The subject of biglaw burnout amongst lawyers is often talked about. Recently, there have been many articles talking about biglaw burnout, and particularly how associates in biglaw are experiencing burnout because of the way that many of biglaw firms were operating in 2020 and into 2021.

People who are experiencing biglaw burnout have a common set of erroneous beliefs about what they’re experiencing. Here’s the thing that is most important to remember if you’re someone who’s in this position, the system is designed to burn you out. 

Biglaw Burnout is Mistakenly Seen as a Weakness

Often people who are experiencing biglaw burnout are associates who start believing “oh, I’m just weak.” Some other common thoughts among associates that are experiencing biglaw burnout are:

  • I can’t hack it like other lawyers do.
  • The fact that I’m feeling burnt out, exhausted, and like this is all way too much is a personal weakness in me.
  • I actually want to have a personal life, but that might not fit in for me. 
  • The fact that I actually want to be able to take care of my mental and physical health is a weakness in me. 
  • If I could just figure out the right combination of life hacks, then this wouldn’t be a problem. 
  • The fact that I’m feeling this way is really some sort of moral failing on my part. 

The above statements and thoughts are simply not true, because the system is designed to burn you out.

The System is Designed to Create Biglaw Burnout

The biglaw system will take everything that you can give it. The reality is that even if you’re someone with very good boundaries, the biglaw system is amenable to people who actually have good boundaries. Most people who have good boundaries, more or less end up either being pushed out or leaving because the system is just not set up in a way that makes it realistic for them to stay. 

This does not mean you’re a weak individual. The biglaw system is working the way it is designed to work – to create biglaw burnout. 

The reality is that the structure of large law firms, and the way that they are set up, is beyond what any individual person or even leader of a firm can affect or transform on their own. The whole biglaw system has to be reworked in order for this to not be the case. It’s a feature of the biglaw system, not a bug. 

Often times, associates are told to do “this or that” thing to help themselves to feel less stressed or less burnout. The responsibility, or most of it, is placed on the individual associate or person, but in reality it is a result of how the biglaw system is designed.

If the system is designed in such a way that causes biglaw burnout, the individual intentions of the individual people, the various platitudes, the emails about how you should do five minutes of meditation or yoga or whatever, cannot change the reality of the structures of that system. Lawyers have become somewhat resistant to this because this is a structural problem. This isn’t a problem that can be fixed by individual lawyers just by meditating more or doing more yoga. 

The Future of Biglaw Burnout

During Lawyer Mental Health Week a couple of weeks ago, there was lots of discussion about how biglaw firms were sending emails saying they care about lawyer mental wellbeing and wellness. But at the same time, associates are also being pushed to give even more hours than they have in the past. 

In today’s circumstances, coming out of a pandemic that has been very grueling in many ways, emotionally, physically, mentally for everyone, biglaw burnout is a very real challenge. The reality is that biglaw burnout cannot be fixed just by individual people leaning into a different type of life within the system.  In order to prevent or minimize biglaw burnout among lawyers would require a re-imagination or a different way of doing what is being done currently and how the system is designed. Realistically, this biglaw system will not be changing in the near term.

However, modifying the existing biglaw system and how it is designed is  something that should be seriously considered if biglaw is going to be a profession where human beings can thrive and actually be able to contribute in a positive way to the world, but also not completely burn out in the meantime.

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Hi, and welcome to the Former Lawyer Podcast. I am your host, Sarah Cottrell, and on this show, I interview former lawyers to hear their inspiring stories about how they left law behind to find careers and lives that they love. Let’s get right to the show. Hello everyone. This week on the podcast I want to talk to you about big law and burnout. So, we all know that the subject of burnout amongst lawyers is often talked about, right? We also know that the subject of burnout specifically in big law lawyers is talked about a lot. There’ve been a bunch of articles recently talking about particularly associates in big law and how burnt out they are from the way that many of these firms were operating in 2020 and into 2021.

So I want to talk a little bit about this because often people who are experiencing burnout in big law have a common set of what I would say are erroneous beliefs about what they’re experiencing. And it honestly bothers me quite a bit. And so this is going to be a bit of a rant. You are forewarned, here we go. Here’s the thing that I think is most important to remember if you’re someone who’s in this position, the system is designed to burn you out. Okay?

Often people who are experiencing burnout in big law, associates who are burnt out will feel like, oh, I’m just weak. I can’t hack it like whoever else, that this person and that person. The fact that I’m feeling burnt out, the fact that I’m feeling exhausted, the fact that this is like way too much and I actually want to have a personal life. And I actually want to be able to take care of my mental and physical health, that’s just somehow a weakness in me. And if I could just figure out the right combination of life hacks, then this wouldn’t be a problem. So the fact that I’m feeling this way is really some sort of moral failing on my part. That’s not true. The truth is, I’m going to say it again. I know I said this before, but the system is designed to burn you out.

The system will take everything that you can give it and the reality is that even if you’re someone with very good boundaries, the system, the big law system is not particularly amenable to people who actually have good boundaries. It’s been my experience that most of the people who have good boundaries, more or less end up either being pushed out or leaving because the system is just not set up in a way that makes it realistic for them to stay. So, you’re not weak. The system is working the way it is designed to work. And I’m not saying that any particular person is sitting in their evil layer, cackling, because they’ve created the system that will burn you out. The reality is that the structure of large law firms and the way that they are set up is it’s beyond what any individual person or even leader of a firm can affect or transform on their own, right?

The whole system has to be reworked in order for this to not be the case. It’s a feature, not a bug. So you being burned out as a big law associate, you feeling burned out, you getting to the place of burnout. That’s a feature of the way big law works. It’s not a bug. The way it’s often approached, the way it’s talked about the messaging is like, well, do this or that thing to help yourself. You’ll feel less stressed to avoid burnout. And all of the obligation, the responsibility, or most of it, is put on the individual person, the individual associate. But the reality is that the system is created in such a way, is designed, exists in such a way that it ultimately will cause burnout because that is the way that it’s designed. So, again, is that, there’s this idea perpetuated that, oh, you’re feeling burned out.

Well, that’s something that’s like gone awry in the system, right? That’s not an intended result. The thing is it’s irrelevant if every partner in your firm is going around thinking, I don’t want associates to be burned out, right? If the system is designed in such a way that it’s going to cause burnout, the individual intentions of the individual people, the various platitudes, the emails about how you should do five minutes of meditation or yoga or whatever, those things cannot change the reality of the structures of that system. And I think we’re somewhat resistant to this. And by we, I mean lawyers, and in particular lawyers who are in the system of big law, because this is a structural problem, right? This isn’t a problem that can be fixed by individual lawyers just meditating more or doing more yoga. And I mention those things because those things come up all the time, right?

We just had Lawyer Mental Health Week or whatever a couple of weeks ago, when I’m recording this, and there was lots of discussion about how big law firms were sending emails saying, we care about lawyer mental wellbeing and wellness and whatnot. And at the same time, associates are being pushed to give even more hours than in some cases they have in the past. And in these circumstances where we’re coming out of this pandemic, that has been very grueling in many ways, emotionally, physically, mentally for everyone. Yeah. So the challenge is that it cannot be fixed just by individual people somehow leaning a different type of life within the system. The challenges that I think we have to have an imagination for a different way of doing what we’re doing. And to be honest, I’m not overly optimistic about that in big law in the near term.

But I do think that it’s something that we need to seriously consider if we really want this profession to be a place where human beings can thrive and where we’re actually able to contribute in a positive way to the world, but also not completely burn ourselves out in the meantime. So if you’re an associate in big law and you’re having an experience that mirrors at all, what I’m talking about, I’d love to hear from you and to hear what you think about this and to hear if this connects with the experience that you’ve had. Okay. That is my rant on big law burn out. I will talk to you all next week.

Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven’t yet, I invite you to download my free guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law at formerlawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week.

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