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The Oracle

How can young lawyers avoid burnout?

updated on 10 May 2022

Dear Oracle

I know the legal profession can be demanding and competitive, so how do I avoid burnout at work?

The Oracle replies

Employers’ social obligations to staff have been put under the spotlight, particularly at this stage of the covid-19 pandemic. The concept of ‘purposeful work’, while often used now, was rarely a part of public discourse 10, even five years ago. Headlines relating to four-day working weeks and the right to disconnect are commonplace, with employees across the UK reconsidering the role that work plays in their wider life.

In the current job market, employers are having to bolster mental health and development programmes to retain staff whose mental wellbeing suffered throughout the pandemic. The legal sector is no exception here, with the legal mental health charity LawCare seeing a surge in lawyers seeking specialist help during this time.

A phrase so often used in discussions around work life and mental health, particularly during the sudden shift to homeworking in 2020, is burnout. With mandatory homeworking across all sectors throughout the covid-19 pandemic, the lines between work and life became blurred for many, where ‘switching off’ from the stressors at work became impossible. Junior staff in particular fell victim to burnout – many felt their career progression and professional development was being stifled alongside the increased risks of redundancies, so it’s no surprise that mental health seriously declined.

What does burnout mean?

In a nutshell, ‘burnout’ is the state of feeling physical and emotional exhaustion caused by a long period of stress in your job and/or personal life. There can be some confusion over how this is different from anxiety – 68% of adults mistakenly identify symptoms of anxiety as those for burnout.

Mental Health UK lists the common signs of burnout as:

  • feeling tired or drained most of the time;
  • feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated;
  • feeling detached/alone in the world;
  • having a cynical/negative outlook;
  • self-doubt;
  • procrastinating and taking longer to get things done; and/or
  • feeling overwhelmed.

With burnout occurring as a product of chronic stress from all aspects of your life, it is not something that naturally goes away over time without any change to your lifestyle, both professionally or personally. Law firms must take steps to minimise the risk of burnout among their staff. In turn, junior lawyers should also be made aware of how to ensure their mental health stays on top form while managing a demanding workload.

The legal profession, while hugely rewarding, can often be demanding at times. With pay for newly qualified lawyers surging, it’s clear that budding lawyers oozing with potential are in high demand. But staff want and deserve to be invested in as people outside of their wage packets. Junior lawyers realise that their mental health and suffering from burnout shouldn’t be the cost of having an attractive and well-paid career. While many might resign while experiencing burnout, some junior lawyers feel the pressure to succeed and prove themselves in the early stages of their legal career.

Resilience is so often a key attribute desired by management in their recruitment strategies, but it’s imperative that this isn’t taken advantage of. At this point, having the time and guidance to reflect on your work is a crucial aspect of a junior lawyer’s development – further development could be stunted further down the line as a consequence  of burnout if, from this early point, skills in managing your mental health aren’t fostered by a firm.

What can firms and junior lawyers do to avoid burnout?

Communicating with line managers and HR teams about your wellbeing and personal obligations should always be the first port of call. Individuals should be able to bring their whole selves to work – with managers having a clear understanding of the life circumstances and stressors outside of the office (eg, home-schooling children or having to care for family members), conversations around managing these with a demanding workload to mitigate risks of burnout will come easier.

Alongside this, having regular professional development sessions can also lower the risk of burnout. While many felt their development slowed throughout 2020/2021, ensuring that this is a priority going into 2022 will help motivate junior lawyers, creating a sense of consistent progression and purpose, and feeling their career is getting back on track.

Having flexible working options can be hugely beneficial for the wellbeing of staff. While the sudden shift to homeworking was difficult for many lawyers across the board, demanding that all staff return to the office full-time can equally be stressful – many benefitted from spending more time with family, and not having the drain of the morning commute.

Having agency in your working life is a large factor in your motivation, so having flexible working options allows for work to be managed with obligations at home, such as childcare, and ultimately should help prevent burnout. If these options aren’t immediately provided by a firm, all lawyers have the legal right to request flexible working.

Mental health for lawyers has long been low on the priority list for many firms, with the pandemic leading many to realise the value of access to support. Effective steps must be taken by managers and junior lawyers to lower the risks of burnout, ensuring that the next generation of partners reach their potential.

Farhan Farani, is the managing director at Farani Taylor.