Burnout: There and back again

10 mins

Having experienced a year of lockdowns across most Australian cities, I wanted to tell a story of hope. That there is light at the end of the tunnel, even when you don’t see one at the time.

It also acknowledges that after almost two years of working from home, that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, to feel like you’ve never left work. It’s normal to feel stressed or exhausted even though you know that things are going to be OK in the end.

This blog post goes back to the beginning. I burned out badly in my fourth year of legal practice. I returned from what felt like the brink, vowing that it was possible to practice law in a better, more sustainable way.

At my lowest point, I recall combing the Internet for stories about lawyers who burned out. Did they do ok—or are they ok now? Am I normal? What’s happening to me? Legal Brew was born a year later because I couldn’t find any lawyers who would write honestly about their experience. The ones who did had left the profession for good. I knew inside me that there was a middle way.

With all this said, burning out as a lawyer feels like a First World problem. (You have a stable job with too much work?! Go tell that to someone with precarious work or casual shifts.) However, it is very real to whoever is experiencing it.

I hope my story helps someone out there to untangle the knots and make the right choice for them.

January 2016

I was about to start a new job as a lawyer in private practice, specialising in construction litigation and arbitration. I couldn’t believe that I got a 20% pay rise. This was unheard of amongst my peers at the time. I smugly thought, “sucks to be the recruiter who said that it was impossible!” Little did I know that it was going to be a very, very busy year.

I love the work, there’s just… too much

The first few months were exhilarating. First up, trips up to the Sydney office and back. It was nothing like what I’d done before. It was a fun time getting to know my Sydneysider colleagues, with lunches at Circular Quay and trips out in town. The work was challenging and intense—we worked on some pretty exciting disputes. My supervising partner was a walking legal encyclopedia. I felt like I had hit the jackpot.

Then I started travelling to Perth. The memories of those times were less good. I woke up at 4 am on Mondays to catch the taxi to the airport on time. Then, landing in Perth after six hours of travel to the awful realisation of the 3-hour time difference and a whole day of work still ahead of me.

I would bundle myself into the offices of a client from a north Asian country notorious for their extreme working hours. While they never expected that we would do similar hours, we did. They slept at their desk after their lunch break, which some of my colleagues mocked as unprofessional. I said nothing. Little did they know of the importance of taking naps for the brain and general wellbeing (link to sleep article). No, we were the indestructible types who could operate on four hours of sleep.

Midway through the year, I started noticing things that concerned me. Working long hours, for one, was worn like a badge of honour. A senior lawyer talked up the long days and nights in the London office. Another lawyer bragged that they had once contracted shingles but had continued to work in the office until they were bundled home for being potentially contagious. Catching up over weekend brunch, my colleague would exclaim halfway, “I need to get back to the office!”, before racing for a taxi. Then there were the all-nighters.

I still loved the work, but my brain was whirling. This is unsustainable. I need to get out.

But burnout got me first.

The fallout

Burnout was slow at first in the middle part of the year, then it all happened all too fast. In my case, my physical symptoms could be described as a constant low hum of stress and reflux-like symptoms, which I ignored for a few months.

Towards the end of the year, the reflux got worse. I was constantly popping antacids like a junkie. A junkie that couldn’t stop working. I went through two huge bottles of ‎Gaviscon Liquid Dual Action—”for fast-acting relief”, it guaranteed on its lurid pink wrapper.

I asked to take time in lieu at one point. The answer was no, everyone has been working as hard.

Then it all hit me after a particularly strenuous week—I felt extreme exhaustion. I was coughing uncontrollably, so much so that I thought I would cough my entire insides out. I had to take a whole week off. At one point, I thought I was going to die. Or at least, something was horribly wrong. I felt my own mortality.

I went from my GP to a gastroenterologist who squinted at me and said, “we need to check if you have stomach ulcers”. I ended up under general anaesthesia for an endoscopy. When I woke up, my mum stood with me, a warm envelope of care and concern. Eventually, the ENT surgeon bounded out behind the faded blue hospital curtains and said, “we looked but couldn’t find anything. You’re perfectly fine!”

Relief washed like a wave over me. But a nagging thought remained, “if there isn’t a medical condition, then what was, or still is wrong with me?”

Exit plan

After my health scare, I started looking for answers. I scoured the Internet for blog posts from lawyers. There was very little out there.

I desperately tried to find stories from lawyers who had experienced burnout, to see if anyone had been there. The only stories I could find were of lawyers who burned out and left the law for good. How about lawyers who still love what they do—they just want less cake?

Even at my lowest point, I knew that I still enjoyed the law and legal practice. There had to be a different way to do it. (Little did I know at the time that this became the inspiration for Legal Brew—with a focus on stories from people who tread lesser-known paths.)

At my lowest, rawest point, a kernel of truth still held—I loved the law.

I quit without finding another job.

No backup.

Finding my way back

“You shouldn’t have a gap in your CV.”
“You’re so brave!”
“I wish I could do what you did.”

I went travelling for five months. Spent time with my family. Read everything I could lay my hands on. Wrote down every thought in my brain into my journal.

The reality was, I couldn’t have done it if I didn’t have supportive people around me. My loved ones saw how much I was suffering and gave me perspective.

Some days I floated like an unmoored dingy, focusing on living, running, moving, exploring. But slowly I grew back stronger and more certain.

There were a lot of exclamations amongst my peers about how brave I was. There were also the naysayers. I ignored the latter because I was past caring. I was finally off the Kool-Aid.

I eventually recovered and became myself, the one I knew from before. Burnout is something I need to keep an eye out for, because I know I’m prone to lapsing back.

Concluding thoughts, I have many—regrets, I have few

Recently, I came across a book by Gordon Parker, Gabriela Tavella and Kerrie Eyers called Burnout: A guide to identifying burnout and pathways to recovery. It would have been helpful if it was around five years ago when I needed it. It covers everything I already knew about burnout from my own experience.

If you’re looking for answers, I highly recommend it. The explanations are useful from a health and scientific perspective. Burnout is a big red flag that your body tries to send to you—before you completely lose it. Like me, you might experience physical symptoms that don’t translate neatly into a medical diagnosis. The book acknowledges that there is still a lot we don’t know about burnout.

I completed the burnout matrix test at the end of the book and realised that I scored highly but not in a good way. The book noted that certain personality traits present a higher risk of burnout. Those in caring professions—such as paramedics, nurses, and doctors—are most likely to burn out. Lawyers come in the second category of professions most likely to burn out. Also high on the list is perfectionism. Passion for your work was also a factor.

When fellow lawyers come to me complaining that they are exhausted, I try to tell them in the nicest possible way that they need to change their job, and in particular their environment. Most of the time they’re listening but not absorbing. At that point, they’re still listening to their inner voice, “maybe it’ll be ok, it’ll turn out alright, I’m not as exhausted as I think.” In the end, the person has to reach their own conclusion, however hard, that what they’re doing is unsustainable. I was once that person.

Acknowledging burnout is hard. Lawyers are conditioned to believe that they can’t break down, that they must keep going. But with burnout, you’ll feel so broken that you think that there is no end in sight, no light at the end of the tunnel. But I can tell you that there is. So how do you embark on this journey? I can only go through what worked for me, as every person is different. My hope is that somewhere in here, you might take something away that will be useful.

My burnout experience taught me a series of powerful things, in no particular order:

#1. Burnout isn’t a sign of personal failure.

We’re human in the end—we live for creativity, connection and a sense of purpose, not to maximise efficiency. After burning out, I met lawyers who are far smarter than I am and highly recognised for their achievements, who had burned out or had health scares and decided they needed to change lanes. Burnout isn’t a reflection of you as a lawyer or person.

#2. What glitters ain’t always gold.

Getting paid more isn’t better if you’re working 50% or 100% more. (Often you end up making dodgy financial choices to counterbalance your stress levels—for me, it was shopping for clothes. It evens out the bigger paycheck.)

#3. People over prestige.

Be in the right environment that can nurture you. “Brand prestige” isn’t always the right choice. To cure burnout, the answer is almost always to leave (not necessarily the law, but the environment that you’re in). I knew that going to another firm where you bill time for money was not the answer—it was going to be the same dynamic but with different people.

#4. Deal with your perfectionism.

While you might think that you should do things perfectly—no one is ever perfect. It’s an impossible standard to hold yourself up against and that’s why you’ll always fall short. I have learned that it is possible to be “good enough”. I’ve seen perfectionism play out in many ways amongst lawyers, especially in the inability to delegate to others (“what if they **** it up?!”) and unrealistic expectations on yourself and others.

#5. Listen to your body—it doesn’t lie.

Lawyers often disassociate from their physical reality and feelings, “it’s not so bad”, we tell ourselves. I recall a horrific story that a brilliant friend told me around that time. Both she and her housemate were working at Magic Circle firms in the UK. She recalled waking up one morning and hearing a repetitive dull thump on the floor. She realised that her housemate was hurrying out of the apartment but repeatedly falling, knocking herself unconscious, and then coming back to consciousness and trying to scramble out the door. My friend offered to call her housemate’s law firm partner to let them know that she couldn’t head in. The housemate rejected this and went straight to work. It’s one of the more extreme stories but this is one of the many stories I’ve heard out there.

#6. Surround yourself with people who love you.

Having supportive family and friends helps and is everything. They will carry you through, bearing some of your burden when you can’t.

#7. Be kind to yourself.

If you ended up in the legal profession, you are likely to have been someone who never gave yourself much slack through high school, university, law school, and then work. It’s non-stop. Stop and give yourself space. Take breaks and be OK with doing nothing at all. We seldom give ourselves this time.

#8. Expand your horizons.

Learn about things other than the area of law you practice—the legal industry attempts to funnel young lawyers to specialise too quickly. As you go along, the funnel narrows and narrows further. It’s important to have a reverse funnel—to go broader. Read as much as you can about things that don’t involve the law, go travelling and be open to other experiences. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid that Big Law tries to peddle, that is, that you’re not a real lawyer unless you’re a private practice lawyer, or that bigger is better, or that you should work all the time.  It might be the right choice at a juncture in your life, but not always (or maybe never).

#9. Everything you already know is good for you—do it.

Make exercise, healthy eating, and meditation mandatory, not optional. On the last point, the Insight Timer app is an excellent way to dip your toes into meditation for free. (I don’t get paid for this plug.)

#10. Journal.

Write your thoughts down, what you’ve read and absorbed. There are two forms of journaling—freestyle scribbling and never going back to read what you’ve written. And then there is the reflective sort of journaling that you revisit. I do a bit of both. They have been great outlets for me in consolidating my thoughts and tracking where I’m at (but not in an obsessive way).

#11. Get to know yourself better.

There is a great deal of people-pleasing in the legal profession—it’s about what partners think, what clients think, what the judge thinks. Law grads are often handpicked for this trait, for their willingness to carry out orders. It’s why we beat ourselves up unnecessarily over the smallest things—even over mistakes that are a normal part of any learning experience. One of the hardest questions you need to ask yourself is, “am I on this journey for myself, or for someone else?”

#12. Short-term memories are a thing.

As they say, the grass is always greener on the other side. There are moments when I myself think that things are better in private practice. Then I have to take a moment to realise that it’s simply not. The reality is that spending too much time in private practice is not just bad for your health but also your perspective. In that bubble, you don’t see the world through the lens of other people because you’re only ever surrounded by people who view the world through the same lens. You don’t often have to make compromises because your word is law (as signed off by a partner). Finally, when you trade time for money, there can only be one obvious result—long days at work. One mantra that I keep close when these thoughts circle: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

#13. Know your triggers.

Remember that keeping burnout at bay is an ongoing effort. This means you need to recognise your burnout triggers. It’s never a set and forget. Keep an eye on it but know that it is possible to come back from the brink.

If you want to reach out to me or have a chat, say hello@legalbrew.com.au.

Please note: If this has caused you any concerns, please get in touch with Lifeline (13 11 14, www.lifeline.org.au) or Beyond Blue (1300 224 636, www.beyondblue.org.au).

Further reading/listening:

📸 Photo by Ryan Cheng on Unsplash