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The Oracle

How can young lawyers avoid burnout?

updated on 13 June 2023

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 as aspiring lawyers are now prioritising balance and personal values when choosing firms to apply to.

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.

Mental health and wellbeing are at the forefront of the legal profession, particularly as recent statistics continue to expose where improvements are required. Legal mental health charity, LawCare, recently reported seeing a surge of lawyers seeking specialist help. In fact, 22% of those who contacted the charity for support in 2022 were predominantly concerned about their career in the law due to its impact on their mental health.

A phrase so often used in discussions around work life and mental health is ‘burnout’. With the recent favour towards hybrid working, the lines between work and personal life have become blurred for many. Sometimes, ‘switching off’ from the stress of work can feel impossible when work is in your bedroom – junior staff in particular fall victim to burnout as a result of this.

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. As of 2022, 46% of workers felt close to burnout, according to research conducted by Westfield Health.

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’s not something that naturally goes away over time without any change to your lifestyle, both professionally and 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. With pay for newly qualified lawyers surging, it’s clear that budding lawyers full of 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 at 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 careers.

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 growth 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, homeschooling 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. Ensuring that this is a priority for management will help to motivate junior lawyers, create a sense of consistent progression and purpose, and make certain they feel their career is on the right 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 when it was first introduced three years ago, demanding that all staff return to the office full-time is equally stressful – many benefit from spending more time with family, having more time for hobbies and not having the financial (and physical) drain of the 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 to 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.