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Attorney Burnout: The Benefits of Purposeful Breaks (and how to take them)

Burnout refers to a state of mental and physical exhaustion, coupled with cynicism (depersonalization) and inefficacy (reduced personal accomplishment). Although several factors contribute to burnout, overwork is most directly related to exhaustion, which is the key element of the syndrome. Jam-packed schedules, filing deadlines, client revenue requirements, and lack of  boundaries are some of the reasons lawyers are prone to work overload.

Taking purposeful breaks from work is not a panacea for burnout. It is, however, an essential step to avoiding and alleviating the syndrome, regardless of the multifaceted causes that include more than work overload.

Common Excuses for Not Taking Breaks

A report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research notes that the United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee paid vacation days and paid holidays. Yet even those who get paid vacation days do not use it all. According to a Project: Time Off report, a majority 52 percent of employees in the United States reported having unused vacation days at the end of the year. The study adds that in 2017, the average American took just 17 days of paid vacation.

Common excuses for not taking breaks — especially extended vacations lasting at least a week — include:

1. I don’t need it

When you are functioning, checking items off your priorities list, and getting through your day, you may conclude that you don’t need time off.  You might not realize that you could be a lot more productive and effective if you took a break and then came back rested and refreshed.

This excuse is based on fear of using up time off when you’re not in crisis mode and could need it later due to a real crisis.

2. I have too much to do

Whether you are a solo practitioner with your own practice or a partner at a big law firm, you have difficulty getting away from work when you feel there is too much to do. Lack of delegation of tasks and responsibilities or failure to get appropriate support often leads to counterproductive overwork.

The fear is that the business will cease to run or succeed or that your team cannot function without you. You might also worry that your practice and colleagues may very well be able to do without you, even if it’s just for a few days.

The Project: Time Off study reported that employees with concerns that they would seem less dedicated or even replaceable if they took a vacation were less likely to use all their vacation time (61% leave time unused, compared to 52% overall).  Those who felt their workload was too much to take time off were also less likely to use all their vacation time  (57% to 52%), as were those who felt there was a lack of coverage or that no one else could do their job (56% to 52%).

3. I can’t afford it

Billable hour requirements or client revenue goals is a primary reason for not using vacation days or time off. For a solo lawyer, taking a vacation often means missing out on new business opportunities to add to the cash flow. Lawyers at larger firms also have similar concerns due to stiff competition with other lawyers and firms. The fear of losing prospects and clients causes many to stay close to the office.

Planning for a vacation might also bring financial worries, especially when it involves rest and relaxation at a retreat, sightseeing in exotic places, bringing your family, or other types of getaways that are quite expensive.

4. I don’t want to lose momentum

When you’re in the midst of a major work project or you’re about to start one, it can be hard to step away from it. You get accustomed to the high stress and don’t know how to relax and stop obsessing about the goals and objectives you want to meet. Defaulting to old habits and routines around work often feels more comfortable than exercising relaxation skills that have not been used in a long time.

There is fear that taking a break means quitting or giving up. There are also concerns that a mountain of work will be waiting for you to clear out when you get back.  You might even feel lost and confused when you take a break from work and have no urgent action items or measurable results to consider.

Ways to Overcome Excuses for Not Taking Breaks

Excuses for not taking breaks can be overcome with these practices:

1. Prioritize self-care

To boost employee productivity and well being, organizations need to encourage vacations and even make it mandatory. Individuals also need to prioritize self-care and recognize that burnout prevention involves taking the time to recharge.

Use time blocking methods to get your most important work done within a set time frame, instead of allowing it to expand without limits. Also known as time boxing, this involves setting an appointment (with yourself) to do a single, high-cognitive demand task or a batch of similar, low-cognitive demand tasks in a specific time block.

Avoid unnecessary, agendaless meetings that only involve information sharing that can be otherwise accomplished through more efficient means. Declare certain hours as quiet, focus time when you should not be interrupted and other hours as time to have discussions, answer questions and address concerns.

Set appropriate boundaries. If your boss approaches you with another project, remind her of your list of priorities and discuss which should take precedence. Either she will tell you which is most important or find someone else to take on the new project.  Respectfully push back if she tells you that they are all priorities. Ask for specific due dates instead of settling for “ASAP.” Taking on too much will backfire in the form of missed target completion dates, poor quality work, and inadvertent errors.

Taking extended time off to recharge can create its own stress for lawyers, who are used to hustling and working hard. Yet taking a break is necessary for sustaining progress and creating desired results over the long haul, as well as boosting productivity in the short term.

Working obsessively and compulsively does not necessarily make you productive and can actually lead to burnout. Treat self-care as a vital component of being productive and sustaining diligence.

2. Plan ahead for your time off

There will always be more work for you to do, no matter how hard you push through and try to clear things off your desk. Instead of waiting for the perfect time to take a vacation – when all the to-dos are done, all files are closed, and all deadlines are met (which never happens) – plan ahead for it.  Treat it like an important appointment or commitment that must not be broken. Just be practical about when you take it and how long it will last.

Ask yourself what you need to do to make it happen by a set date. The first step is choosing your most important and urgent projects to tackle or complete before you go on vacation. Use the priority matrix (urgent + important; important but not urgent; urgent but not important; not urgent + not important). Decide on which ball you can drop for the time being and pick up later or drop altogether.

The next step involves notifying your clients about when you will be on a break; whether you will be responding to inquiries and, if not, who will be in charge of responses; the status of their case; and how time-sensitive issues that may arise while you’re gone will be handled.

Another step is to delegate tasks and responsibilities to others who can do the job well if not better than you. If you’re a solo lawyer with no full-time staff, you can turn to a reliable independent contractor or virtual assistant to handle certain types of tasks, such as responding to general inquiries.

Provide your assistant with a case list containing  client contact information, status of the matter, and potential issues that may arise. Have an outlet (e.g. telephone call or email) for them to reach you in real emergencies and define parameters for what constitutes an emergency.

Solo practitioners can seek help from another solo lawyer to cover emergencies and issues that cannot wait to be handled until they return. Lawyers with colleagues can keep their team members informed of ongoing projects. Do necessary prework, such as drafting the legal discussion for a motion that can be readily completed by another qualified person who has access to the client files.

Taking things off your plate doesn’t mean you won’t be needed within your practice or by your organization. It simply frees you up to focus on more urgent and significant projects that better leverage your skills, expertise and time.

3. Shift your money mindset

The classic 40-hour work week and the pressure to spend more than that at work have trained lawyers to measure their value accordingly. However, true value does not lie in the time you spend on a matter. Rather, it results from the unique benefits you bring and the positive difference you make with your service.

To fully unplug and recharge,  you will have to refrain from taking on new cases, performing consultations or engaging in client work while you’re on an extended break. A short-term revenue loss may result, but you will make up for it after you return with renewed energy created by a much needed break.

You also don’t have to go in debt to enjoy a vacation.  Choose the one that is right for you and fits your budget. You could just spend a few days exploring recreational sites, eating at the much-talked-about restaurant, hanging out at the nearby cafe or going for a long nature walk in your own town.  You could stay at home and read a good book or relax on your couch watching your favorite movie. The point is to stay away from the office, put work aside, and ignore emails and social media.

4. Systematize your law practice

Law firms need to systematize their processes and procedures so the absence of one lawyer does not dramatically affect business operations and client service. Systematization is often overlooked by solo lawyers and small firm lawyers who tend to keep most of their knowledge in their heads instead of in their business records.

Systems may include an office manual documenting the various business functions at your firm, a detailed checklist for your most common types of cases, and template letters for following up with prospects and closing out client files.

The key systems you need to set up, consistently use, and extensively document include:

Operations management system. e.g. setting up operations procedures and administrative processes around business functions, instead of around people.

Calendaring, scheduling and tickler system. e.g. recording important hearings and meetings and setting reminders for due dates and deadlines.

Client file management system. e.g. providing steps for running conflicts checks, opening new client files, closing files, and destroying old files.

Client communication system. e.g. having a policy for responding to telephone calls, emails and other communications from clients; providing a script for resolving a billing dispute.

Client service and retention system. e.g. creating templates for repetitive letters and emails; providing step-by-step procedures and checklists for  routine matters; preparing written instructions and answers to FAQs for clients.

Client attraction and acquisition system. e.g.  implementing a specific process for responding to online and telephone inquiries from prospects; developing a policy for post-consultation and post-meeting follow-ups with prospects.

Case management system. e.g. using online software like MyCase or even an Excel spreadsheet to manage cases and track the status of each.

Billing and invoicing system. e.g. using Quickbooks or other financial software to monitor income and expenses and automate invoicing to clients.

Firm management system. e.g. providing a written office manual that contains contact information for key personnel; location and account numbers for business and trust accounts; passwords for computer and voice mail; location of business documents such as leases, service contracts, and business credit cards.

Contingency management system. e.g.  creating a succession and transition plan or an emergency handbook for dealing with unexpected practice interruptions.

Systems help you prepare for practice interruptions, whether due to a planned vacation or due to unexpected illness.

Why You Need to Take Breaks

Taking purposeful breaks creates the following benefits:

1.  Increase Engagement at Work

Psychologists Christina Maslach, PhD, and Michael Leiter, PhD define people’s relationships to their jobs as a “continuum between the negative experience of burnout and the positive experience of engagement,” in their article, Early Predictors of Job Burnout and Engagement.

These pioneers in burnout research note there are three interrelated dimensions of the burnout-engagement continuum: exhaustion-energy, cynicism-involvement and inefficacy-efficacy. Burnout and engagement are opposites. Engagement is an energetic state of active involvement and increased efficacy.

When job demands exceed your resources and depletes your capacity, you are more prone to burnout. Resting, recharging and refueling between particularly stressful events – such as meeting a deadline or arguing at trial –  helps you avoid burnout and better engage with your work.

2. Enhance Multifaceted Skills

Breaks are necessary for deep thinking and reflection. Real productivity does not come from taking action all the time and operating on autopilot. By stepping away from work, you are more likely to gain a fresh perspective on challenging projects and develop new ideas for complex problems.

Exhaustion results in memory loss, lack of focus, and reduced executive function and self-regulation skills. By re-energizing your brain with necessary breaks, you become more focused, respond better to stress, and make smarter decisions. You also develop your creativity, analytical ability and problem-solving acumen.

3. Improve Productivity

Working harder and longer leads to diminishing returns on output and progress, which interferes with goal accomplishment and quality of work. 

One Stanford University study , The Productivity of the Working Hourspublished in The Economic Journal, found that once you work up to 50 hours in a week, you hit diminishing marginal returns. Your output rises at a decreasing  rate and falls to almost nothing after 55 hours.  In the long run, excessive work hours are counterproductive. 

Maintaining a sustainable workload not only reduces your vulnerability to burnout, but also gives you more energy to do high-quality work and provide diligent representation.

4. Learn to Relax

The intense work culture in Japan led to the invention of the term, Karōshi,  in 1978 to refer to the rising number of people suffering from heart attacks and strokes attributed to overwork. The term was used to describe “occupational sudden death” and translates to “death by overwork.”

In general, lawyers are used to dealing with high-pressure situations and gain their self-identity and self-worth from their work. When your life is organized and structured around your work, it’s a big struggle to step away from it. Learning and practicing how to relax is critical to alleviating tension, slowing down and avoiding burnout.

Taking a break helps you recognize that your work is separate from you. It is not the same as quitting or being lazy, but is an active process of reflection and learning.  Sometimes you have to push hard, but you risk getting burned out when you operate in hyperactive mode all the time. Developing your relaxation skills helps you to mindfully manage and combat stress.

Taking Breaks is Necessary to Avoiding Burnout 

A break from work can include mini-breaks throughout the day (e.g. 5 minutes for every 25 minutes of work; one-hour lunch break), a weekend off or three-day weekend; an extended vacation lasting at least one week; or a sabbatical or leave lasting at least one month.

In a given day, purposeful breaks may involve alone time (e.g. meditation, reading a calming book); interaction with nature (e.g. looking out the window; sitting on a park bench); social connections (e.g. chatting with a colleague; having lunch with a good friend); relaxation (daydreaming, sketching, listening to music); and movement (taking a walk, tai chi, stretching, doing jumping jacks).

Rest through purposeful breaks is essential to improving engagement in the workplace, which is the opposite of burnout. By letting go of the excuses and instead implementing steps to take time off, lawyers will be better equipped to avoid  burnout and keep the fire in their belly to do their best work.

For more information, read the related article, Attorney Burnout: The High Cost of Overwork. 

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This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 

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Attorney Burnout: The High Cost of Overwork

Being truly productive is not about filling your time with more work and plugging away at your to-dos without breaks.  Still, managing a heavy caseload and working beyond office hours are expected and even glorified in the legal industry.

Overwork is considered a badge of honor when it is equated with dedication, responsiveness, and a can-do attitude. But when mounting stress pushes you into the downward spiral of burnout,  it is impossible to make meaningful contribution and perform at your peak. The fire in your belly fades out and the inner drive gets replaced with indifference and disillusionment.

Knowing the symptoms helps you spot burnout and take action to alleviate it. Understanding the effects of overwork and other contributory factors is key to preventing and stopping burnout. Recognizing the consequences of burnout makes you less likely to ignore the telltale signs.

What is Burnout?

There is no clear definition of burnout. More often, it is discussed in terms of its common symptoms. Although burnout is typically linked with chronic stress, they are not the same. Burnout is at the extreme end of the stress continuum.

In the 1970’s, psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger coined the term and referred to it as “a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life.”

Christina Maslach, psychologist and creator of the leading burnout measure, the Maslach Burnout Inventory™ (MBI), describes burnout as a syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic, job-related stress. She notes that burnout is “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion marked by physical depletion and chronic fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and by development of a negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people.”

In the 10th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10), burnout is given its own code (Z73.0) and is referred to as a state of vital exhaustion. Burnout, however, is not recognized as a medical diagnosis in part because its symptoms overlap with those of more widely studied conditions, such as depression and anxiety disorder,  as well as physical illnesses.

While there are questionnaires to self-assess burnout, there are no official methods to diagnose burnout or whether the symptoms are caused by something else.

What are the Common Symptoms of Burnout? 

Warning signs of burnout include emotional symptoms, such as feeling overwhelmed, forgetfulness; inability to focus; feeling empty or depressed; chronic anxiety; increased irritability; intolerance of others; and withdrawal from friends and family. Physical symptoms include headaches; indigestion; nausea; sudden weight loss or gain; and getting sick more frequently. Among the behavioral symptoms are insomnia; alcohol dependence; and substance misuse.

Maslach’s 3 key dimensions of burnout

Maslach and her colleagues found that burnout has three key dimensions:

Emotional exhaustion is overwhelming exhaustion that includes low energy, depletion and fatigue. It is feeling emotionally drained by interpersonal contact and being overextended and exhausted by one’s work.

Depersonalization refers to cynicism and detachment, i.e. a negative and excessively impersonal response toward clients (recipients of one’s services or care)  and various aspects of the job. It is usually associated with irritability, loss of idealism, withdrawal and other negative shifts in attitude.

Reduced personal accomplishment is a sense of inefficacy and a feeling of ineffectiveness in producing the desired results. It refers to a negative self-evaluation of professional competence. It is linked to depression, low self-esteem, low morale, and an inability to cope.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory™ evaluates the three dimensions with a 22-item survey using a 7-point Likert scale for responses.  An answer reflects both the frequency and intensity of feelings and may range from “Never” to “Every day”.

The Emotional Exhaustion subscale includes nine items, such as  “I feel burned out from my work,” “I feel fatigued when I get up in the morning and have to face another day on the job,” and “I feel I’m working too hard on my job.” Higher scores on this subscale correspond to higher degrees of burnout.

The Depersonalization subscale includes five items, such as “I’ve become more callous towards people since I took this job,” “I worry that this job is hardening me emotionally,” and ” I don’t really care what happens to some recipients.”  Higher scores on this subscale correspond to higher degrees of burnout.

The Personal Accomplishment subscale includes eight items, such as “I feel I’m positively influencing other people’s lives through my work,” “I feel exhilarated after working closely with my recipients,” and “I have accomplished many worthwhile things in this job.” Lower scores on this subscale correspond to higher degrees of burnout.

Freudenberger’s 12-stage model of burnout

Freudenberger described the development of burnout in 12 stages, which do not necessarily occur in order and might not all be experienced in every case:

1. Compulsion to prove oneself (excessive ambition; obsession with proving worth)

2. Working harder (inability to switch off; taking on more work)

3. Neglecting needs (lack of social interactions; unhealthy diet; irregular sleep)

4. Displacement of conflicts (roots of problems are dismissed; feel threatened by disagreements)

5. Revision of values (work becomes the only focus; life becomes one-dimensional as family, friends, hobbies, etc. are neglected)

6. Denial of emerging problems (intolerance; inflexibility in thoughts and behavior; cynicism; aggression)

7. Withdrawal (hopelessness; reduced sense of direction; use of alcohol and drugs for stress relief)

8.  Obvious behavioral changes (odd shifts in behavior and emotional outbursts, which concern friends and family)

9. Depersonalization (devaluing self and others)

10. Inner emptiness (feeling empty and anxious; addictions develop)

11. Depression (feeling lost and uncertain; pessimistic outlook on the future)

12. Burnout syndrome (mental and physical exhaustion that can be life-threatening; medical attention becomes critical)

As psychologist Cary Cherniss notes, burnout begins with a mismatch between your work demands and your resources to deal with these demands (stress). It progresses to the immediate, short-term response of anxiety, tension and fatigue (individual strain). Then it sparks changes in attitude and behavior, such as greater cynicism and detachment (defensive coping). Paying attention to the early warning signs is key to staving off the more severe symptoms and full-on burnout.

What are the Causes of Burnout? 

Both the workplace environment (external factors) and your individual traits and personal habits (internal factors) contribute to  burnout.

Workplace factors

In their book, The Truth About Burnout, Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter identify six factors in the workplace that fuel stress and trigger burnout. They are:

1. Work overload. Organizational restructuring, downsizing and budget cuts force individuals to work more with fewer resources.  Billable hour requirements and other financial demands push lawyers to work longer even when they ought to take a break and recharge.

2. Lack of control over your work. Having autonomy — such as the freedom to determine your own priorities, set limits, and solve problems creatively — is critical for workplace motivation and engagement. When you have little or no control over which tactics and strategies you use, and when you execute them,  it’s much harder to influence the outcome and derive satisfaction from the work you do.

3. Insufficient reward. Meaningful rewards come in a variety of forms.  They include high pay, good benefits, recognition from peers and supervisors, and the feeling that you make a difference for your organization and your clients. In the high stakes legal industry,  lawyers are harshly reprimanded and called out for mistakes and failures, while their diligence and successes are often taken for granted. If your work is not met with appropriate reward, burnout is more likely.

4. Lack of community. When there is minimal support from colleagues and supervisors, unresolved conflicts, extreme competitiveness, and intense isolation within your workplace, there is a higher propensity for cynicism and detachment.

5. Absence of fairness. Trust, openness and respect are necessary for a workplace to be perceived as fair. Inequities in the workload or pay structures, favoritism in promotions, biased evaluations, and failure to appropriately resolve disputes can lead to burnout.

6. Conflicting values. A mismatch between your organization’s values and your personal values makes it hard to align priorities and goals. Inconsistencies between the organization’s stated objectives and its daily actions also create frustration, discontentment and negativity.

Individual traits and habits

Common personality traits or tendencies among lawyers, which tend to cause burnout, are:

1.  Perfectionism. Deadline-driven work, complex laws and rules, and ongoing changes in procedures and policies are some of the factors that encourage perfectionism. This involves setting impossibly high standards and rejecting any work product short of perfection. Unrealistic expectations, aversion to mistakes and the overvaluing of flawless performance can steer you toward burnout.

2. Conscientiousness. Prioritizing work and clients’ needs over self-care and personal commitments is prevalent among lawyers. The ability to make a difference  can lead you to say yes to unreasonable requests and never-ending demands. Overtime, your conscientiousness and sense of service can begin to feel more like self-sacrifice, deprivation and martyrdom.

3.  Achievement orientation. High achievers tend to have lower resilience to stress and setbacks. They obsess about meeting goals no matter the costs, and find it difficult to discuss their weaknesses and accept constructive feedback. Due to their strong desire to excel, they are generally hypercritical of their failures and fall easily into comparison traps.

4. Workaholism.  Many lawyers work beyond the standard 40 hours per week,  e.g. 50 to 80 hours, because they are workaholics. They have an extreme internal drive, are excessively hard workers, and are addicted to work. They work compulsively and excessively, beyond what is required to meet organizational goals or their own financial needs.

What are the Consequences of Burnout?

Burnout has far-reaching consequences on lawyers, their organizations and the industry as a whole. They include:

Ethical Missteps

ABA Model Rule 1.1 (Competence), which is reflected in Rule 1.1 of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, instructs lawyers to provide competent representation, which “requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”

Rule 1.3 of the MRPC (Diligence), which mirrors the Model Rule, states “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”

Rule 1.4 (a), MRPC (Communication) and the Model Rule, requires lawyers to promptly inform the client of key decisions and circumstances and obtain informed consent; reasonably consult with the client about the means to accomplish objectives; keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter; and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.

These and other ethics rules are more likely to be broken when you are experiencing fatigue, cynicism, detachment and hopelessness due to burnout.  Your capacity to meet the demands of your profession and needs of your client are depleted by burnout.

Intense fatigue, for example, makes it much harder to keep up with the workload, track and meet deadlines, analyze and apply complex laws, and respond promptly to client’s questions and concerns. Your cognitive abilities and creative problem solving skills are not as sharp as they could be when you are burned out.

Excessive depersonalization of clients strips your ability to show compassion and address highly sensitive issues.  Too much distancing from your work can lead you to overlook critical aspects of a client matter.

Feeling ineffective and helpless discourages you from exerting effort and exploring ways to solve problems. Your interest and focus wane when you think what you do makes little or no difference.

Health-Related Problems

Emotional depletion and mental fatigue often lead to serious health problems. Burnout has been linked with physical consequences, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular disorder, chronic pain, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries and shorter life spans. Burnout is also associated with psychological effects, including depression and anxiety disorder.

Impaired Relationships

Burnout can lead to withdrawal from family and friends as well as more interpersonal disputes. Work-family conflict, for instance, arises when obligations at work take time and energy away from family-related responsibilities.  Negativity, lower energy, irritability and increased frustration affect your ability to maintain relationships with colleagues, team members, supervisors and partners.

Substance Abuse 

Stress is a known contributor to alcoholism and drug addiction. In a 2016 study titled, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, researchers found that more than 1 in 5 lawyers said they felt their use of alcohol or other drugs was problematic at some point in their lives.  The study found that attorneys in the first 10 years of their practice experience the highest rates of problematic use (28.9%), followed by attorneys practicing for 11 to 20 years (20.6%).

Alcohol or drugs is sometimes used to numb out, relax, or cope with work-related stressors. Some drugs, such as cocaine, also serve to increase mental alertness. Self-medicating to deal with burnout leads to drug addictions and substance abuse.

Dysfunctions and Reduced Productivity in the Workplace 

Burnout and its related symptoms prevent you from getting the most important things done efficiently, effectively and in a timely manner. Cynicism or negative attitudes toward the organization, clients and colleagues reduces commitment to the workplace, job satisfaction, and quality of service. It also contributes to communication breakdown and low workplace morale. Emotional exhaustion and physical fatigue lower productivity and increase absenteeism and tardiness.

In addition, the growing sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment often causes burned out lawyers to quit their jobs, close their practice, or shift to another profession or vocation altogether. Heavy workloads, inadequate rewards and job dissatisfaction, which are part of the burnout culture, are among the reasons for high turnover rates. The organization incurs significant expenses when recruiting and training lawyers to replace those who leave.

Overwork Comes At a High Cost that Does Not, in the Long Run, Outweigh Any Possible Benefit

Prolonged exposure to stress (e.g. excessive workload), combined with the workplace environment and personal characteristics and tendencies, make lawyers vulnerable to burnout.

Burnout not only impairs your personal health and productivity, but also affects the outcomes of your organization in the form of subpar work product, decreased client satisfaction, and a higher propensity for legal errors and ethical missteps.

The high cost of overwork, which is a requisite for burnout, means you must take purposeful breaks daily, weekly, and yearly – no matter how busy you are. The heavier your caseload, the more recharging and refueling you need to avoid running on empty.

For more information, read the related article, Attorney Burnout: The Benefits of Purposeful Breaks (and how to take them).

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This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 

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Zeal Meets Zen: How Mindfulness Promotes Diligence in Law Practice

Mindfulness is a solution for lawyers to de-stress, concentrate, and get important things done in the midst of limitless distractions and mounting responsibilities.

Even modern-day, watered-down versions of mindfulness practice, which dates back about 5,000 years ago, produce noticeable, personal benefits. Improved health and enhanced wellness further lead to diligent, ethical action in law practice.

What is Mindfulness? 

There is no single definition of mindfulness, although it is now widely discussed in books, articles, classes, workshops, research studies, and other sources. In general, it involves conscious awareness of or receptive attention to what is before you, followed by appropriate action. It serves as both an inquiry tool and a way of being.

One of the simplest definitions of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  Credited with introducing non-secular mindfulness to the West, Kabat-Zinn defines it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.”

John Goldstein, teacher of Vipassana (Insight) meditation and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, points out that mindfulness is not just about being present, but also noticing how your mind works and how you relate to the present. He describes mindfulness as the power of the mind to observe the present — free from desire, delusion or aversion, which reduces unskilled tendencies and encourages skilled choices.

What is Zen? 

Zen practice emphasizes “zazen” – a Japanese term that is often translated as sitting meditation or Zen meditation. This involves staying upright to whatever thought, feeling, emotion or sensation arises, without clinging to what you like or pushing away what you don’t like. Mind and body are together in a holistic posture and in harmony with what is.

The Zen mind is often said to be like the vast sky or clear water, in which the confused mind shows up as the clouds or the waves. It permits paradox and allows for the coexistence of your original nature (being with what is) and dualistic thinking  (e.g. for and against, right and wrong, good and bad, success and failure).

Zen meditation and other forms of meditation encourage mindfulness, not just during the practice, but also in your daily life. You benefit not from mastering a meditation technique, but from bringing a similar quality of attention to your normal activities.

What is Diligence? 

The  words “zeal” and “zealous advocate” do not appear in the professional ethics rules. But lawyers are expected to represent their clients with zeal by way of consensus within the legal community, as well as comments found in the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.3 (Diligence).

Rule 1.3 of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which mirrors the Model Rule, states “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”

Comment 1 adds:

A lawyer should pursue a matter on behalf of a client despite opposition, obstruction, or personal inconvenience to the lawyer, and take whatever lawful and ethical measures are required to vindicate a client’s cause or endeavor. A lawyer must also act with commitment and dedication to the interests of the client and with zeal in advocacy upon the client’s behalf.  A lawyer is not bound, however, to press for every advantage that might be realized for a client…The lawyer’s duty to act with reasonable diligence does not require the use of offensive tactics or preclude the treating of all persons involved in the legal process with courtesy and respect.

The negative effects of procrastination on diligence is so significant that it is mentioned specifically in Comment 3, which states:

Perhaps no professional shortcoming is more widely resented than procrastination. A client’s interests often can be adversely affected by the passage of time or the change of conditions; in extreme instances, as when a lawyer overlooks a statute of limitations, the client’s legal position may be destroyed. Even when the client’s interests are not affected in substance, however, unreasonable delay can cause a client needless anxiety and undermine confidence in the lawyer’s trustworthiness.

How Does Mindfulness Promote Diligence? 

I prefer the term right diligence rather than right effort. Making efforts can make you tired, but when you are diligent, you don’t need to be tired. ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

The ethics rules reflect a certain set of core values governing the legal profession. Diligence, which includes staying on top of things, meeting deadlines, and following up on solutions to further the client’s interests, is specifically covered in Rule 1.3.  Values like commitment, dedication, courtesy, respect and trustworthiness also appear in the comments of Rule 1.3.

Mindfulness promotes steady progress toward timely, effective completion of a matter (diligence) — without the use of unethical measures — in several, key ways:

1. Clarifies what is most important

When you’re putting out fires and tackling one urgent thing after another, it’s easy to lose sight of your core purpose and true priorities.

If you’re not clear on your number one priority or most important task, you will feel overwhelmed and not know where to start. You will be more prone to tackle a bunch of less significant tasks that require less brainpower and are easier to do.

Mindfulness fosters mental clarity. It lets you pause, reflect and consciously choose what matters the most. It helps you pay attention to your own needs and the situation at issue, rather than compare yourself to others and their circumstances. Mindful reflection gives you insight on where to dedicate your focus, time and energy, and stop yourself from getting caught up in a flurry of activities.

When you deliberately choose your top priority, you are better equipped to make disciplined progress and take steady steps toward finishing the assignment. You also purposely delay or say no to low-leverage projects that keep you busy, but add little value.

2. Discourages procrastination

Procrastination is delaying action on a task that needs to be done now. Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor and procrastination researcher at Carleton University, notes you are more likely to procrastinate on aversive tasks that tend to be boring, frustrating, difficult, meaningless, ambiguous or unstructured. In his book, Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, Pychyl explains that procrastination is an avoidant coping response to tasks that evoke negative emotions.

How many times have you put off an important task because you just did not feel like doing it? And did you keep yourself busy with other tasks (e.g. reply to emails) so you would have a good excuse to postpone the one thing you really needed to do (e.g. write a legal brief)?

You might have told yourself you do your best and most creative work under pressure, when you’re up against a deadline and the task can no longer be delayed. And you blame performance deficiencies and poor-quality work product on having a busy schedule and lack of time, rather than on procrastination and  lack of diligence.

Pychyl adds that mindfulness awareness and acceptance are key steps to resolving procrastination, which is a self-regulation failure. By understanding when and why you procrastinate, you can make stronger efforts to take action,  instead of give in to the habitual response of delaying the task to avoid negative emotions.

Moment to moment awareness allows you to respond accordingly to the situation at hand. Instead of letting your thoughts and feelings dictate whether you do a particular task, you do the task because it brings high value and fulfills a real purpose.

3. Improves focus and other cognitive functions

Performing two or more tasks simultaneously – instead of doing just one – can seem like a time-saver for busy lawyers. But multitasking is really a huge time suck when you’re dealing with cognitively demanding tasks. It’s more productive to monotask or single task when an assignment takes effort and focus to complete well.

You’re only able to tackle two tasks when the cognitive load of at least one of them is low. Examples include walking with a colleague while you discuss a workplace dilemma, filling out your expense reports while you listen to classical music, or reading case law while you cycle on a stationary bike.

But have you tried checking your emails or text messages when you’re participating at a trial, office meeting, or conference session? You will definitely miss out on what is being said while you’re reading about unrelated issues.

The human brain is a sequential processor: It cannot pay attention to more than one thing at a time. In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen explain the mind has a limited capacity to pay attention, which makes it impossible to focus on two or more completely unrelated tasks at the same time.

When you concentrate on a single task, both the left and right sides of the prefrontal cortex work together in harmony. But when you multitask, you switch between the two sides of the prefrontal cortex. Shifting between tasks, instead of tackling one individually, can cost as much as 40 percent of your time.

In a University of California – Irvine study, researchers found it takes, on average, up to 20 minutes to refocus on an activity after being interrupted by email or another minor distraction. Each time you divert your attention from one task to another, you add to the time it would otherwise take you to complete it.

As your brain takes in new information on the second task, your attention becomes scattered and you lose your primary focus on the first task.  You then have to catch up on the information you missed or the thought process you abandoned to fully get back to the first task. Plus, attention residue from a prior unfinished task affects your performance on the new task.

Despite the consequences, many lawyers spread their attention among two or more things to reduce boredom, deal with impatience, avoid the difficult task, feel important, or get a quick dopamine hit. But with mindfulness, you get more comfortable with discomfort, develop a stable foundation for instability, and become more accepting of difficult situations you cannot change.

In a 2012 study, researchers found that “a brief period of mindfulness meditation may serve as a quick and efficient strategy to foster self-control under conditions of low resources.” Being able to pause and observe your thoughts and feelings, without engaging with them, gives you more impulse control.

A 2010 study found that “brief mindfulness training significantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning.” Researchers noted, “Our findings suggest that 4 days of meditation training can enhance the ability to sustain attention.”

In short, mindfulness steers you away from counterproductive distractions and shiny new things, and helps you focus on the cognitively demanding task you really need to do.

4. Leads to better decision making and choices

Mindfulness allows you to notice your feelings and thoughts without letting them control you and your actions. While feelings and thoughts are necessary and natural, they can get you in trouble if you react impulsively to them. Watching TV for hours, drinking alcohol excessively, and putting off the important telephone call to deliver bad news can ease discomfort, tension and fear in the short term, but cause serious long-term problems.

With enhanced awareness, you can improve your discernment and ability to take appropriate action in alignment with your deepest values, professional ethics and excellence, and the needs of the situation.

Roy L. Baumeister, pscyhologist and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, notes that willpower and decision making are interconnected. Willpower is a limited resource such that when you use it on one task that requires self-control, you have less to apply on the second task. Each time you make a decision, you deplete your willpower and start making poor decisions or avoid making choices altogether.

With mindfulness training, you avoid exhausting your willpower to control thoughts, feelings and sensations. You just let them be and keep coming back to the present. Furthermore, mindfulness practices often involve rituals and routines from which you can develop good habits. In turn, habits reduce decision fatigue and make it easier to tackle difficult things because you have a certain time block, space and auto-response for doing them.

Even when you don’t feel like it, you will still write the research article when you have a good habit of writing daily, say from 9 am to 10 am.  Instead of putting aside the weekend before the deadline to crank out the article, you commit one hour each day to work on it weeks in advance. Just like with meditation, the value is in the momentum that comes with habitually or regularly working on the high cognitive demand task.

Mindfulness also helps you break bad habits, which is why a growing number of addiction centers incorporate it into their substance abuse programs. By stimulating the prefrontal cortex (decision making/moral reasoning center) and shrinking the amygdala (fight or flight center) in the brain, mindfulness increases your ability to see possibilities, spot opportunities, and make empowered choices rather than react impulsively and habitually.

Instead of succumbing to the bad habit of surfing the Internet as soon as you get bored with writing, you can take a mindfulness break. Or use mindfulness to activate higher order activity and deactivate lower activity in the brain to stay with the main task.  This results in a higher quality work product and fewer mistakes.

In addition, mindfulness helps you become more fully aware and accepting of circumstances you cannot control. This is not passivity, but about letting go of your tight grip on what you believe is right and wrong, or good and bad, or just and unjust.

When dealing with a difficult client, unreasonable opposing counsel, or a tough judge, you will find yourself wishing they were different and agreeable to your perspective. Stress hormones get released, which clouds your reasoning, triggers negative emotions, and brings old patterns of attacking and defending to the surface.

With mindfulness, you observe the situation and drop your judgements about others and opinions about what they should do. You welcome both feelings of compassion and aggression as equally important, energetic sensations  in the body that come and go. By making space for them, you can choose when and how to act, rather than give in to impulsive reactions.

You also recognize your thoughts as stories, narratives, mental constructs and interpretations about what is happening. Your thoughts are not facts. They often depend on transitory feelings and emotions, social conditioning, traumatic experiences, personal biases and other factors that have little to do with present reality.

Mindfulness training helps you acknowledge that others, just like you, are simply trying to protect themselves and meet their own needs, not necessarily harm you or ignore your needs. When you are open to considering the other person’s needs without judgment, there is greater potential for mutually satisfying outcomes, even in the most hostile situations.

Except in unique situations – such as when one party has a mental condition or personality disorder — it’s usually possible to build common ground. Two persons who feel a mutual connection are more likely to resolve their conflict and be satisfied with a solution that meets the most significant needs of both, but not every single one of their individual needs. Recognizing that an opposing viewpoint has value encourages mutually acceptable solutions instead of non-negotiable, win-lose positions.

5. Reduces propensity for burnout

Overwork contributes to chronic stress, anxiety, and depression and compromises your ability to provide diligent representation. When demands keep exceeding resources — and you have no opportunity to recharge and recover  – you become vulnerable to burnout. Common symptoms include disengagement, emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, cynicism, a sense of inefficacy, and impaired concentration.

The American Psychological Association notes, “Acute stress comes from demands and pressures of the recent past and anticipated demands and pressures of the future.” Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR), in particular, has been found to reduce stress and quell anxiety.  It consists of an eight-week program of hatha yoga as well as formal and informal meditation practice. Formal practice includes breath-focused attention, body scan-based attention, open monitoring of moment-to-moment experience, walking meditation, and eating meditation. Informal practice includes brief pauses to direct your attention to the present moment.  Together, these practices improve your ability to recognize thoughts,  emotions, and sensations as temporary and respond effectively instead of habitually.

Studies also show that mindfulness-based therapy (MBT), which includes mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), can help with depression and anxiety. A mindfulness practice reduces excessive orientation toward the past or future, which triggers feelings of depression and anxiety. It increases your ability to attend to unpleasant or challenging situations nonjudgmentally and openly.

A 2016 study also found that MBCT helps reduce intolerance for uncertainty (IU), which is prevalent in anxiety and panic disorders. IU is a predisposition to react negatively on an emotional, cognitive, and behavioral level to uncertain situations and events due to negative beliefs about uncertainty and its effects.

Mindfulness enables you to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment, accept reality, deal with catastrophizing misbeliefs, and generate tailored, informed responses to difficult circumstances.

Mindfulness also builds emotional resilience, which is the ability to bounce back from criticism, rejection, setbacks, failures and other stressors. Clinical psychologist and resilience research, Dr. George Bonnano notes that how you perceive stressors and react to them is a central element of resilience.

2016 study linking mindfulness and resilience concluded that mindful people are more skilled at coping with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down. By sitting quietly and calmly even while your mind is active and working involuntarily, you are better able to take a more reflective and less reactive response to stressful conditions.

In Hardwiring Your Brain for Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson  explains the brain is divided into two operating modes: reactive and responsive. When the brain is in reactive mode, your cognitive functioning is impaired and you think less clearly. When your brain is in responsive mode,  you  feel “in the flow,” which boosts productivity and satisfaction.

Maintaining moment to moment awareness keeps the brain in responsive mode and beats its negativity bias, which is the tendency to react more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally positive ones. By recognizing how the brain is wired to make you fear any and all threats, as well as overlook positive stimuli, you build emotional resilience to daily challenges that, when left unchecked, can lead to burnout.

Mindfulness reminds you there is a middle way between burning out and quitting. You don’t power through when you’re exhausted, and you take necessary breaks with guidelines and limits. Taking even 5 to 10 minute pauses between hour-long blocks of work is key to maintaining steady progress. Breaks allow you to refresh your focus and renew your energy to begin, follow through, and complete important assignments.

Diligence does not mean you get sucked into your work to the detriment of your health, well being, and significant relationships.  Pulling all nighters, out hustling the competition, and skimming on sleep become less attractive when you’re mindful and recognize self-care as critical to diligent productivity.

Conclusion

The growing body of research and scientific studies on the benefits of mindfulness is spurring more law schools to offer mindfulness programs,  associations to organize mindfulness presentations and workshops, and law firms to promote mindfulness to their members.

With mindfulness, you are better equipped to avoid procrastination and provide zealous, diligent representation while exercising professional discretion and showing courtesy and respect to all persons in the process.

To learn more, read the related articles, Zeal Meets Zen: How Mindfulness Promotes Competence in Law Practice and  Zeal Meets Zen: 3 Ways to Cultivate Mindfulness in Law Practice. Also check out A Beginner’s Guide to Mindfulness & Meditation in Daily Life.

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This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 

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Photo by: Blue Gum