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How the legal profession could fight burnout better

Burned out lawyer

When a job takes a toll on your physical health, regulators step in to set certain safety guidelines. But there’s not much help for those of us in jobs that hurt our mental health.

Members of the legal profession—including lawyers, paralegals and support staff—face working conditions that could not be worse for our own well-being.

Long hours. Demanding clients. High-stakes showdowns that can turn on the most minor detail, requiring hours of preparation.

To make matters worse, we have created a toxic work culture in the profession that prizes working alone, promotes conflict and discourages showing vulnerability.

Let’s start with the hours. These days, being a lawyer means being on call at all hours of the day, with a text, phone call or email at arm’s reach. That makes it hard for us to get the kind of quality downtime needed to recuperate from a high-stress day.

For lawyers who work for themselves, there’s also a temptation to make more money by taking on more clients. In some cases, we may need that money to pay off law school debt or continue living a more expensive lifestyle.

But many lawyers have learned over time that the financial reward that comes with a growing practice may not have been what they had hoped. For some, it will be worth the constant stress, the sleepless nights, the missed family events and so on.

Then there are the clients.

Like medicine and other highly technical fields, the law is much more complex than our clients sometimes understand. No case is the same, nor are judges and juries easy to read. But clients, who often have a lot riding on a case, sometimes expect us to wave a magic wand that will fix their problems.

On top of that, popular culture has conditioned people to expect a lawyer to be a “pit bull” – an attack dog who will fight for their interests, right or wrong, and win, and we in the legal profession have done little to disabuse them of this caricature.

Then there’s the work.

The law is a complex ecosystem of shifting judicial opinions, detailed factual accounts and the everyday prejudices of judges and juries. For those of us who work in court, these high-stakes showdowns can be exhilarating, but they come at a cost. Often lawyers exist in a sort-of permanent state of “fight or flight” as they try to gain the advantage.

Many attorneys work for themselves, meaning they have to run a business too.

That means, in addition to their legal work, they have the financial burden of keeping the lights on, making payroll, paying for copiers and computers and cloud storage and the latest IT gadgets to be as client-friendly as possible.

The coronavirus pandemic made a lot of this worse. In my case, I found toward the beginning of this year that I simply could not continue and needed to take a brief sabbatical.

During my time off, I learned that I was not alone. Every week it seems another lawyer comes out of the woodwork to tell me that they have also been struggling. One of the top attorneys I know—a man known for his gregarious personality and high opinion of his own work—told me that he’s had to take three different medical leaves for depression and that he’s on medication to help.

A number of colleagues have told me that family law especially has worn them down or that they have started using alcohol so regularly during the pandemic that they aren’t sure how to cut back.

Attorneys need to treat each other better and we need to learn to let go of clients that treat us poorly. We need to learn to not take cases that will affect our quality of life because every case chips away at a piece of your heart. We need to be more careful and cognizant of who we are representing and how we are representing them.

Dustin S. McCrary practices law in Statesville, North Carolina. He focuses his practice on the legal needs of divorce and separation serving his clients in all aspects of the process including separation, child custody, child support, alimony and spousal support, property distribution and domestic violence.