June 13, 2024


The Legal System

What You Need to Know – Biglaw Investor

Key Terms

  • It is natural for lawyers to quit Biglaw–the expectation is that most people will leave within a few years.
  • Biglaw opens up plenty of exit options, alternative careers; and opportunities to lateral to another firm.
  • You should think about an exit strategy even if you don’t plan to quit in the immediate future.

With the long hours, complex work, and high-stakes environment, Biglaw attorneys are constantly under immense pressure. It is no surprise that Biglaw as an occupation is at a high risk of burning out. In Bloomberg Law’s Attorney Workload and Hours survey, respondents reported a record high of feeling burnout 52% of the time.

Burnout can become an occupational hazard but can also affect other areas of life if it isn’t contained. Industry-wide solutions to burnout may not be feasible in the near future, but individuals can take action to prevent or mitigate burnout.

Psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter have found that “burnout is a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. Three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness or lack of accomplishment.”

Law firms sell a service and pleasing the client is a top priority. Other service industries that involve a heavy workload (e.g., healthcare) are particularly susceptible to burnout as well. If you’re stressed, exhausted, and want to prevent or mitigate burnout arising out of your Biglaw career, read on.

How to know if you have burnout

Many lawyers struggle with work-life balance issues in the legal profession. Biglaw firms often place a lot of pressure on the hours logged to generate revenue for the firm, but this can take a toll on mental health.

Maybe you already experienced burnout in law school or perhaps the pandemic accelerated your lawyer burnout. If you’re concerned about burnout impacting your legal career.

Most of the time, burnout is a feeling that you just know when you have it. However, because burnout can have an overlap in appearance with other psychological or physiological responses such as ordinary physical exhaustion or depression, it becomes helpful to be aware of the signs of burnout.

Exhaustion: Even if lawyers are reading and writing from their offices for the majority of their work, chronic stress can manifest physically. Stress can cause actual pain all throughout the body, particularly stomach aches or headaches. Stress can also change behavior for the worse—your appetite might disappear and you may not sleep well. These physical responses can build up and cause you to feel lethargic, unrested, or even ill for weeks or months on end.

Lack Ability to Manage Workload: Burnout can cause one to lose the forest for the trees or mis-prioritize urgent vs. important tasks. Legal practice is a complex occupation, but a lawyer experiencing burnout could start to see every aspect of the work as mundane or tedious.  Facing a mountain of these tedious tasks will only add to the stress of the job while killing the desire to actually get it done.

Withdrawal or Demotivation: As Maslach and Leiter state, cynicism and detachment can make an attorney feel like their work makes no difference, has no meaning, or is just plain uninteresting. If an attorney feels ineffective (and if you’re already burnt out then you might actually be less effective), there will be even less motivation to work. The belief that there has been little accomplishment thus far or little to gain in the future can quickly make an attorney lose identity and second-guess their career path.

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What causes burnout?

According to Maslach and Leiter, there are six key causes of burnout. Each of these are highly likely to be present in any Biglaw career. Whether you’re a new biglaw associate or mid-level in your firm, health and wellness can take a backseat for anyone with a law degree. Trying to find better work-life balance is not always easy, even as you get more experience in the legal field.

1.     Workload

“Work overload contributes to burnout by depleting the capacity of people to meet the demands of the job.” A manageable workload, on the other hand, allows for both new and existing skills to improve, for professional autonomy to be exercised, and for rest, recovery, and restoration. Lawyers not only work long hours, but they work at almost any time of the day or week.

Work volatility can also contribute to work overload because time spent anticipating work is time spent unable to rest or relax. A higher workload can reach even the point of reduced productivity, which is in and of itself demotivating. Even the messaging that many young lawyers receive is focused around “paying their dues” and “earning their keep” in biglaw.

2.     Control

Job engagement is heavily decreased when an employee can no longer influence decisions, exercise autonomy, or gain resources necessary to doing a job. Because lawyers are constantly trying to please their clients and partners, some may feel that there is little control in their work. Billable hours can be soul-crushing and the abundance of monotonous tasks can also feel like a loss of control.

As Cal Newport frequently speaks out against, a work culture that subjects employees to constantly pay attention to emails and chats not only decreases productivity, but also causes anxiety. An overly intense and volatile workload will cause a lawyer to feel like they are losing control over other areas of life as well.

3.     Reward

“Reward” refers to the power of reinforcements to shape behavior. While Biglaw attorneys are compensated handsomely per the Cravath Scale, reward does not always have to be financial. Perhaps the work is not found to be meaningful enough, or there is not enough social reward going around. Good work in Biglaw is rewarded with even more work, which is often more of a punishment!

The lack of intermediary promotions between associate and partner may also induce a feeling of insufficient reward. “Consistency in the reward dimension between the person and the job means that there are both material rewards and opportunities for intrinsic satisfaction.”

4.     Community

There is a greater risk of burnout when work relationships are “characterized by a lack of support and trust, and by unresolved conflict.” Although most law firms will boast their “collegial” or “work-hard-play-hard” cultures, Biglaw will always have competition both internally and externally. The process for entry, the Cravath System, is riddled with competition to begin with so it will be difficult to shake that culture.

Litigation comes with an adversarial flavor, and even transactional law will always have someone on the other side who is trying to maximize their wins. Some practices can feel incredibly isolating, while others might treat associates as dispensable and fungible.

5.     Fairness

Related to community is fairness, which is tied to feelings of appropriate respect.  Biglaw is not only going to have winners and losers (again, both internally and externally), but there can be plenty of moments to feel inequity. A task might be dumped on you on Friday at 4 p.m. because it had to go to somebody. This week could be you and the next week your coworker, but each instance appears to be unfair.

Favoritism can be demotivating if an associate does not get enough attention from partners and therefore sees themselves as lower on the social hierarchy. If a mistake happens, where to put the blame can be a difficult dance. The senior should take ultimate ownership, but it’s easier to point to the junior who could have prevented the problem by communicating up. Such situations can trigger fairness issues that breed cynicism and hostility.

6.     Values

Values relate to the lawyer’s goals and expectations. Values are what attract someone to Biglaw in the first place (e.g., money, prestige, interesting work) but if the motivating connection is compromised, or if an individual is disconnected from the organization’s values, the lawyer can find themselves in constant dissonance between the work they have to do and the work they want to do. Such a dissonance hastens the coming of burnout.

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How to handle burnout

While organizational change is possible, and some workplaces are investing a lot of capital into the well-being of their employees, Biglaw can only change so much in the near future. The return on investment will be highest for a lawyer to focus on what they can do on an individual level to prevent or mitigate burnout.

One common strategy is to find a way to manage the workload. Reducing workload can not only lead to rest and recovery, but the extra time allows for the lawyer to assess and plan well-being moving forward. Rest vs. vacation should not be mixed up.

Rest is physical and mental, and usually does not take more than a week or two to fully rest up. Even in short bursts, a midday nap or working to improve your sleep quality can go a long way. A vacation can be longer, but it can also be very short. What an effective vacation does is engage the person in a way they don’t normally.

Novel experiences are one way to do so, but just as effective are picking up new hobbies, learning about new ideas, and spending time with new people. Unlike rest, which focuses on inactivity, a vacation is about how you channel your activity. In Biglaw, rest, vacations and setting workload boundaries may be difficult to navigate.

Perhaps you’ll have to sacrifice bonuses or have a tough conversation with an assigning partner. However, burnout is a serious issue that, if left untreated, can be very harmful to your career.

Another way to handle burnout is to develop coping skills. One method includes conflict resolution and cognitive restructuring. Conflict resolution can reduce the number of issues arising out of control or fairness factors. Cognitive restructuring (replacing stress-producing thoughts with balanced thoughts) can result in a healthier perspective.

Perhaps your perspective of reality was not truly accurate and caused unnecessary stress. Time management is another coping strategy. Again, Biglaw may not permit every kind of method due to the way the work is structured. However, consider blocking off time for uninterrupted work, family, or fitness.

Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs Jim Donovan would protect a sliver of control over his day by always ensuring that he got his 30-minute run every day without exception. Even if the other 23.5 hours of his day was dictated by work, he would never fully lose control and have a brief moment to return to his own world and reset.

Social support is yet another strategy for combating burnout. Encouragement can go a long way and having others to simply be there for you might prevent you from fully burning out. If you have family or friends that can briefly assist with preparing meals, running errands, or maybe watching your kids while you take a few days’ breather to gather yourself, the long run can feel more sustainable. For those who are intimately tied up in your day-to-day life, healthy communication about everyone’s needs and sacrifices can reduce unnecessary uncertainty, and in turn, unnecessary anxiety.

Beyond the physical, the mental and spiritual can have a huge influence. Maslach and Leiter state that “developing a better self-understanding via various self-analytic techniques, counseling, or therapy” is a common recommendation for preventing burnout. A lot of turbulence in life can originate from within.

If your mind and heart is in a disorderly state, it will be next to impossible to make order of the outside world. Meditation, even as a 10-minute daily habit, can help to calm nerves and stay present instead of constantly worrying about the past or future. Therapy can be a great way to receive a practical third-person perspective and a professional diagnosis. Maybe burnout isn’t the true issue and is instead a symptom of something else.

Consider switching firms or careers

Your firm doesn’t have to be the right fit for you. Biglaw doesn’t have to be the right career for you. If your environment is accelerating the causes of burnout, a change in scenery could be the best solution at hand.

If you think that your firm is not the right fit for you, reflect on why that might be so. Is the culture different from what you imagine yourself thriving in? The big picture of Biglaw is that firms are more alike than they are different, but differences do exist. If you think that a firm’s current state will throttle your professional development, that sounds like one reason to enter a rut and invite the causes of burnout.

If you want more advancement options, contact a recruiter and design an exit strategy. Maybe your practice area is killing you from the inside and you want to explore alternatives that are more stimulating to you. If the firm is unwilling to let you make changes as an insider, contact a recruiter and design an exit strategy.

This applies to a myriad of reasons for why someone might want to lateral. Other common reasons include: a lack of client contact or business development, a firm is too big or too small for your preferences, you are not getting enough new work and toiling away at the same dispute for the past four years, you want to change cities, or you think you might enjoy working with people at a different firm.

If you think the causes of burnout are more about Biglaw than any specific firm environment, consider alternative careers for lawyers. After all, one of Biglaw’s attractive points is the ability to access fantastic exit opportunities.

Biglaw still considers their alumni “successes” if they place in clients or potential clients’ in-house positions. Have you always wanted to try public interest work? Burnout might be the sign that it’s time. Consider a term clerkship if you have any interest.

A lawyer with Biglaw experience comes with few closed doors. It’s also not impossible to return to Biglaw after a stint elsewhere, so you don’t need to worry that you’re closing out Biglaw for good.

Ultimately, burnout in Biglaw is simply not worth it. You aren’t “making sacrifices” to avoid burnout, burnout is the worst place to be. Not only will you be miserable and lifeless, but you’ll also find little meaning in the work when your effectiveness and productivity are at rock bottom.

Sometimes you can attack burnout by changing your behavior or setting new boundaries. Sometimes the solution will require you to call a recruiter to lateral or look outside the Biglaw job sector entirely.

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Joseph Kim

Joseph Kim is a 2L at Notre Dame Law School. Joseph grew up in California where he developed an interest in working with music, powerlifting, and bowling. He’s been a member of the FIRE community since before law school and plans to pursue FatFIRE following graduation.