Practicing law can be grueling. It’s not uncommon to work long hours, be at a partner’s beck and call, or function on little sleep. This can lead to burnout, which can create disillusionment with your profession. How do you know if you’re burned out or if you need a lawyer career change? Here are a few of the telltale signs:
First Off: What is Burnout?
Burnout has no official medical diagnosis. While modern medicine might not formally recognize it, burnout is a very real and very distressing phenomenon. One clinical psychologist referred to burnout as a “disease of disengagement.” Attorneys who experience burnout may care less about their jobs, become depressed, and even wonder why they chose to pursue law in the first place. After a while, burnout may prompt a lawyer to change careers. It’s important to identify the core symptoms of burnout so you can decide what to do about it.
Symptoms of Burnout
Burnout looks different to every person. However, there are four core symptoms that seem to persist over time:
- Fatigue. You may be getting enough sleep, but never feel rested. This is often a sign of a deep-seated exhaustion that runs deeper than simple sleep deprivation. Often, it’s exhaustion from a job that a few days off can’t adequately address.
- Disengagement or cynicism. Often, people struggle to remember the optimism and driving force behind their pursuit of the law. If you feel like your work doesn’t really matter, or you struggle to feel excited about your major successes, you may be suffering from burnout.
- Feeling ineffective. People who are burned out may feel like they are putting out a significant effort but getting nothing in return.
- Struggle to concentrate. One of the hallmarks of burnout is an inability to concentrate on the task at hand.
You’re Burned Out. Now What?
Looking at these symptoms, your stomach sinks. You have a textbook case of burnout. So what happens next?
It’s important to realize that you can’t “cure” burnout with a few days off. It might put a temporary band-aid on the problem, but it’s not going to solve it. Your next steps will require some introspection and a few tough decisions. Be sure to invest the time you need to analyze your current situation and research all your options. Here’s what you can do:
- Take a sabbatical. This will allow you time to consider your career change options and if a career other than the law is right for you. It also will allow you to recharge your batteries and reduce the physical effects of burnout.
- Dive into a career change. A career change for lawyers can be daunting, but it’s possible with the right approach. Research your available options and begin the job hunt. If you need extra help, there are now lots of career coaches out there who specialize in helping lawyers transition to new careers.
- Commit to a timeline. For some people, practical considerations like student loans prevent them from jumping ship. If this applies, develop a timeline for yourself. You may not be in the right position to change careers right now, but maybe in two years’ time conditions will be ripe for a career change. Break down the steps needed to get you where you want to be and make sure your timeline allows for you to take this steps without feeling rushed or stressed.
Burnout is a very real phenomenon, and addressing it may not be easy. It may be time to step back and take a long look at where you are right now and where you want to go in your life and career. You may come to the conclusion that working in law no longer fits with your present values and life goals. If that’s the case, don’t worry. Many lawyers make career changes and are very successful at applying their skills in new industries.