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Avoiding burn out in the legal profession

Legal professionals who contact LawCare often say that they are feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Living, working and, for some, home-schooling through the COVID-19 pandemic has left many with stress at unmanageable levels, and with few reserves to draw on to deal with it. Many lawyers are working longer hours than ever before and finding it hard to switch off.

Our stress response is designed to be used in short bursts of up to 30 minutes, to escape a threat to survival. A boost of cortisol, adrenalin and noradrenalin gets our heart racing and blood pumping enabling us to make a speedy getaway from a wild animal chasing us, for example. Wild animals may have been replaced by a bullying boss, a difficult client or a work deadline, but our stress response is the same.

Because these threats tend to be ongoing, many lawyers exist in a near constant state of stress, which can lead to an increased risk of burn out. Burn out is recognised by the World Health Organization as an occupational phenomenon, rather than a medical condition. It results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed over time.

Recognising the signs of burn out

Those who are experiencing burn out are likely to have:

  • Low energy or exhaustion.
  • Increased mental distance from their job.
  • Feelings of negativity or cynicism related to their job.
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

Lawyers with burn out may feel irritated or angry with colleagues, misunderstood, overwhelmed and pressurised. They may develop a tendency to procrastinate, find it impossible to focus and become forgetful, leading to deadlines or meetings being missed. In addition, their judgement may become impaired and, ultimately, they might consider leaving their job or even the law entirely.

What can I do if I think I have burn out?

There are several practical steps that you can take if you think you are burnt out:

  • Talk informally to someone you trust or contact LawCare on 0800 279 6888 or via
  • Make an appointment to see your GP.
  • Tell someone at work about what is happening. It doesn’t have to be your line manager, it could be someone in HR, another manager or a Mental Heath First Aider or equivalent.
  • Take a break from work if you can. Either take sick leave or book a few days off work as annual leave.
  • You may want to seek private counselling or your organisation may have an Employee Assistance Programme or private healthcare that you can access.

Different ways to help avoid burn out

Here are some tips for avoiding burn out:

  • Try to be objective about what is causing you stress. Keeping a stress diary over two or three weeks may help you identify the issues.
  • Prioritise. Don’t over commit and learn to say no.
  • Use your full annual leave entitlement at work.
  • Take a lunch break and short breaks during the day.
  • Do one thing at a time and break complex tasks into more manageable chunks.
  • Eat healthily, exercise and avoid alcohol and smoking.
  • Try to create boundaries between home and work.
  • Stick to a routine with sensible working hours.
  • Work out what helps you stay calm. It might be walking, yoga, meditation, taking a bath, watching a film or talking to a friend. We all have different ways to unwind.

One thought on “Avoiding burn out in the legal profession

  1. I appreciate this can only be a brief piece and points people in the right direction, but having seen a webinar only yesterday with Richard Martin, lawyer and author of “This Too Will Pass: Anxiety in a Professional World” there’s a lot more to avoiding burnout. Richard had a lot of insight into what causes burnout, having suffered it himself, and recommended several books including Tim Cantopher’s “Depressive Illness: the Curse of the Strong”. I should not give away the details of his ‘bucket’ analogy or ABC but generally we need to recognising when we’re taking on too much with too little outlet; it’s up to us how we choose to view, say, a full inbox; and be active, connect, learn, notice now and do some things for others.

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