We unpack the real reason why you’re an unhappy lawyer
If there is one word we hear from lawyers in our Leave Law Behind community more often than any other term, it is "burnout," as in "I'm so burned out practicing law, I need to leave before my mental and physical health suffers any more."
You likely arrived at this article after googling "lawyer burnout," "attorney burnout," "lawyer anxiety," or "unhappy lawyer" or some other similar term. And you're not alone. The groundbreaking American Bar Association and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study (here and here) of 16,000 attorneys across 19 states found that 19% of the polled attorneys suffered from anxiety, 21% qualified as problem drinkers, and 28% struggled with depression.
In this article, we're going to do a deep dive into what burnout means in the context of lawyers' health. We will examine why being a lawyer takes such a toll on you, as well as provide you with some actionable ways you can free yourself from this "broken system that is the legal profession."
What does lawyer burnout mean?
Chemically, "burnout" describes when a fire runs out of fuel and reduces to nothing.
Occupationally, burnout describes a "special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity." (Mayo Clinic)And when it comes to being an unhappy lawyer, the pain is even more acute. Lawyers are at an extremely high risk for burnout, due in large part because the job description of being an attorney demands more from the lawyer can reasonably provide. This gap creates the unique attorney burnout and lawyer anxiety you, unfortunately, know so well.
Want to learn the one main reason you're unhappy as an attorney? Click here.
The three main reasons you suffer from lawyer burnout
1. Lawyers do work that is boring and tedious
The main reason your lawyer job is boring is because, quite simply, people pay you to do dull, monotonous work that they don't want to do themselves.
You sit in a chair all day, looking at a Word doc all day, reviewing documents, editing documents, arguing over documents. You sit in silence all day. You work alone a lot of the time. You are required to concentrate most of the day. You need to pay attention to every detail and read every word. You have to deal with procedures and regulations. You must do a lot of paperwork.
You deal with people's problems all day. You manage a lot of fighting. You work with and against people who are trying to bring you and your client down. You sit in court all day, waiting for your name to be called.
Regardless whether you practice transactional or litigation based law, really and truly all lawyers are really “paper pushers.”
You get the idea. Clients don't give you thrilling missions to complete. Sure, you may have some compelling cases or brief moments in your legal career, when you were the hero for your client. Sure, some of you might recall the case you argued in front of the Supreme Court or the significant settlement you landed. Yes, those were likely exciting. But they were the exception to the rule.
For the most part, the work is extremely boring.
And the work also has little meaning to you. How often have you opened the same Word doc template, changed the names, and altered a few pertinent facts? How often have you dealt with clients who do not appreciate the work you're doing, or whose work you don't align with? Of course, there are moments for all attorneys when you feel you're doing good for the world, or you can see the joy on a client's face, or you enjoy getting into the weeds of research. But for most unhappy attorneys, those are few and far between.
As an unhappy lawyer, you need more in your life.
2. Lawyers are overworked and underpaid
A seminal American Bar Foundation study found that an average workweek for lawyers totals 50 hours, with over 40% of large firm lawyers working over 60 hours per week. If you do the math, this shows that an attorney who only works Monday through Friday logs 10 to 12 hour days at work. If he or she carves into one weekend day, this "drops" to 8 to 10 hour days. Those are long days! And that doesn't factor in the time taken for commuting, eating, or other meetings and obligations.
With all of this time at work as a lawyer, you have little to no time to see your family, to exercise, to take care of yourself, or to just appreciate life and smell the roses. You truly are a slave to the system. As Morpheus said in the Matrix movie: "You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind."
Nor are you a highly compensated work horse. Lawyers do not make as much money as conventional wisdom would have you believe. Sure, some senior law firm partners pull in a hefty salary, and other successful attorneys can earn a good salary. But most lawyers make less when compared to other industries and fields. High-level desk research National Association for Law Placement and PayScale and Salary.com and our polling of Leave Law Behind course members reveals that most attorneys make between $90,000 and $200,000 per year. And these figures are only being cut in the wake of the COVID-19 layoffs.
Let's do the math again. Taking the high end $200,000 annual salary figure, if you are an attorney working 40 hours a week, you end up making $100 per hour (40 hours per week X 50 weeks per year = 2,000 hours per year. $200,000 salary divided by 2,000 hours = $100 per hour). If you end up working 50 hours a week, that drops to $80 per hour.
Do you know who else regularly makes $80 to $100 per hour? My plumber. And that is no knock on plumbers - they make the same money we unhappy attorneys do, and they don't have to worry about paying down law school debt, being sued for malpractice, or being tormented by senior partners. But we don't think making a salary equal to plumbers was what you had in mind when you went to law school.
Working a lot isn't always a bad thing. If you love something, you can easily work many hours at it. We love the work we do here at Leave Law Behind. We continuously hear from Leave Law Behind course graduates who have their dream job out of the law that they have found purpose and meaning and exciting work to do, and so they often do not notice when they put in long hours. Work doesn't seem like work to them. The vast majority of our graduates have a balanced life out of the law and make a great living in their jobs out of the law.
Unfortunately, that is not the reality for the unhappy lawyer. When you don't love the law, you just feel are truly are overworked and underpaid.
3. Lawyers are required to deal with a disproportionately large amount of stress
A third major cause of your attorney burnout is the pressure packed nature of being an attorney. You have to get your difficult job done, with very little room for error.
You deal with very sensitive, confidential client information that you need to safeguard and protect.
Your job is often very strictly regulated, requiring you always to be conscious of the rules and guard rails within which you must act.
Being an attorney involves very tight deadlines, that if missed, could result in punishments, fines and irreparable harm to your client.
The law is always in flux, leading to lawyer anxiety about keeping up with the most recent on-point statute or case law.
And then you have the client's urgency to get matters resolved, the thin staffing on deals and cases, the endless paperwork and billing, and the overall toxic law firm environment.
Sure, there are the attorneys who claim they thrive on the stress and let it push them to be productive and at their best. But these lawyers are in the minority, and we hope they are not sacrificing other aspects of their well being in the drive to produce results.
For the unhappy lawyer, the unneeded stress, pressure, and intensity of being an attorney is a negative. It doesn't push you to be our best. Instead, it makes you feel isolated, angry, and stressed out. It's no surprise that a 2018 study cited by the ABA Journal found that attorneys are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than people in other industries and fields of work out of the law.Most of us chose the law without really knowing what we were getting ourselves into. We had no idea what kind of work we would be doing day in and day out. When I (Adam) was about a year into my law practice, I realized there was something really wrong. I had been sold a bill of goods! I write about this very topic in my book "Raising The Bar: Turning a Law Career You Hate Into a Life You Love, In or Out of the Law." We think the profession will be exciting, fun and there will be loads of money. This is what is portrayed in the media, tv and movies. Most people believe being a lawyer is an amazing career choice, but sadly as we all know, it is not.
How to break free from the system that causes your lawyer anxiety
There are two ways you could change your life: (1) Adjust the way you look at your lawyer job and find a new role within the legal industry that you enjoy and doesn't wear you down so much, or (2) choose to stop being a lawyer and leave for your dream, alternative career out of the law.
1. Change the way you look at your lawyer job
Before we work with anyone in the Leave Law Behind course, we will ask you first to describe your experiences as an attorney. We would ask you to do the same here and now, and the below questions can help:
- What do you enjoy about being a lawyer?
- What are the areas you do not like about the role?
- Do you doubt your skills, and even feel like an "imposter" as a lawyer? If so, why?
- If you were to rate your experience as a lawyer, with "1" being you're miserable and "10" being you love the work, what number would you score for your job? Why that number?
Critically assess your answers. What did you rate your lawyer job a 9? … a 5? … a 2?
It could be that you're having a bad day or a bad week. It could be that you're in the wrong firm or office and need a change of scenery. It could be that you should focus your practice on another area of the law. It could be that your skills and strengths are best suited as a lawyer, and practicing the law is where you'll gain your most satisfaction, but you may need to change your current situation.
We do not want you to leave the law if being a lawyer is truly what you’re good at, and what you find meaning in. If you are reading this blog post, this is probably not the case. Chances are the law is not a right fit for you, but it behooves you looking at your options in the law to see if there are any other areas that might work better for you to practice in. Sadly, a move from transaction to litigation or vice versa will not usually cause a new interest or appreciate for the profession. They are very similar, albeit one goes to court and the other doesn't.
If you feel confident that the law is for you, but need help in changing how you practice and who you work with, Adam has designed a ton of free resources to help you. Click here to learn more about the work he's done to help attorneys enjoy the law.
2. Explore the possibilities of finding your dream career out of the law
If your answers to the questions above cause you to feel even more confident that being a lawyer is bad for your health, isn't what you're meant to do, and will only bring you more lawyer anxiety, we suggest discovering the next steps to leave the law.
To help you understand what it's like "on the other side" of the law, we like the work we do here at Leave Law Behind. We look forward to the writing, the counseling and coaching and the creating we get to do in our dream career roles. We enjoy the conversations we have, we feel stimulated and inspired by what we're creating, we believe in what we are doing, and we know our customers and clients appreciate us.
When you leave the law and find that dream career that fits your skills and strengths, you feel less and less the need to focus on some end goal. We find ourselves not chasing "it" anymore (whether it's money, success, or stature). Of course, we make money and pay our bills and live good lives, but we're increasingly focused on the process of life, of being in the moment, adding value and helping people.
Gabe Rothman (LinkedIn profile here) used the Leave Law Behind course to get out of construction litigation and find his dream job as a sales and marketing optimization specialist for the tech industry in San Francisco. He always remarks how much calmer and happier and more inspired he is now that he's out of the law. One weekly test, in particular, helps prove his lack of lawyer anxiety. As Gabe explains:
"Since changing careers, I've yet to fail what I call "The Sunday Night Test" (i.e., how do you feel at 9:00 pm Sunday?). Dread? Fear? Nausea? When I was an attorney — all of those; every single Sunday night. Now? None of those. Ever. While I occasionally don't feel like going to work on Monday, it is always with a sense of calm and satisfaction in the knowledge that I have to wake up Monday morning and go to a job I love."
Be like Gabe, and the hundreds of others who have left the law with our help! Don't let the lawyer burnout snuff out your fuel and reduce you to the ashes of your former self. We are here to help.
As a first step, learn the one main reason you're unhappy as an attorney - click here.
We have written other articles and resources that can help you on your path out of the law. Five of our most popular and helpful are: