How Teams Can Help Address Burnout in the Legal Profession

By Paula Davis, JD, MAPP
NALP Bulletin+
January 2023

  • At a Glance: 14 min read
  • Burnout has become an even larger issue during the pandemic.
  • Understanding and addressing it is key to the success of your teams.
  • Tips for training programs and addressing the root causes of burnout.

The legal profession has begun to address lawyer well-being through training and the application of research on a variety of topics. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, law firms and in-house legal departments con- tinued to invest in and prioritize lawyer well-being; however, nearly all the research, training, and other interventions aimed at increasing well-being in the legal profession have focused on helping individuals anticipate and better manage stress and related challenges. It is now time to explore how the legal community can create teams and environments that are better able to flex and adapt constructively when stress, challenge, and change are present. And there is one issue that many lawyers, legal professionals, law firms, and legal departments are challenged by today — burnout.'s midlevel associate survey from August 2019 revealed that burnout was a growing concern even pre-pandemic. More recently, the Bloomberg Law Workload and Hours Survey showed that lawyers reported feeling burned out an average of 44%-52% of the time over the span of the survey.

While burnout is often positioned as a well-being topic, it is a challenge that will become more powerfully solved when it's also addressed as a leadership issue — also intersecting with the diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) and talent retention conversations — for which teaming and systems-focused principles are the main source of help and remedy.

Why Teams?

Burnout is a complex issue, and leaders and decision makers at legal organizations often need to be educated about what it is and what causes it. A Chief Human Resources Officer at a large multinational company introduced me before a program by saying that she previously thought burnout meant that an individual was weak and couldn't handle the stress of work. Many senior leaders think this way and I have them specifically talk about this burnout myth in my workshops. As a result, the first step is to have the right conversation about burnout.

Step 1: Have the Right Conversation About Burnout

Burnout tends to be oversimplified as an individual failing of stress management, focusing solely on exhaustion, and termed interchangeably with the word stress. Burnout exists on a continuum and is the experience of all the following: chronic exhaustion, chronic cynicism, and inefficacy, which is a sense of lost impact and effectiveness with one's work (see "Finding Solutions to the Problem of Burnout," Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 2017). While individuals certainly contribute to the burnout puzzle, the much bigger piece driving the problem is the root causes, which often go unaddressed. When the World Health Organization updated its definition of burnout, it clarified that: "Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: (1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; (2) increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and (3) reduced professional efficacy. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life." The last sentence is an important one. Burnout has a workplace association, root, or cause.

Step 2: Focus on Addressing Its Causes

For legal organizations to effectively reduce burnout, they must address the causes of it.

These are six of the biggest drivers of burnout at work, and I call them the "Core 6:"

  1. Lack of Autonomy: not having enough choice, flexibility, or control over how and when you perform the tasks related to your work
  2. Unmanageable Workload: not enough personnel, poor communication, too many meetings
  3. Lack of Community: ineffective leadership; not perceiving that leaders/partners have your back; not feeling a sense of belonging at work
  4. Unfairness: favoritism; arbitrary decision-making; organizational red tape; I don't understand why we do things the way we do or why we need to change
  5. Values Disconnect: what you find important about work doesn't match the environment you're in
  6. Lack of Recognition: no feedback; you rarely, if ever, hear thank you; you don't have a seat at the table for important conversations for which your expertise would be applicable; your title doesn't match your level of expertise

Three of the Core 6 — workload, having low autonomy, and lack of leader/colleague support — are among the top 10 most prominent workplace issues that impact your health and longevity (see "The Relationship Between Workplace Stressors and Mortality and Health Costs in the United States," Management Science, 2015).

The way to address and to begin to solve for the Core 6 is to deploy holistic tools and tiny noticeable things (TNTs) aimed at individuals and leaders. I argue that the best place to deploy these holistic tools is within the mini-systems that already exist in law firms and legal organizations — their teams. Why? Today's legal work is too complex for most lawyers to handle exclusively on their own. Most lawyers need to collaborate with others to address the volume and complexity of their practices. And "frontline workers," the associates and professional staff, have important ideas about how to solve these challenges because they live them every day. Preventing burnout is a team sport.

While some of this might feel outside of your control, there is a lot that professional development leaders can do to move the conversation forward in this space. Here are a few suggestions:

Think in Core 6 Language

Many professional development leaders talk to lawyers and coach them about a variety of topics on a daily basis. Many also talk to lawyers about stress and related issues. When a lawyer comes to you and says they feel burned out, ask them about some of the Core 6 drivers. You can broaden the conversation beyond stress management and coping strategies to learn more about the root causes of their stress at work. Your goal is not to solve an unmanageable workload situation, for example, but it might help you start to see patterns or at least, pain points, that might exist on different practice groups and teams.

Leverage New Research

"What do you feel your employer values most about you?" This question was posed to nearly 2,000 lawyers in a new study (see "People, Professionals, and Profit Centers: The Connection Between Lawyer Well-Being and Employer Values," Krill Strategies, April 2022), and their responses were categorized into three different groups as follows:

Lawyers who answered the question with statements like, "My overall talent and skill as a lawyer" and "My inherent worth as a human being" were assigned to Group 1 called Professionalism/Individual. Lawyers who answered the question with statements like, "My productivity or the hours I bill" and "My responsiveness, availability, and ability to generate business" were assigned to Group 2 called Financial Worth/Availability. Lawyers who answered the question with statements like, "I don't know — I get very little feedback" and "Not much — my employer does not make me feel valued" were assigned to Group 3 called No Value/No Feedback.

Each lawyer was then asked to answer questions about their levels of perceived stress, mental and physical health, and work overcommitment. The results showed a clear health hierarchy. The lawyers in Group 1 reported much better mental health, followed by Group 2, and then Group 3. In addition, lawyers in Groups 2 and 3 were much more likely to answer "yes" to the question, "Are you considering leaving, or have you left the profession due to mental health, burnout, or stress?" with 26.7% of Group 2 and 37.4% of Group 3 saying yes, compared to 15.4% of lawyers in Group 1.

While law is a service industry and lawyers need to accommodate, the pandemic and the emergence of hybrid work offer legal teams and organizations a unique opportunity — the chance to balance profit-centric and money-focused messages with designing the future of the profession in a way that promotes valuing lawyers as human beings first. This research shows that there are well-being consequences when you don't.

Know the Business Case

Financial principles can also be applied to make the economic argument that addressing burnout is important to legal organizations. Burnout impacts the bottom line in ways that legal leaders might be unaware (or underappreciate). Burnout is closely linked to rates of errors, turnover, absenteeism, and decreased productivity, all of which negatively impact client service. Here is a simple calculation to serve as a starting point for calculating turnover cost:

Turnover cost = # of lawyers x rate of attrition x cost to replace (usually estimated at about 1.5 to 2 times salary). For a firm with 800 lawyers, turnover cost = 800 x .23 x 350,000 or $64,400,000. According to the Thomson Reuters 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market, the attrition rate jumped to 23% in 2021 (up from about 16%). And given the way associate salaries have increased, the $350,000 figure is conservative. While your firm's attrition rate may vary, this is a quantifiable calculation. Lawyers leave legal organizations for many reasons, but a study from the healthcare profession offers a more sophisticated calculation to help you better understand what percentage of your attrition cost is directly attributable to burnout (see "The Business Case for Investing in Physician Well-Being," Clinical Review & Education, 2017).

Program Burnout as a Leadership and Teams Topic

The legal teams that make the greatest strides in this area are the ones that think about burnout as a leadership topic first. Teams-focused strategies have been found to have the strongest impacts in reducing burnout, specifically those that foster communication among members of the team, cultivating a sense of teamwork generally, and autonomy (see "Controlled Interventions to Reduce Burnout in Physicians," JAMA Internal Medicine, 2017). Lawyers are typically rewarded and promoted based on billable hours achievements and their legal expertise or reputation, rather than on the qualities necessary to be an effective leader. As a result, understanding the causes of burnout and how to design for teams that create the opposite of that environment can present a very challenging leadership situation. High-performing teams have psychological safety, shared goals, clear roles, and communicate effectively (see "Team Development Interventions: Evidence-Based Approaches for Improving Teamwork," American Psychologist, 2018). In addition, my own research reveals that a strong teaming environment focused on maintaining strong relationships, actively building the ABC's of autonomy, belonging, and competence, and addressing the meaning and impact of one's work to the organization, can help slow burnout. There are many frameworks and behaviors associated with these components that can be taught. Importantly, the Surgeon General's new framework for workplace mental health and well-being, called the "Five Essentials for Workplace Mental Health & Well-Being," also codifies many of these same principles.

Try to Move Beyond One-off Programs

One-off programs impart some knowledge, but burnout is too complex of an issue for one-off programs to make much of a dent. Program series — and in particular, investing in coaching for leaders, partners, and leadership teams — is a critical component. Coaching helps to make the concepts real, and it offers a more tailored approach to addressing each leader's specific challenges. One or two sessions can make a huge difference in helping legal leaders apply the tools in easy ways. I coached the senior legal leaders of a large healthcare system post-workshop, and they decided to take one of the well-being frameworks and build it into their onboarding and mentoring programs in a very specific way. Coaching was the bridge between hearing information and then creating a more systemic solution.

Incorporate Lawyer Perspectives as You Plan Programs

I worked with the professional development leader at one firm who suggested that we include interested lawyers from the associate well-being committee in our planning discussions. I couldn't wait, and they were ready to talk. What they said helped all of us clarify the goals and objectives for the program, and I understood keenly what they did and did not want to hear. In addition, they helped us design a powerful survey about burnout that 75 associates completed. Our findings revealed, in part, that 67 out of 75 associates who responded experienced burnout in the past 18 months; 68 reported a moderate to significant impact of burnout on job satisfaction; and 71 reported a moderate to significant impact of burnout on personal well-being. Some of the most common causes they cited for their burnout included unmanageable workload (the No. 1 answer by far), unreasonable expectations, lack of leader and colleague support, and values disconnects.

Measure It Formally and Informally

The National Academy of Medicine provides a wonderful summary of valid and reliable survey instruments to measure burnout. The Maslach Burnout Inventory General Survey (MBI-GS) is often considered the gold standard instrument when measuring burnout because it assesses burnout across its three dimensions. In addition, the Core 6 can be measured with the Areas of Worklife Survey (AWLS), which I find to be the more valuable measurement tool for the legal community in particular because it pinpoints the causes that so many legal organizations need captured. In my work with one legal team, the AWLS revealed a strong unmanageable workload issue, followed by a moderate unfairness issue. The unfairness score came as somewhat of a surprise to the Chief Legal Officer and her team, and the AWLS gave us the specificity we needed to have the right conversation about how to address.

Start with Your Own Teams and Think Small

There are small strategies that professional development leaders can deploy to build the kind of environment that slows burnout. These TNTs are just a few examples:

  • Say a thank you "plus" — the plus part is detailing the behavior you observed that led to the good outcome (e.g., say something like, "The way you structured the first page of that brief was excellent — I could see our position clearly and it helped me have a better conversation with our client" instead of just saying, "thank you").
  • Assume positive intent when discussing issues and educate in the spirit of collegiality.
  • Hold meetings that are efficient and intentionally thought out, including agendas and easy-to-understand supporting materials; consider whether a meeting is even necessary to gather the information you need.
  • Clearly communicate expectations and timelines to thoughtfully manage team member expectations.
  • Proactively share information.
  • Provide clarity and keep people in- formed of changes, particularly as it relates to their specific role.
  • Provide a rationale or more in-depth explanation for projects, goals, and vision; make sure you are asking law firm management for the "why" behind shifts in goals and vision so you can pass this information along to your teams.
  • Clarify confusing or missing information related to goals and tasks.
  • Ask people how they are doing; ask about their families, hobbies, and interests.
  • Be consistent in your words and actions.
  • Lead with "humble curiosity" — use these sentence starters to promote a listen-to-learn approach in your interactions with each other and with your clients:
    • Tell me more about/say more about that
    • Help me understand
    • Walk me through that
    • I'm wondering

I believe we are at an inflection point in the legal profession about how to continue to address well-being. There is an opportunity to expand the conversation around how to incorporate teams, leaders, and culture more fully into the conversation. The pandemic revealed this to be a necessary next step — we just need to take it.

Paula Davis, JD, MAPP is the Founder and CEO of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm that partners with law firms, corporate legal departments, and organizations to help them reduce burnout and build resilience at the team, leader, and organizational level. Paula is the author of Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being and Resilience.
National Association for Law Placement, Inc.® (NALP®), 1220 19th Street NW, Suite 510, Washington, DC 20036-2405, (202) 835-1001 [email protected], © Copyright 2024 NALP


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