This post, On Burnout, first appeared as an article in The Warrior, the official journal of Gerry Spence's Trial Lawyers College. Reprinted with permission. If you want to learn more about the awesome work of the Trial Lawyers College or subscribe to The Warrior, click here.
When I was in grade school in the late 1980s, my CampFire scouting group took part in a district-wide CampFire service project to help raise money for needy families to have enough toys under the Christmas tree that year. We then bought the toys on the wish lists, wrapped them and dropped them off discreetly at strangers’ houses.
A couple of the girls and parents complained that they dropped off gifts at a house full of fancy electronics and other expensive things that the girls and parents did not themselves have. When she heard this, my mother, who was one of our group leaders, educated me on what hypocrisy is. “Some people aren’t really needy but pretend to be in order to just get something,” she explained, slowly, but with an acidic snap to her voice. “And some people buy things they can’t afford.” I felt like I was going to get in trouble just for hearing it, even though my own mother thought it was something I was ready to hear.
Through the service project and the unusual follow-up discussion, I got the memo that having “stuff” was desperately important to people. And a family that can’t afford to put “enough” toys under the Christmas tree needs to find someone willing to leave them there in secret, to avoid embarrassment. And having the “right” things was so important, that those people who have the means to buy them were obligated to buy them for other people who could not.
None of us in my CampFire group were poor – or rich. None of us lacked any basic necessity, and we lived in a very safe neighborhood. We were just your regular American middle-class kids, the ones who were taught to strive to get good grades, followed by a good college education, followed by a good job, in order to have a right and proper life.
But by the time I was at the end of grade school, the CampFire group devolved into a pecking order, striated into economic sub-classes. My best friend, whose dad was a physician, would no longer be my friend because I was not in the cool clique with the expensive clothes. The girl whose dad owned a profitable retail business bullied everybody she perceived to be poor. It got so bad I quit the group. I learned I would be judged in life if I could not afford the right consumer goods.
Like a lot of middle-class kids, I ended up in law school shortly after college. Surrounded by a fair number of east coast prep school and private university grads and living in a big city, I was a curiosity to some of them, with my thrift store outfits and northwest “accent.”
The city was expensive and I was a young, broke law student. I put groceries on a credit card more than once, and I recall an argument with the credit card company over a late fee while I was trying to study. I won’t repeat what I said then; I was 25 and freaked out. Looking back, the struggle began years before when, as an adolescent, I concluded that life was a Hobson’s choice between being a sellout who keeps up with the Joneses, or not selling out, but paying the consequences of one’s contrarian or eccentric choices forever by being shunned from the good-paying work.
I was resigned to the “fact” that I had to move to a big expensive city to attend law school in order to get a real job, which meant a prestigious job, one that would buy me the things to keep the bullies away. I knew it was a conformity trap enmeshed in an otherwise noble career pursuit, and I consciously struggled with it. The poetry of Wordsworth admonished me that most everything was wrong with most of the people around me: “The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” and that somehow, I’d be guilty by association. On the other hand, I could march to my own contrarian drum, look like a bohemian, and be broke. This was the false choice I accepted as a child, when I learned that taking a handout, whether you legitimately needed it or not, was something to be ashamed of and avoid at all possible, and the ultimate goal was to earn the approval of the successful and powerful people. If you’re not born into it, you buy your way in with hard work.
After graduation and passing the bar trying on several different jobs for size, I settled on self-employment as the best way around that false choice. (I am a couple years too old to be considered millennial; I was job-hopping before it was trending.) It was a struggle at first, but it steadily grew. And, after twelve years of being a lawyer, and seven years into a solo consumer protection plaintiff’s practice, I found myself staring at a tax bill almost the size of my yearly salary at my first job.
I had four months to pay it, and before then, I knew it was coming and stoically made sure my budget was prepared. But I was not emotionally prepared. I tried to practice gratitude, and feel peace, joy and send good vibes to everybody for how far I had come from law school, and my weekly trips to the bread outlet and looking for coins under the floor mats of my 1992 T-bird. But usually I just met my inner evil twin, who I named Fox News Barbie, who bared her bleached teeth at the abominable hordes of lazy people my tax dollars were helping to buy video games and junk food. She was the one who was determined to never be broke again, so her neighbor wouldn’t judge her. I felt only momentary peace after paying the bill, even though I lit a candle and meditated first on the value of national parks and our military, the convenience of interstate highways, and the good work of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. I just went right back into hustle mode, up at 6am cranking out discovery. And that’s when I realized I was burned out, and needed to reexamine all the assumptions that got me there.
I’d already heard a lot of stories about lawyer burnout through the years. It’s common in effect – fatigue, resentment, stress – but most lawyers, when asked, will give you different answers about the cause of their burnout.
The obvious cause isn’t necessarily the practice, because for the journeyman who has survived the first five, ten or fifteen years, her craft likely produces good results. To someone who is economically vulnerable or unspeakably injured the lawyer may have been an angel of grace.
But there is no rest for the weary, for seasons and for years, as the lawyer’s practice and life grow. The firm grows, and adds an associate or another legal assistant. The lawyer’s cases get bigger, too, and more expensive to litigate. The lawyer depends on the extra staff now, even though the bigger, better cases take longer to pay. Meanwhile, the lawyer upgrades his car (and house). Work-life balance becomes getting six hours of sleep instead of the usual five.
Discontent lurks. The lawyer grinds away at his work, and slowly realizes he doesn’t know why his motivation slipped out the back door and went on a walkabout. His colleague next door grows weary of being everyone’s wise big sister, psychic friend hotline, and computer skills 101 tech support call. (I certainly can identify with that one.)
The dynamic that caused my CampFire group to sift itself into a class pecking order is a significant factor in the American job burnout pandemic. Americans are taught from early on that our zeal for progress and innovation is earnest and well-intended: it drives us to pursue happiness. We dig it so much we made freedom to pursue happiness the law of the land. But when this American “happiness gene” expresses as keeping up with the Joneses, or just keeping up with one’s own obligations! – it becomes money-dependent derangement. It becomes asking for charity from the CampFire scouts while showing off the new stereo.
Job burnout seems programmed into the DNA of the American workforce, and the legal profession takes full advantage. It seems the law in particular creates optimal conditions to turn enlightened self-interest into a “hedonic treadmill,” a concept developed by psychologist Michael Eysenck in the 1990s. I’ve observed that in “big law” lawyers and small firm lawyers alike, burnout can be connected to the fact that lawyers provide an essential human service that is uncomfortably coupled to the lawyer’s economic survival. It looks to me like lawyers expect themselves to keep up with the Joneses, and on top of it, give our best, selflessly, to those who can’t. And do it for decades, in the name of fairness, charity and justice.
And for whatever reason, the profession has long accepted as fact that the pursuit of justice is unavoidably expensive, and relief from stress can be bought. After a day, week, month or decade of the pressure to win and make money, you want to treat yo’self. Don’t you? With a new handbag, or a dinner out at a trendy restaurant. Or, maybe just someone to clean your house every week because you’re too exhausted to do it.
My experiences navigating the narrow path between the haves and have-nots led me into consumer protection law. It fascinates me; I am fixated on the psychology of money and consumerism in my clients, in American culture, and in me. My clients mostly resemble the families in the zip code where I grew up. They run the spectrum of the middle class; some are hounded by debt collectors, and others can’t buy the dream house on favorable terms because of careless credit reporting agencies. Money problems are like any physical disease; they might be a bit more prevalent or go untreated in the poor populations, but the disease itself doesn’t discriminate. I meet people when they are between Scylla and Charybdis – the turbocharged American version of the Protestant Work Ethic, and their burnout from pursuing the American Dream in the form it is most commonly packaged and sold: consumerism.
Even if they don’t owe the debt and a corporation has mistaken their identity, they still suffer a form of financial burnout because they’re shut out from something that requires credit-worthiness: a car, a house, or even a job. I’ve seen more defaulted Big Box Electronics store accounts than I can recall. And isn’t it ironic that people get into trouble when they cannot afford the rental on a storage unit full of stuff? People often don’t question what they’re working for when they get stuck in the traffic every day to go do it.
Is it any different for lawyers? I’ve seen people who have gone into the law under the assumption that it is a way to get rich or have status. Or, to keep the standard of living they thought they enjoyed in childhood, because an undergraduate degree can’t command what it used to. (This was one of my stated reasons.) Even more today than when I went to law school, people go six figures under in student loans, heavily leveraged against their future earnings. As soon as they land that downtown job, many of them spend to keep up and look the part, operating under the assumption that since they can service their debts, they are living within their means. Like Rousseau observed, “it became much more cruel to be deprived of them than to possess them was sweet….”
I’ve also seen public interest diehards, who also take out astronomical student loans that may follow them for many years. In the end, they may be no different from the big firm kind – like Aesop’s grasshopper, who failed to store enough money for that rainy day, and when it comes, no longer have the energy to continue.
I know and have been mentored by lawyers who have practiced law since before I was born, and who continue to practice with enviable energy and brilliance. But I have also seen disbarment notices for lawyers who were still working into their later years, perhaps not because they wanted to work, but because they had to. I can think of one lawyer who died of cancer a few weeks after filing a notice of appearance. I recall another whose in memoriam notice in the bar association magazine came a couple months after the disciplinary notice. I’ve heard stories of prime-of-life lawyers stealing, when life situations spiral into greed. I’ve met lawyers who suddenly develop a disabling illness, the wisdom of their bodies choosing to take them out of a toxic workplace because the stubborn mind tells them they need to tough it out for that paycheck. I see all of these as examples of burnout in lawyers who see no way out, who just “run on fumes” as long as they can, because even if they don’t need the money, they need the identity.
Some fields of endeavor appear to recognize that an endless grind of intense, high-risk work is unsustainable, and burnout reduces productivity. A military service member, for example, can retire in 20 years. A teacher can retire in 25 years in some places. Many engineers and geologists working on the North Slope in Alaska work two weeks on, two weeks off. Many doctors and nurses might work several long shifts, but they get a week off to recharge.
Not so for lawyers. We answer emails from our smartphones at 1am when we should be asleep. Why? I think it’s a mixture of love and fear. The love is the honest passion and dedication to our work, and the fear is ending up on the wall of shame in the back of the bar magazine, or mired in endless mental chatter about the student loan payment, or making payroll, or making partner.
Solo practice gives me the ultimate say in the quality and quantity of my work and amount of overhead it entails. But it proved to be an incomplete solution to everything I questioned about law and society over the years. When I realized I was burned out, I had to figure out why my sustainable, low-overhead practice was not enough of a firewall. And I realized it was my old (ancestral?) fear of not having enough, and being judged for it as well.
Increasingly over the past several years, my cases got better, paid more, and also were more emotionally intense. Fired up, I found myself hustling the hell out of every small and medium case too. Although I got plenty of exercise and time outdoors, I was tethered to my emails at times and places where I should have been enjoying the scenery. I ate out more. I had shoulder tension and neck pain that I could only seem to manage with an “elite” chiropractor. When I found myself in a different tax bracket, I began to question whether it was worth it to make more money if it meant having to work more, requiring me to spend more to sustain myself and comfort me at that pace. I saw myself as a cog in the consumerism wheel, and that felt gross.
Sharpening my discernment challenged me to practice more deeply what I preach. I started spending more time on my bicycle and less time in restaurants. I chose to become more “frugal” with the time I spend lawyering, exploring the optimal level of work and learning where the point of diminishing returns looms before I hit it. I found validation in blogs written by lawyers, physicians and engineers who adopted minimalism and frugality so that they could work (or not) on their own terms. I sold and gave away excess clothes, to relieve myself of “decision fatigue.” I gradually adopted the mindset expressed by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, in Your Money or Your Life. They define “frugality” as “getting good value for every minute of your life energy and from everything you have the use of.” This became my mindfulness mantra.
Eventually I had to acknowledge that my reasons for being a lawyer, and specifically a solo lawyer, had evolved from my initial attempts to avoid making the Hobson’s choice. I spent six months gradually turning my basic frugality into a deeper minimalism. I trimmed the last conveniences from my overhead. Every dollar I saved I regarded as a unit of life energy I was getting back.
I became even choosier with my case selection. I viciously guarded my energy and reaffirmed that I would only help people I thought deserved my help: a tough-love way to “love my client, not my case,” as Gerry Spence advises. I stopped judging my inner Fox News Barbie, and honored her intuitions about who to sign up and who to turn away – even if she is a tactless bitch. (Thankfully, she lets me do the talking.) The people with the fancy stereo asking for help from the CampFire girls have deeper problems that I am not equipped to solve, unless they are ready to question all of the dynamics and assumptions that got them there. Otherwise, I do more good for them by taking a different case. They do not deserve my judgments for having too much “cool” stuff, any more than I deserved the judgments of the girls in grade school for not having enough. “Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations,” said Emerson in Self Reliance. “Are they my poor?” That’s right, Mr. Emerson. We can’t help them all, or we’ll burn out.
My lifelong obsession over the meaning of the middle-class universe came full circle when I survived a period of burnout. I acknowledged that my motivation to be a lawyer is to go after the tools of consumerism and to keep myself from being either a cog in the wheel or a complete tool. To do my job well I must never forget what it felt like to struggle, and never take for granted anything I’ve been given or created.
Does any of the above resonate with you? I would love to hear about it -- and I am sure others would too. Please share your stories in the comments.