When I started my career in private practice, I was brimming with drive and enthusiasm. The work was interesting, and I had a strong desire to help my clients through the most difficult challenges. It was a hard job, to be sure, but I loved the thrill of tackling the toughest assignments.
As the years went by, however, and the dockets stacked up, my passion began to wane. Not because of the long hours or the high-pressure environment; I was ready for all that. The real problem was with my motivation and overall energy level. On some days, I had trouble convincing myself that I still wanted to do my job. I found myself stuck in a cynical holding pattern, and my productivity began to decline.
Does this sound familiar? Have you ever felt like all your hard work was, well, a bit pointless? Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was struggling with a textbook case of burnout. Across the legal profession, this condition is pervasive. In 2012, the Canadian Bar Association commissioned a large-scale survey of lawyers, law students and judges across the country. According to the final report, 94 percent of respondents identified “stress/burnout” as one of “the most prevalent health and wellness issues facing lawyers today.” The implication is clear: if you haven’t already experienced a bout of professional ennui, you’re almost certain to at some point in your career.
Having survived my own struggle with burnout, allow me to pass along some advice. If you find that your motivation has been totally sapped, devote some thought to what you are working toward in your career. I know it seems like you should always prioritize the most urgent problems of the moment, but you shouldn’t take your career one assignment at a time.
Try to see the big picture. How are you helping your clients achieve their goals? Are you making a real difference in their lives? At the same time, think about the career that you’re building. How does your daily work contribute to your long-term aspirations? To overcome burnout, we have to rediscover what’s most meaningful about our work.
Keep in mind: you don’t have to wrestle with these questions alone. If you need help, talk to someone, be it a mentor, a friend or a therapist. Feeling burnt out is a common side effect of working in this demanding, high-pressure profession. And, like any other problem, choosing to power through it on your own will not make it go away.
If you conclude, in the end, that you’re truly dissatisfied with your current caseload, you can make a change. In fact, it’s never a bad idea to seek out different assignments and get out of your comfort zone when you can. When work becomes monotonous, boredom and frustration will follow, which can lead, in turn, to burnout.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, take time away from work. I know you hear this all the time, but that’s because it’s true. If you don’t take any time off, not only will work start to suck, but your energy and motivation will tank. This business may be tough, but that doesn’t mean we deserve to be miserable.
Daniel Waldman is a commercial litigator at Dickinson Wright LLP. He writes about career satisfaction and business development for Precedent.
This story is from our Summer 2020 Issue.
Illustration by Jamie Bennett