Overcoming Burnout: Stress and the New Lawyer
Call it burn out, adulting so hard, winters blues–whatever you want to call it, it’s likely that sometime into your career as a new attorney you will feel drained from the responsibilities of your work and life. It’s completely normal to feel out of balance because suddenly not only are you juggling lawyer responsibilities, but you’re also adjusting to the demands of daily, adult life. And if you’ve always been in school or your gap year(s) didn’t really involve full-time work, then this adjustment can be difficult.
When I was a new attorney, it took a while to find a steady routine that didn’t leave me drained. I was also a newly wed and hadn’t really ever experienced a 9-5 lifestyle before my first job. I would go into work happy and eager and then be so tired by the end of the day. I would get home and the fridge would be empty, I didn’t have the energy to work out, and let’s just say the amount of pizzas we consisted on the first years (and let’s keep it real, still do) was out of this world. Until finally, I found a routine that worked for me. I began meal planning and shopping weekly to keep my fridge stocked. Now, I would come home with no confusion or annoyance about what to make for dinner. Everything was prepared and I knew the next steps. This small change brought a lot of stability into my daily life. Slowly, I incorporated other habits and adjustments that led to a less stressful personal life. In turn, this made it so much easier to handle the stress that came with the job because I was sleeping better, eating better, and establishing boundaries.
If you’re new to your job and are experiencing the stress of being a new lawyer on top your daily responsibilities–what can you do to find a better balance? Does balance even exist? Here is what has worked for me:
One. Be flexible. We use the term balance a lot, but really what I mean by balance is flexibility. I worked on finding a routine pre- and post-work that allows me to do (almost) everything I want by building in cushions that allow me to be flexible if the routine goes astray. For example, a surprisingly long day at work may mean I can’t get home to make dinner (hi, btw I’m in charge of cooking in my home–your experience may vary). I know this can happen, so when I meal plan on the weekends, instead of planning to cook five lavish meals each day, I aim to cook just three or four times a week. I buy the food for three or four meals and so on days that I can’t make dinner I don’t feel guilty that I’m wasting food because I have already planned for this. I think a key component of flexibility is to not be so demanding with yourself. So create a routine, but don’t expect perfection because you’ll never meet that standard, and at the same time time, don’t let your stress be an excuse to let your bad habits to run amok.
Two. Know your triggers. Triggers is such a buzz word, but it really does mean something. To be clear, all forms of lawyering is challenging because of the mental energy it requires. However, for attorneys that do direct client rep, you get a front-seat view of humans at their worst. You’ll hear of awful abuse and mistreatment clients experience, you’ll be harassed by opposing counsel, you’ll see how the system is used to malign and harm people that look like you, your siblings, your parents–all of it takes its toll on a person. And it’s impossible to not take it home with you. But the quicker you establish boundaries and find ways to limit your exposure to other people’s trauma the longer you will last with a healthier mindset. Besides, resorting to caffeine or other ‘superchargers’ might not help in the long run at all. What you have to do is develop a healthy stress response, and there are many ways to do that. What I find that works for me is knowing what triggers me. What types of cases make me feel uneasy? What is my limit in listening to certain cases? What are my tell-tale signs that I’m king of stressing out over the work? I’ve been doing this enough that I know when a case will be hard on me and I know how to reset myself when it is difficult. And it’s this recognition that allows me to continue to work with survivors and hear horrible stories without it burdening my personal life. But you can’t get to the second step without acknowledging how the work impacts you.
Three. Find an outlet and resources. Another buzz word is self-care, which has been transformed into this idea of sheet masks and bath bombs (which are totally fine if that’s what you like!), but understanding how to treat/acknowledge your stress means really digging into what makes you feel better and being ok with the idea that your way to de-stress is different than others. For me, I need my house to be tidy by the time Sunday night rolls around. If I can’t sit and relax on Sunday night because chores didn’t get done, I know it will make the rest of my week feel off; so I do spend some of my weekend tidying up. I’m not a total nerd, I also like to hang out with friends, work on my writing, and totally spoil my two cats. Whatever works for you, but knowing you have something fun/creative/relaxing to focus on allows you to be present outside of your job duties. And your self-care can be as simple as getting more sleep! The difference being well-rested can make is huge, especially if you are living a hectic life. When you’re starting a new type of lifestyle, it’s ok to start with baby steps. Figure out the basics and then you can start adding guitar lessons or a running club or whatever thing you think may help you.
And in terms of resources, if you have a partner or live with family–hell yeah everyone should be doing their fair share. Don’t take on the added burden of doing everything in the home on top of your work because that is exhausting. Also, if you can swing it financially, consider outsourcing certain things you loathe to do that will make your life easier–using a dry cleaning service, hire a cleaner, etc etc. Those are luxuries, for sure, but if you find yourself able to budget it for it, consider it.
When you’re beginning a new phase in your life, it’s quite normal to feel like you’re in uncharted territory. It’s doubly hard when the work is challenging–challenging in hours expected to be put in; in the complex legal work you’re learning; in the clients you feel responsible for–all of it has the power to overwhelm you. But you also have the power to manage your life better, you can bring order into your daily routine to avoid the burnout that comes with being a new professional and ultimately find a happy/balanced lifestyle that works for you.