Preventing Self-Sabotage and Attorney Burnout

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In 2004, after 27 years as a trial attorney, I experienced burnout, despite believing I was doing everything right. I found myself working increasingly long hours while losing enjoyment in my practice. This led to sleeplessness, irritability, and a host of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. I was trapped in a classic case of attorney burnout.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had unknowingly brought this upon myself. Despite my good intentions, I had inadvertently followed the path to attorney burnout. As the old saying goes, “What you don’t know can hurt you.”

Attorney Burnout: 4 Traps to Avoid

I fell into four traps while striving to be a perfect lawyer, aiming to satisfy both my clients and the firm’s partners completely.

1. The People Pleaser

From a young age, I learned that making others happy, even at the expense of myself, made my life easier. I believed that fulfilling everyone’s wishes would demonstrate what a great person I was and earn me their liking. As a lawyer, I thought being a team player and taking on every task would be beneficial for my career.

During my time as an associate, I eagerly volunteered for every opportunity and accepted problematic clients that no one else wanted. However, I didn’t realize that compliance comes with a cost. I spent an excessive amount of time working on cases with no merit, leading to high levels of unbillable hours. I wanted to be recognized as someone who worked hard and tackled challenging cases. Unfortunately, I failed to consider the reasons why others avoided such cases in the first place.

As a people pleaser, I believed that sacrificing for others would bring rewards, but this indirect manipulation often had negative consequences. When I took on losing cases to show my “team player” attitude, I ended up facing criticism instead of appreciation. Despite winning awards from the state bar for my pro-bono efforts, those accolades were stashed away in a hall closet at the law firm where I worked.

It is vital to ask ourselves, “Am I being a team player or a people pleaser?” While it’s essential to impress our superiors, we must ensure that we are not needlessly sacrificing our well-being. We have the right to be assigned to lucrative and fulfilling cases, and we should be mindful of our motivations, especially if we take on meritless cases solely to gain approval from others, whether in a firm or as a solo practitioner.

2. The Yes Man or Woman

As a lawyer, it’s essential not to fear saying “no” when offered counter-productive work. If a task is not in your best interest, have the courage to decline and confidently assert your decision. Show your colleagues and clients that you possess the discernment to distinguish between beneficial and detrimental work for your career.

Most lawyers can recognize whether a case holds potential or is likely to end in disaster. If you decline work that you know is bound to fail, you might gain more respect from your superiors than if you were to accept it. I recall an instance when an associate had the integrity to say “no” to a partner regarding a losing project, leaving other associates surprised. I eagerly took on the task, but in the end, he made partner, and I did not. This story serves as a reminder of the value of standing firm and making wise decisions in your legal career.

3. The Perfectionist

Setting high standards is an important aspect of achieving success, but it is essential not to confuse the pursuit of excellence with the expectation of perfection. Perfection is an ever-changing ideal that keeps raising the bar of acceptable results higher and higher, often leading to burnout.

As Michael J. Fox, the actor, author, and Parkinson’s Disease advocate, wisely stated, we must be careful not to conflate excellence with perfection. We can strive for excellence, but perfection is beyond our reach and should not be our primary goal.

Comparing ourselves to others and constantly feeling inadequate will only lead to misery. It’s important to recognize that there is a difference between being competent and being perfect. Once we have done our best on a document or task, it’s beneficial to seek the input of others and then let it go. Endlessly seeking nonexistent flaws and nitpicking will negatively impact our well-being.

So, do your best and be content with that. Setting reasonable standards and acknowledging that perfection is unattainable allows for greater satisfaction and a healthier mindset on our journey to success.

4. The Imposter

When I was hired right out of law school, I experienced a dreadful realization that I had no idea what I was doing. This feeling resurfaced when I was promoted, made partner, took on challenging cases, or entered the courtroom. I lived in fear that someone would discover I was a fraud and had no clue about my work. I prayed that my incompetence would remain hidden, and I tried to compensate by working much harder than my colleagues. However, this irrational fear of being exposed eventually led to burnout instead of building confidence.

We can be our own worst enemy, overly critical of ourselves to the point of becoming emotionally paralyzed. The Imposter Syndrome stems from the fear that if others truly knew us, they wouldn’t like us—a fear that, upon examination, is irrational and even paranoid.

The truth is none of us can entirely control our lives. As John Lennon aptly sang, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” Resilience varies from person to person, but it’s essential to recognize our own talents and intelligence, allowing us to navigate challenges.

Sometimes, I find solace in looking at the framed diplomas, awards, and certificates on my wall, serving as reminders that I am capable and have accomplished many things. The question I ask myself is whether I am a problem solver or an emotional wreck. It’s crucial to engage with associates and colleagues, seeking their input on problem-solving. For solo practitioners, developing relationships with other lawyers can be invaluable in finding solutions.

Imposter syndrome arises when we attempt to tackle everything on our own. No one can handle everything single-handedly; that’s akin to solitary confinement. Building relationships with others, including family and friends, gives meaning to our lives and provides a support system when we feel overwhelmed. When we help others, they are more inclined to offer assistance in return. There’s nothing more genuine and authentic than admitting, “I need help.” It is not fake; it’s a real expression of vulnerability and a call for support.

The Road to Attorney Burnout vs. the Road to Success

The path to attorney burnout and the path to success may seem similar, but the key difference lies in one’s attitude and perspective. While some perceive challenges as stumbling blocks, others view them as stepping stones. Being aware of self-sabotaging behaviors can significantly help in avoiding burnout.

In life, being authentic with integrity is imperative. It is not only acceptable but also advisable to be true to yourself, as long as you strive to be the best version of yourself. Embracing your true self and acting with integrity can lead to a more fulfilling and balanced journey in both your personal and professional life.

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