Depression and compromised well-being are commonplace among lawyers. New data shows the situation is only getting worse. A 2021 Bloomberg Law report reveals burnout is becoming an increasing problem for both law firm attorneys and in-house counsel.
Bloomberg’s Attorney Workload and Hours Survey examined job satisfaction, workload, well-being, job status, and work culture every quarter of 2021. An analysis of the 614 in-house and law firm attorneys surveyed in last year’s fourth quarter shows that group feeling burnt out from the job 52 percent of the time.
That number marks the highest level in the survey’s two-year history and is an increase from 44 percent in the third quarter of 2021 and 47 percent in the second quarter.
The percentage of respondents reporting diminished well-being increased from 30 percent in Q2 to 34 percent in Q3, before spiking to 46 percent in Q4. Low well-being was connected to low job satisfaction, which in turn resulted in more frequent feelings of burnout. Attorneys reporting a decline in well-being likewise experienced burnout at almost twice the rate of attorneys who reported no change or an improvement in their well-being.
Lawyers who reported a decrease in well-being were more likely to have a higher workload, experience difficulty focusing on tasks, and an inability to disconnect from work. Their troubles also went further outside the office. Attorneys reported disrupted sleep, anxiety, depression, and issues in their personal relationships.
In a glimmer of encouraging news, the Bloomberg data shows attorneys who reported a decline in their well-being were three times more likely to look for another job. That is an encouraging sign, as it shows that lawyers are at least tacitly aware that other jobs might be better for their mental health and overall well-being. It is also helpful for attorneys to note that depression is unusually common among attorneys. For many lawyers, compromised mental health is a feature of working at BigLaw.
There are a few signs that some law firms are instituting policies to address burnout. Bloomberg cites a policy implemented at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe called “Unplug Time.” Legal staff are offered an entire week off from work where they don’t have to answer emails, phone calls, or Zoom meetings. Work left behind during “Unplug Time” gets distributed to workers who have timekeeping requirements. This policy is innovative for a large law firm and might work at Orrick considering its size. But smaller firms may not have enough staff to adopt their version of “Unplug Time.” Moreover, it is not clear if attorneys who take advantage of “Unplug Time” will reduce their chances of making partner or suffer other career repercussions.
As consultants to lawyers, we have often seen that attorneys’ competitive nature can work against them. Lawyers tend to be gifted academically and that sometimes causes them to be more concerned about “winning” a race than figuring out whether a race is worth running in the first instance. In today’s market, lawyers have more career options than most of them realize. While some law firms might be amenable to changing the responsibilities of lawyers whom they particularly value, this is not an option for many lawyers, especially those without a portable book of business.
Finding a different job is increasingly the best way to deal with lawyer burnout.