It’s safe to say that the legal profession tends to attract high achievers. In fact, the gauntlet just to become an attorney is a marathon of literal and figurative high-stakes tests. Starting with taking the LSATs then finishing three years of law school and sitting for the bar, it takes a certain kind of drive and tenacity to be willing to take on the challenges that are just the price of entry into the legal community. And once you begin practicing, the stakes only get higher. From associates facing mountains of billable hours or managing partners with the weight of an entire firm on their shoulders to prosecutors and public defenders prepping for trials, the stress to do your best can be steep. Now, layer on the long hours and adversarial nature of many attorneys’ core responsibilities—defending motions, arguing cases, negotiating high stakes transactions for demanding clients and other work that often pits attorneys against each other—and the pressure only mounts. Regardless of your personality type, there’s an emotional toll all of these influences take.
And while it may seem like the stress and anxiety of the legal profession is a known quantity—or even a badge of honor—it’s a problem that legal professionals struggle to manage. The high-achieving personalities that gravitate to legal practice are ambitious, dedicated and selfless, and they don’t always feel comfortable with the perceived stigma that comes from asking for help, pushing back on high expectations or (God forbid) taking a step back.
The consequences of neglecting self-care and work-life balance, though, are dire. A recent study found that nearly 30% of licensed attorneys were struggling with some level of depression, almost 20% “demonstrated symptoms of anxiety” and 21% used alcohol in a way that would be considered problematic.
So what do you do when your chosen profession is known for the stress it creates? As a Recruiter, I’m asked this a lot. My first piece of advice is always to remember that you don’t have to suffer. I’ve written before about options to consider when facing the stresses of a practicing attorney, but I wanted to unpack a few of the (sometimes surprising) ways I help over-worked attorneys manage their stress.
Talk through how to address stress in their current role
One of the first things I do as a Recruiter gets to know my candidate’s current situation. We spend a lot of time talking through what’s working, what’s reparable and what might be beyond repair. And I always ask: Does your employer know you’re unhappy?
We all have some level of loyalty to our employers, but I’ve noticed that attorneys are exceptionally committed to the firms or companies they work for. In many cases, at least in private practice, they’ve invested years of their careers to get on a path to partner – a promotion that is no longer a guarantee and often illusive. In a corporate in-house setting, attorneys often find themselves in stiff competition to advance in a typically flat legal department. In both situations, attorneys suffering from unnatural stress usually seek to make a change and/or a Legal Recruiter before approaching their boss. There are big salaries and bigger aspirations on the line, and they’re not eager to jeopardize that by speaking to their boss about work-life balance. Moreover, expressing the desire to scale back on hours can be perceived as ceding professional growth and progress. But over the years, I’ve become adept at coaching potential candidates through how to flag their stress levels to their current employer.
In the Recruiting context, I’ve worked with numerous candidates to find a new role, only for their current employer to counter offer when they try to give notice. “We had no idea there was a problem,” they might say. “Let’s work with you—we can make those changes to make you happy.” Suddenly, the candidate’s conflicted. They’ve spent months interviewing—no small undertaking, especially when they’re already over-stressed. And if they turn down the offer they’ve worked to earn, the new firm is frustrated and a door is closed. At the end of the process, everyone feels like they’ve wasted their time.
So if I can help someone to first shore up their issues with their current employer, I’m happy to. It improves their quality of life, and at the end of the process, I’ve helped that attorney fix what’s broken, at least temporarily, before prematurely jumping ship.
Refocus the lens on what matters
When I speak to attorneys, it’s not unusual to hear that they’re struggling with the dissonance between what inspired them to join the legal profession and where they find themselves spending their day-to-day energy. Maybe they were passionate about trying cases, and instead, they’re locked in an office writing legal briefs all day. Or maybe they had aspirations of being an attorney that seeks to protect the environment from the large corporations that are known to pollute or contaminate our air and streams, but had to take a higher-paying job with a firm that defends those offending companies to pay off their student loans.
So if you’ve been unsuccessful in resolving the stress of your current situation, it’s time to dust off those aspirations and consider why they matter to you. These days, there are innumerable ways to improve your work life as an attorney, or even to use your law degree in an alternative path in the job market. Whether you want to continue practicing or pivot to a field where legal experience is complimentary, there are options you can take to escape misery. As a part of your job search, a Recruiter can talk you through some options you might not have considered. Changing practice areas, switching from defense to plaintiff (or vice versa), moving from large to a small firm, transitioning to a corporate legal department from a law firm (or vice versa), working part-time or contract legal work, teaching, and other non-traditional paths might make sense.
If the threat of attorney burnout is pushing you to make a change, though, be prepared to truly make a change, starting with some soul searching on what you want to bring with you to your new role and what you need to leave behind to have a better quality of life. This is another tough step in the process, because when you spend as much time working as many attorneys do, your identity is likely steeped in your job.
I encourage my candidates to step back a bit and think about the big picture—taking into account the impact their work has on their families, their health and their quality of life. Often finding a job that offers work-life balance requires attorneys to first make choices that are informed by what they need professionally and personally.
Taking into account the never-say-die mentality of attorneys, I realize some of my advice is easier said than done. And if an attorney’s work setting has them in a high-stress state, the last thing a Recruiter should be doing is creating new and unnecessary pressure. That’s why so much of the work I do with legal candidates are driven by active listening and empathy for the burnout many attorneys are facing.
I’ve helped many attorneys find firms that were better culture fits, new roles that offered more flexibility and even opportunities that were a little off the beaten path. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing a new role or even a new perspective when the stress you’re facing in your field is causing a deterioration in your quality of life. After all, life is too short to stay in a situation that’s no longer right for you.