this isn’t how John Grisham’s latest legal thriller begins.  This is the life of a junior lawyer in private practice.  In a firm where more than 30% of the lawyers were suffering from some form of depression or severe anxiety as made known by the Managing Partner at the time.  Where this was an unfortunate yet expected norm of the profession.  Where nothing was done to manage it.  Where the only acknowledgement it got was being given an hour off twice a week to visit your therapist of choice without docking your pay.

Really?  Is this what the legal profession is all about?  How did we lose sight of the game so quickly?  How did our service to the courts, our clients, our communities, society at large become lost in a sea of billable hours, ridiculous working conditions and fear-based management?

20 years ago we didn't understand what burnout was - we knew about chronic stress, anxiety, depression and even PTSD - but what had not yet been defined was what was gripping the legal profession. Thankfully the World Health Organisation has since stepped in by defining burnout as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed and is characterised by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one's job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy." A syndrome that if left untreated can cause depression and anxiety.

And that is what has been happening in our profession for decades.

Lawyers in every country – whether they are in private practice, in-house counsel or dealing exclusively with the courts – all face the risk of some form of burnout.  A period where they just can’t take it anymore because no one has stopped to think about what lawyers need to be able to do the work that they do.

Where criminal defence and prosecution must read about unspeakable crimes, try to be objective about it in the court room and not take those images or words home with them.  Where litigators have to work 7-day weeks just to get the case ready in time.  Where commercial transactions demand flights at the drop of a hat, hours around conference tables and meticulous drafting with a sharp mind after 2 hours sleep.

In law school our classes were on the substantive topics with ethics and administrative practices thrown in to complete the syllabus.  Not once did we hear the words ‘resilience’, ‘mindfulness’, ‘self-care’.  We were expected to be super human in the pursuit of justice.

And this is the result.

The legal profession forms a vital part of our society.  From the judiciary through to our local lawyer drafting our will, each has a critical role to play in upkeeping human rights, democracy and the rule of law.  The time has come to look after it. 

I have been a commercial business lawyer for over 20 years, an active member of my profession and a proud one to boot, but I have moved into a more conscious way of being and working as I help my clients do the same. 

My focus is on empowerment, purpose and clarity.  My work is built from a foundation of love, respect and mindfulness. In my office we meditate, we are careful with our words, we exercise emotional intelligence and we acknowledge that we all have personal lives, families, friends and need time to ourselves.  We are advocates for mental health days – days where you just need to be – either to stay home and read a book, take yourself out for lunch, or to just sleep.

And surprisingly enough the work gets done.  Always ahead of each deadline.  We have a healthy working environment.  We support each other and we enjoy our time in the office.  We pride ourselves on our ability to focus and have a clear mind when we work.  We have reduced errors, are more creative and can find innovative solutions.  We are conscious and proud and our clients keep coming back for more.

Taking care of ourselves is our first priority.  Without self-care and self-love we are of no use to anyone.  The winds of change are upon us and it is time our profession steps away from the archaic mindset of perseverance at all costs and suffering, into one of mutual respect, mindfulness and resilience for the good of all.