When I first started practicing I was so fueled by excitement and hope that I never, ever thought I would get tired of doing my job. And thankfully for me it took a long time before the negative aspects of lawyering started to feel like a drag. I count myself lucky because my work didn’t have a ton of adversarial encounters (my immigration practice was mostly affirmative based). My clients were literally the best people ever, and I was lucky enough to do really novel work in terms of addressing gender-based violence. Oh and did I mention I practiced immigration during a time where immigration law was pretty much steady and sane? That makes a big difference! But even still, the day in and day out work; listening to people’s stories about the worst experiences of their lives, seeing how poverty creates havoc in the quality of life, seeing how my legal expertise contributed just a blip of the help that was needed, was harsh. That type of work can drain you. It drains all of us and it’s no surprise the legal field continues to maintain high rights of depression and addiction.
It’s not necessarily possible to avoid burnout. I think we all experience it in some ways, in varying levels, at some point in our career but the part that makes a difference and determines the quality of services you provide is how you come back from that burn out.
This article at Lawyerist has a great explanation of burnout and what it can look like. It’s important for you to be aware of what it looks like in your own daily work. I knew that when I was overly tired, when I was extra annoyed by people (especially clients), and when I began to procrastinate it was time to step back and re-energize myself. Usually that alway meant taking a mental health day, which was almost always enough to give me the break I needed. That may not work for you or your signs may be different–maybe you look for ways to not accept a case, maybe you find yourself drinking more than usual, or you start to snap at colleagues. Whatever your signs, you need to be aware of them so you can address it.
As I mentioned, for me, taking some time off just to be in a quiet space helped me a lot. I also got a hobby (ahem, this blog) that allowed me to direct more of my attention, passion, and creativity away from work.
Finding things outside of the job and taking breaks is all good, but you also need to find ways to correct things at work so that you don’t feel cruddy there. This part really requires understanding what is creating a barrier for you. Is it your coworkers? Your practice area? Your clients? Recognizing what gives you the visceral reaction of not wanting to do the work and/or not doing the work up to your standard is important. Once you know it, you can address it and have some real conversations with yourself. Is it time to start looking for a new firm? Do you need to test the waters in other practice areas? Or is the work fine, but you need some other focus beyond the office? Only you know what’s best, but taking the time to know yourself will help put you on the best career path possible.
I don’t think there’s a way to avoid burnout in this line of work, unfortunately. But we can view it like we do a fever–fevers make you feel horrible, but they are actually good in that they are fighting off an infection. Maybe your burnout is highlighting things that need to change in your practice. Take a moment in the uncomfortableness to figure out what can re-energize you and then go for it.