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Addressing Burnout: Your Productivity Depends On It

Posted in Coaching for lawyers

Burnout is a real issue for lawyers.  Just about every lawyer has at least an occasional period in which it seems that work is pressing 18-20 hours a day, and most of us know intuitively that it’s important to recover following that kind of exertion.

But what about the kind of day-to-day grind that can cause low-level burnout?  Especially in the economic environment that’s existed over the last few years, many of us are delaying or even skipping vacation and working as much as possible, in part from fear that even a tiny “misstep” could jeopardize an entire practice.

Back in 2007, Chuck Newton posted on the “Cure for Lazy Lawyer Syndrome”.  It’s a terrific article that describes with a visceral clarity what it’s like to struggle with low-grade burnout:

You know something is wrong.  You intend to get to work early to catch up, but fail to do so.  You just cannot seem to make yourself finish that brief that is due in a week.  You avoid phone calls you know you should take.  You take a phone call and you know you should make a note, but you just cannot make yourself get around to it.  Then you forget the necessary details.  You know you should call your client, but it is so-o-o-o inconvenient.  You start to feel overwhelmed and you cannot find a starting place from which to even begin to catch up.  You are just feeling tired, depressed and rundown.  Vitamins do not seem to help much.

Does that sound all too familiar?  As I’ve noted before, the issues that arise in consulting with my clients tend to be cyclical, and this level of burnout seems to be pervasive right now.

Low-level burnout is especially challenging in the context of business development, especially for reluctant rainmakers.  If you’re not seeing enough results (or not seeing them fast enough), it’s easy to get sucked into taking on more activity — often without pausing to create a strategic plan — that gets almost frenetic.  Without a good plan, it’s often random activity that leads to random results, which leads to burnout plus a sense of I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a rainmaker failure.

Chuck’s post offers a solution, and he’s hit the nail right on the head:

My suggestion is that you will feel better about yourself, your practice and your competence if you will concentrate harder on the practice of law for shorter periods of time.  When you are in the zone, be in the zone.  Focus, but not so long that you get eye strain.

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Short times away from your work (and I mean absolutely disconnecting from your work) will help you to be more productive and energetic back at your work.

Chuck emphasizes that this advice is especially important for “home office lawyers, connected lawyers and Third Wave Lawyers”.  (As a sidenote, Chuck’s Third Wave Lawyer blog always has interesting observations.)  But to my mind, it’s critical for all lawyers, especially since most of us are now “connected” most of the time.

The idea of short periods of intense focus alternating with periods of complete disengagement can be applied in any practice setting.  The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz uses the analogy of sport to promote the proposition that “full engagement” requires selective disengagement from work.  If you’re feeling burned out, set aside a weekend to read and reflect on this book.

The risk of low-level burnout is that it makes everything less pleasant; it leads to reduced energy, reduced efficiency, and reduced productivity; and if left “untreated”, it can lead to major burnout.  My father, who’s practiced law since the mid-1960s, has given me much good advice, but one piece is especially relevant here.  Make it a habit — an occasional habit, but a habit nonetheless — to escape from the office midday, whether it’s to see a movie, to visit a bookstore or museum, or to take a walk somewhere.  Although the escape is great therapy to cure burnout, it’s even better applied to avoid it.