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 be always on and to define success by whether they can work more hours than their co-workers. (Without, of course, making a mistake.) In this system, sleep is for the weak. All-nighters and 24/7 availability are the ways they’ll signal their dedication. Then make sure they’re saddled with crushing college and law school debts that make it much harder for them — impossible for many — to consider opting out for a more sustainable way of living and working. Oh, and as a final bonus, throw in two-plus years of a pandemic that obliterates any semblance of boundaries between home and work, if those boundaries ever existed.
To borrow from an old funny-because-it’s-true saying, burnout is nine-tenths of the law. The epidemic of stress and burnout, of course, was a global phenomenon even before anyone had ever heard of Covid-19. And in every sector of our society, the burnout crisis has only gotten worse. The need to address stress, burnout and mental health has moved to the top of the agenda for companies and businesses worldwide — even in other boiler rooms of burnout like finance and tech. But less so in the legal profession, where unsustainable overwork is still built into the business model. The law is based on precedent and tradition. But the prevailing culture of burnout is a tradition that needs to be overturned.
The need to overturn it is only growing more urgent. A new survey by Bloomberg Law found that a majority (52%) of attorneys reported feeling burned out in their jobs. And nearly half (46%) said their well-being had declined in the last quarter of 2021, compared with only 34% in the third quarter. Trouble with sleeping, anxiety, depression and difficulty disconnecting from work were among the challenges cited. LawCare, a nonprofit that helps those in the legal profession, reports that the top reason why people call their hotline is work stress.
So, the stakes are high. And not just for the health and well-being of lawyers. When lawyers are exhausted and depleted, it’s not just themselves, but the clients and businesses they serve who pay the price. Lawyers are paid for their counsel, their judgment 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 — not something a client wants in a lawyer.
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. A recent report by the International Bar Association found that 54% of young lawyers say they’re somewhat or highly likely to change jobs, and one in five are considering leaving the legal profession altogether.
The good news, as Reuters reports, is that law firms are finally taking action to change the culture of burnout in the legal profession. Boston-based Goodwin Procter recently launched a program called “Recharge on Goodwin,” which pays for associates and other non-partner staffers to go on vacation with “thoughtfully curated week-long trips.” Last year Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe rolled out “Orrick Unplugged,” in which its lawyers can take a week off and get credited with the same amount of billable hours. Tracy Foley, head of HR for UK-based Walker Morris, writes about how her firm has taken on burnout and mental health with a sabbatical program and an “ask twice” campaign in which colleagues were encouraged to ask not just “how are you,” but “how are you really?”
A thriving, healthy society needs thriving, healthy lawyers. We all have a stake in “overruling” burnout in the legal profession.
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