Counseling for attorneys is important because attorneys struggle with disproportionately high levels of depression, anxiety, stress and substance abuse, all of which are highly treatable issues. In a 2016 survey of over 13,000 attorneys from 19 states and across all regions of the United States, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, in conjunction with the American Bar Association on Lawyer Assistance Programs, found that:
- 21% of licensed employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers
- 28% struggle with some level of depression
- 19% demonstrate symptoms of anxiety
The study also found that younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibit the highest incidence of these problems. The study compared attorneys with other professionals, including doctors, and determined that lawyers experience mental health distress at a far higher rate than other professional populations.
Decades of research has consistently reported higher prevalence of suicide, substance abuse, depression, stress and anxiety among lawyers when compared to other professions.
So why are attorneys more susceptible to mental health concerns?
People rely on lawyers to anticipate and/or solve their greatest problems, typically in a highly competitive, adversarial arena where results are the only thing that matter. The typical attorney works long hours, often at the expense of friends, family and outside interests. In addition:
- Attorneys tend to be ambitious and over-achieving
- They often exhibit perfectionistic tendencies
- Perfectionism often leads to inflexibility
- The actual practice of law can be less than glamorous
- Attorneys often have little control over their own schedules
- The work can be adversarial in nature
- Attorneys often feel trapped by debt
The legal profession is unique in that it is one of the few professions where pessimists (those who see problems as the norm and not the exception) out-perform optimists. Pessimists by nature tend to be more prone to depression, have more health problems and do not live as long as optimists.
Solo and small firm attorneys may be more vulnerable to feeling isolated and overwhelmed and often specialize in high stress areas like family law or criminal defense. Research shows that high demand jobs paired with a lack of a sense of control magnifies the likelihood of depression and other psychological disorders.
Do you find yourself dreading doing work you used to love? Are you missing deadlines, not returning phone calls or avoiding clients and colleagues who might want something from you? Do you feel more irritable than usual or find yourself taking generalized frustration out on those around you? Are you exhausted in most areas of your life? If so, you might be experiencing burnout.
What is attorney burnout?
Attorney burnout is a serious condition that can lead to strained relationships, lost revenue, underperformance, poor health and career stagnation. Burnout is exhaustion related to an imbalance between demands and resources. It results in disconnection from work, family and friends and can have a significant impact on both mental and physical health.
What does attorney burnout look like?
Exhaustion: being chronically exhausted whether sleep deprived or not is a common sign of burnout. This type of fatigue tends to feel disproportionate to the circumstances and is not resolved by a few days off.
Inattentiveness: attorneys experiencing burnout often describe having difficulty maintaining focus as well as an increase in making minor mistakes or missing deadlines.
Cynicism: burnout takes the joy out of work and, in extreme cases, life. Successes and accomplishments tend to be downplayed. Work, clients and colleagues matter less and less over time. It may be difficult to remember the why of choosing to enter the legal field.
Disconnection: individuals experiencing burnout often report withdrawing from others. Phone calls and emails may go unaddressed. Meetings may be canceled or skipped. Social events may be turned down with excuses of being too tired or busy.
Irritability: attorneys experiencing burnout often describe experiencing increased conflicts with colleagues, clients and even relationships outside the work place. There is little tolerance for mistakes made by others and patience is generally lacking.
Why attorneys burn out?
Lack of control: Litigators also have little control over their schedules. Vacations and weekends are at the mercy of opposing counsel and the courts, who have no incentive (and potentially a disincentive) to respect much-needed downtime. The combination of lack control over time, confrontation, hours, and high stakes can run people ragged
Personality characteristics: Lawyers tend to score low on resilience: as many as 90% of lawyers score in the bottom half on resilience. People who are low in resilience have a harder time bouncing back from life’s inevitable setbacks and are at high risk for burnout.
Financial stress: Billable hours typically equal long hours which presents an acute risk for burnout over time. Taking time off means taking a revenue hit but not taking time off leaves one depleted and negatively impacts relationships.
Perfectionism: While perfectionism can be an asset professionally, it can also take a toll on an individual as the work can be perceived as never good enough. Perfectionists tend to be workaholics who are often viewed as inflexible, uncomfortable with change, and obsessed with control but unconvinced that they have it. Perfectionism can lead to inefficiency and overwhelm which also contribute to burnout.
Isolation: Those in solo practices not only lose the camaraderie that lawyers in group practices have but often have to wear all the hats including receptionist, biller and janitor. This can create an imbalance between demands and resources that can fast track burnout.
Need to keep up appearances: The legal profession is an unforgiving one where vulnerability is often seen as weakness. Attorneys are expected to tough it out and appear unflappable and invulnerable to clients and colleagues. The job often requires serving as a stabilizing force in highly stressful situations. The need to internalize thoughts and feelings is a necessary skill that exacerbates the likelihood of burnout.
How can attorneys help themselves?
- Practice good boundaries by finding work/life balance. Finding opportunities to say no is paramount to avoiding burnout. The more one feels as though they have no control over their life, the greater the risk. There may be real consequences to saying no at times but doing so will increase the likelihood of a sustainable career in the long term.
- Practice good sleep hygiene. No one is at their best when sleep deprived and there should be no pride in being run down. Set a schedule and stick to it as much as possible. If you encounter disturbances with your sleep, address them as soon as possible.
- Find the time to exercise regularly. Everyone knows this but most struggle with it. Remember: something is better than nothing; make it as convenient as possible; add in some external accountability like a workout partner, trainer or class.
- Look at the things that you’re not good at, things that suck your energy or things that you simply don’t have time to do and find ways to take those things off your plate. Identify things that you can ask for help with or things that you can throw money at to make go away. Simplifying the demands on your life will make things easier.
- Work on emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence (eq) is the intersection between cognition and emotion. High eq individuals tend to be more adept at overcoming life’s challenges and at reducing stress and anxiety.
- Niche: the more you can focus on the work you enjoy the better you will be able to avoid burnout. Delegate, hire out or make unnecessary as much of the work you hate as you possibly can.
- Limit alcohol consumption. You don’t have to be a problem drinker to benefit from reducing alcohol consumption. You will sleep better more consistently, have more energy and feel more clear headed. If you can’t do it on your own, there are resources in almost every community to help.
- Pursue other interests: not only will all work and no play make you dull, it increases the risk of burnout. Having outside interests, learning new things and investing yourself in something that no one else benefits from will help make you a better attorney.
- Talk about it: Burnout thrives in the shadows so the more you can shine the light on it by talking to others the better.
How Can Counseling for Attorneys Help?
RELIEF: Scientific studies consistently show that behavioral and emotional interventions work as well, if not better, than just medication to treat anxiety and depression. Therapy is often the fastest, most effective route to overcome emotional and behavioral issues that keep you from living the life you want. Sometimes, you can get better on your own, but in most cases, you’ll get better results, faster, with a counselor.
TIME: It’s not uncommon for my clients to say that talking to me for an hour is sometimes the only thing they do for themselves all week. Having time to check out from the demands of everyone else is vital for preventing burnout and can help keep feelings of resentment in check. Counseling for attorneys can provide the time to stop, breathe and talk about things that matter but that are often overlooked.
PERSPECTIVE: Talking with a professional allows you to get a sense of how you appear to other people; helps you get feedback on whatever you’re feeling; and offers insight into how those emotions are affecting your everyday life. Counseling can help attorneys see the problem without feeling overwhelmed with anxiety or sadness even though the problem is still there. Working on perspective can also help you develop a greater ability to understand others; build stronger relationships with friends and partners; and get along with colleagues better at work. It can help you become more able to stay calm when others challenge you with their viewpoint.
FOCUS: Working with a counselor can help attorneys keep an eye on big picture stuff, it can serve as a time to slow down and consider important things rather than being reactive. One of the major benefits of seeking counseling is that it brings support and creates accountability when it comes to going after goals.
VULNERABILITY: Although there have been great strides in destigmatizing counseling here in the U.S. it’s not uncommon for folks to put off talking to a counselor for fear of being seen as weak, ineffective or even “crazy.” Seeking help and talking about struggles is difficult, especially for folks who are used to being seen as expert problem solvers and presenting themselves as having it all together. Practicing vulnerability through counseling builds resiliency and fosters connection within ourselves and with others.
BALANCE: The traits that make you great at your job may be deficits in other areas of life. The adversarial, problem-focused nature of practicing law creates a unique stress that increases susceptibility for anxiety and depression. No matter how good you think you at compartmentalizing, you’re not as good as you think. Stress, anxiety and depression find ways to manifest in life outside of work that you may not even be aware of. Counseling can help attorneys find and maintain balance between work and home.
You don’t have to be severely mentally ill to get help. Talking to a counselor can get you through difficult situations in life but it can also help you improve on what’s already good. Sometimes, people seek out a therapist because they are in crisis, and other times, they meet with a therapist because they simply want to be more productive, and be their best self.
Want to be at your best? Therapy for attorneys can help. Let’s talk!
What is Therapy for Attorneys?
Therapy for attorneys is traditional therapy combined with a deep understanding and respect for the culture, unique challenges and even language that surrounds the legal profession.
When is Counseling for Attorneys needed?
My biased belief is that all attorneys can benefit from counseling. The legal profession promotes perfectionism and tends to be problem focused which can lead to burn out. If you want to optimize your potential for success, taking care of yourself is key. Working with a counselor can help with that.
How much does Therapy for Attorneys cost?
Therapy is typically billed at a set rate for each appointment. My current 2022 rate per appointment is $150.
How long does the counseling process take?
How long counseling lasts largely depends on time, money and need. Some folks have very clear goals that can be met over the course of half a dozen appointments while others find value in the process and may continue with counseling for years. I don’t operate from a one-size-fits-all approach but do check-in regularly to ensure that clients are getting what they want out of the process.