Lawyer: What I Wish I Had Known Before Becoming a Lawyer

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Lawyer: When I started law school, I loved it. The hypercompetitive classroom, the demanding coursework, and the adrenaline rush of solving complex cases drove me to pursue this career. Once I officially earned the job title “lawyer,” I was drawn even more to the fast-paced work culture. I wanted to stand out, make a difference, and find my own niche. My work was my passion and it empowered me.

What I didn’t realize was the same work was also steering me onto a path of debilitating burnout.


One afternoon, in the summer of 2020, I was sitting in my office when a feeling of intense fear gripped me. I slipped into a loop of troubling thoughts about my life, my loved ones, and my job. The more I tried to escape it, the deeper I dove. I was scared. Very, very scared. My heartbeat quickened and aftershocks of the feeling shadowed me for days. Each time I entered my office, a familiar dread followed. My concentration dwindled. I turned to alcohol for refuge.

It took me several months to finally admit to myself — and to my loved ones — that I needed help. Later, I learned from a professional that I had severe anxiety and was put on medication. My recovery has been a humbling experience. It has put many things into perspective.

What I experienced during those months is one of the many destructive consequences of burnout. I was working 80+ hours a week (without complaints) at the law firm I had put in the hours to establish. My professional identity defined my sense of self and that meant my self-worth was attached to my achievements.

My story sadly is not unique.  In the past few years, we have learned just how common burnout is, and in law, it is especially common. One survey conducted by Bloomberg Law in May 2021, reported that attorneys felt burned out for 50% of the year’s first quarter. Among those surveyed, junior and mid-level associates were particularly hard hit, with two-thirds reporting a decline in their overall well-being.

I believe these findings directly reflect the culture we have created in the legal profession — one that prizes individualism and competition, promotes conflict, and discourages any show of vulnerability. If this is a career you are looking to pursue, here is some advice I wish I had been given sooner.


Before taking a job, gauge the company culture.

Try to avoid working for a law firm that values billable hours more than your personal sanity. I know this is easier said than done when you’re starting out and competing with a group of highly talented peers.

How you start your career matters. The pressure you feel to land that first gig may feel more important than waiting to work at the right firm, a firm that prioritizes inclusion, belonging, and the wellbeing of its workers. If you begin in a workplace that doesn’t value you beyond your skills or take care of your psychological health, it’s going to be unsustainable in the long run.

There are a few questions you can ask the hiring manager (or your future peers) during a job interview to figure out whether the organization values work-life balance or promotes a burnout culture:

  • Would you say you have a good level of work-life balance? Why or why not?
  • Does your company have any policies around family and medical leave? Do new parents at your company typically return to work right away?
  • How does upper management react to failure or mistakes? Can you describe a situation that didn’t turn out how you wanted it to, and how it was handled by the company?

If you hear that people are worked to the bone (instead of given flexibility), asked to return to work before their leave is over (instead of asked to take the full leave), or punished for their mistakes (instead of encouraged to learn from them) — those are all red flags. The idea is to understand how a firm responds to the needs and expectations of its employees.

Don’t ignore your physical triggers.

What if you’ve already landed a job? How do you manage burnout when you’re working in a burnout culture?

The biggest piece of advice I can give you is: Do not ignore what your body is telling you. Typical signs of exhaustion include: increased heart rate, headaches, fatigue, palpitations or sweating, and general irritability. These symptoms can come on gradually, or as they did for me, all at once. When you’re in a stressful situation, your body shifts into a state of high alert. It is preparing itself to confront or run away from a threat, the reaction we commonly refer to as fight or flight.

If you feel these triggers during your workday, pay attention to them. In the moment, small things like staying hydrated, breathing deeply for a few seconds, or taking a short walk around your office to physically disconnect can help. In the long term, however, this is your body telling you that you need a break. It may be worth having a more serious conversation with your manager around your workload or seeking the help of a medical professional to talk about treatments or coping mechanisms.

It took me months of therapy to find my own coping strategies. But over time I have realized that even when I can’t afford to take a day off or go on a vacation, I can build smaller breaks into my workday to prevent me from losing track of my physical and mental health.

The more you start paying attention to what your body needs, the easier it will become to take care of it. And if your workplace or manager makes you feel ashamed of those needs, it may be time to look elsewhere.

Build a life outside your work.

The hard truth is that the legal profession is extremely draining. When you choose to be a lawyer, you are choosing a path that often requires putting in long hours to study and prepare for each case. Clients can be demanding. Your assignments can start off as fairly low stakes and shift into stressful high-stakes scenarios overnight, depending on a variety of factors.

If you are working on emotionally fraught cases, which happens often in criminal and family law, you may also experience a level of emotional exhaustion. In these cases, it can become difficult to disconnect yourself from the lives of your clients. To protect yourself, and do your job well, you have to set healthy boundaries at work — and this often means having a life and a support system outside of it.

Start by committing to taking time off at least once or twice in the year. To reduce the stress that often comes before and after a vacation, plan your time far in advance and make it a personal goal not to cancel. When you’re off, actually “turn off.” (Yes, that means unplugging from calls and emails.) If you are worried about missing out, remember that building deliberate moments of rest into your work life may actually end up boosting your overall productivity and performance.

For some people, this may sound entirely undoable. In that case, set a smaller goal: Do something outside your work that brings you joy. What helps you unwind? Do you have hobbies and activities you love? It could be as simple as walking your dog every morning, going to the gym at night, watching a TV show uninterrupted, having dinner with family at least twice a week, or volunteering for a cause that matters to you. These small commitments will help you expand your social circle, rediscover your interests, and be better (and healthier) at work.

Give yourself a little grace.

In certain legal fields, a tendency toward perfectionism is, in my experience, commonplace — as the situations you are dealing with can be very high stakes and you are often getting directly involved in the personal lives of real people. While striving to perform at your best is generally good, the danger here is setting unrealistic expectations and being too hard on yourself when you fail to reach them. This cycle of behavior can be linked to depression, anxiety, and other physical and mental health problems.

While I understand the deep desire to win every case and do right by your client(s), I know from experience that this pressure can do more harm than good. You are not a superhero. You can’t just wave a wand and magically make things work. Remind yourself that, just like everyone else, you’re doing the best you can with what you have.

One strategy that has personally helped me in this area is writing down one thing I’m grateful for every day. Give it a try: The next time you lose a case, write down what you learned along the way and why it is meaningful to your growth. The next time a client isn’t happy with you, write down one way you were able to help them (even if you couldn’t get them exactly what they wanted). Or simply reflect on why you are thankful for your support system, family, or friends. Studies show that giving thanks can help us sleep better, lower our stress, and improve our relationships with other people.

Finally, remind yourself regularly that you are not your job. Like me, you might be passionate about your work, but unless you make a conscious effort to separate it from the other parts of your life, you’re likely going to burn out. This leads me to my last piece of advice: Put yourself and your loved ones first. Your career is not as delicate as the other parts of your life. There is always going to be more work. We can’t say the same about our health or our time.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

What are some common signs of burnout in the legal profession?

Common signs of burnout in the legal profession include increased heart rate, headaches, fatigue, palpitations or sweating, general irritability, and emotional exhaustion. These symptoms may manifest gradually or suddenly and can significantly impact an individual’s physical and mental well-being.

How prevalent is burnout among lawyers?

Burnout is a pervasive issue in the legal profession, affecting a significant number of lawyers at various career stages. According to a survey conducted by Bloomberg Law in May 2021, attorneys reported feeling burned out for 50% of the year’s first quarter. Junior and mid-level associates were particularly affected, with two-thirds reporting a decline in their overall well-being.

What factors contribute to burnout in the legal profession?

Several factors contribute to burnout in the legal profession, including high workloads, demanding clients, pressure to win cases, and the emotionally taxing nature of certain legal fields, such as criminal and family law. Additionally, the competitive and individualistic culture within the legal profession can exacerbate feelings of stress and exhaustion.

How can lawyers manage burnout in a demanding work culture?

Managing burnout in a demanding work culture requires a combination of self-awareness, self-care strategies, and boundary setting. Lawyers can prioritize their physical and mental health by paying attention to physical triggers of stress, taking breaks when needed, and seeking support from colleagues, friends, or mental health professionals. Setting boundaries, both at work and in personal life, is essential for maintaining well-being and preventing burnout.

What advice can help lawyers navigate a burnout culture in the legal profession?

Lawyers can navigate a burnout culture by prioritizing self-care, assessing company culture before accepting a job, and building a life outside of work. It’s crucial to gauge the company’s values regarding work-life balance and psychological well-being during the job interview process. Additionally, creating a support system outside of work, setting boundaries, and practicing gratitude can help lawyers maintain resilience and prevent burnout in the long term.