(Interview conducted in writing on February 23, 2023)
Q: Thank you for joining the OBA civil litigation section. What is burnout?
A: Burnout is when you just can’t keep on keeping on. Emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion is present. There’s increased skepticism. There’s a wish, a need even, to retreat from the burden of your responsibilities for a while.
Q: What aspects of litigation or lawyering cause or exacerbate burnout?
A: Lawyers burn out when the demands on their energy and time outweigh their ability to rest, when they don’t feel seen or cared for by their practice groups or firms, and when they don’t have hope that things can be different. Additionally, being continually exposed to the challenging social issues faced by clients can create what’s called vicarious trauma.
In our psychotherapy practice, which is specialized in supporting lawyers, we hear all the “usual” things that contribute to burnout for litigators (the sheer volume of work, billable hour targets, lack of control over one’s workload, client demands, etc.).
We also want to highlight less often talked about contributors to burnout: inequities experienced by lawyers who are racialized, neurodivergent, women, LGBQT2S, and caregivers. [Note to readers: Our next issue, on unconscious bias, will address the first of these issues in more depth.]
Q: How would a litigator identify when they are burned out?
A: Consider the following client composite. Alex’s alarm goes off and they are filled with dread at the day ahead. It takes all their willpower to get out of bed after pressing their snooze button multiple times. They have no appetite to eat before starting work. They may or may not have showered. Alex feels overwhelmed by their inbox, having no idea where to start returning emails. It’s hard for them to concentrate and focus, making it hard to prioritize work tasks. Once they decide on a task to work on, they don’t feel motivated to get going on it. They’re distracted by anxious thoughts and self blame. They question their choice of career and place of belonging as a lawyer. It’s hard for them to be fully present when socializing. They’re feeling detached from most interests and close relationships. In their isolation, they might turn to increased alcohol use (which has a numbing effect), or they might binge eat (which helps increase dopamine, an uplifting brain chemical). As it’s hard to fall asleep at night, they procrastinate at going to bed, distracting themselves with social media scrolling. They feel shame at this but can’t seem to get a grip on their brain functioning. All of these are warning signs of burnout.