Solo Attorney Burnout: A Real Problem In The Legal World

By Joleena Louis - November 4, 2015
Solo Attorney Burnout: A Real Problem In The Legal World

In this week’s edition of Things I Wish I Knew, Joleena Louis discusses why solo attorney burnout occurs and what she does to prevent it.

I’m currently experiencing a sense of renewed motivation about my practice. This is great because I really love what I do and don’t see myself doing anything else.

But lately I have come across many of my solo colleagues who have the opposite feeling.

I recently had a long conversation with another attorney. She is someone I respect and admire as a practitioner of law, but she is at the point where she she feels so burned out that it feels like a chore for her to go to work every day.

This made me feel a little sad. Here I am with a renewed sense of existence as a legal professional and this other attorney is feeling disdain for her own profession that she worked so hard to become.

Solos who are burnt out are physically and emotionally exhausted. This exhaustion causes them to lose the drive or passion that they used to have about their work.

Surprisingly, I’m seeing this in very experienced attorneys who have very successful practices. Its very unnerving.

Is this my future? How can I stop this from happening to me? This made me ask other solos about their experiences with burnout.

Why Solos Burn Out

1.  The Job.

Being an attorney is inherently stressful. The stakes are high since our clients life, family, or money is on the line.

People that become lawyers are typically overachievers and we put pressure on ourselves for perfection.

In addition to the pressure we put on ourselves, we have to meet endless deadlines, billable hours, and deal with emotional people. It’s a constant struggle to even find a moment of peace because there is so much coming at you at once.  

2.  Stress and Anxiety.

I’ve written many times about the stress and anxiety that comes with being a solo.

Balancing running a business with practicing law, along with other life obligations, is the definition of stress.

Not to mention the constant worrying about money and the difficulty of not thinking about work 24 hours a day.

You sometimes get the feeling of the weight of the world on your shoulders that can manifest itself in many ways.

3.  Compassion Fatigue. defines compassion fatigue as the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.”

Basically, you feel extreme stress or indifference to the people you are trying to help. This frequently happens to attorneys who represent victims of domestic violence or children.

When you work in law, especially in business-to-consumer practice areas, you constantly hear about the person’s rough times. It’s great to have compassion, but there is a little to how much turmoil one can hear before it begins affecting them.

You can find yourself lying awake late at night thinking about your clients’ troubles.

4.  Poor Time Management and Failure to Properly Delegate.

Solos have a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to get it all done.

It can feel incredibly necessary as a solo to “do it all.” This leads to poor planning and the feeling of being rushed.

Some solos I know find it necessary to stand strong in the “solo attorney” title when in reality it isn’t doing them any good and causes them to always feel pressed for time.

How I avoid burning out.

While I have felt stressed at times in my practice, I do not necessarily feel I have experienced a burnout just yet.

The most popular advice I received about avoiding burnout was to  delegate, manage your time well and to take regular “unplugged” vacations.

In addition to that, I have also been told to start my day by doing something that makes you feel in control and centered, such as running, meditation or yoga. Not only are these ways to make you feel in control, they also greatly impact your health and are much better ways to cope with stress.

I don’t know if I’ll ever burnout but I can see how it could happen. I believe being aware of what to look out for and ways to avoid it will protect me from going down that path.

How do you prevent solo attorney burnout or have you experienced it already? Comment below and give us your thoughts!

About Joleena Louis

Joleena Louis is a matrimonial and family law attorney at Joleena Louis Law, a firm she founded after leaving a boutique matrimonial firm in Brooklyn. Joleena is a client in Law Firm Suites’ Financial District location. Her weekly blog series Things I Wish I Knew... explores her thought process and experiences in her transition from small law firm employee to successful solo practice entrepreneur. Follow Joleena on Twitter.

11 thoughts on “Solo Attorney Burnout: A Real Problem In The Legal World

  1. First, I recommend reading books that give you perspective on meaningfulness, compassion, habits, living in the now, etc. You basically focus on HOW you do your work. It’s more about time awareness, not just time management. Second, I teach the skill of “pivoting” to help people move beyond getting too drilled down in one issue. Finally, my favorite quote: General Eisenhower once was asked how he handled all the stress of WW2. He simply respond “one day at a time”.

  2. Dear joleena,
    It’s indeed was a great article. I feel the same stress and that’s the reason of me being too emotional with the clients resulted to firing me from the law firm . I feel being a lawyer is not an easy task, when the clients are in good position of the case, they will bestow you but on the other hand when they are in a worse situation they will blame you upon your incapability. However, that’s why corporate jobs in legal arena is much more comfortable but you have the mullahs getting constrained. I am in such a position to change my career to any other option rather than being a lawyer? What is your view point in these scenarios?

  3. The burnout is real… Sometimes it happens when you don’t predict it. The solo practitioner life is not easy. I inherited a solo practitioner family practice but currently on the look out for another attorney. I want to be over this life. It isn’t easy. Sometimes deadlines creep up on you because of the injection of new work or because you change your litigation strategy as the case develops.

    What I find that helps is:
    1) DELEGATION. I have tried to do it all until I didn’t know what weekends were any more. The trick is to delegate. BUT you have to delegate to someone who is competent and whom you can trust and rely on. If not, you are likely creating more work for yourself than if you had just done it all yourself. What I do now even more is to train my clerical staff. They are able to draft certain affidavits, basic purchase and sale agreements, acknowledgment letters, company formation and pre-action letters because I settled excellent precedents. I also find that giving them more responsibility creates loyalty as they feel more appreciated and challenged. So while I agree that delegation is the key you must also delegate to competent individuals or ensure that you play a part in their competency so that they become team players you can rely on.
    I was reminded of the importance of this just this week. I was away in London for a matter and clients who I had done some work for flew in while I was out and my clerk was able to competently draft the necessary papers for filing. I merely had to review the documents while I was in London (and I literally only had time to review) and instruct them to file.

    2) Creating bonds with other sole practitioners. I am a friendly guy I like to think. I get along well with most people. Recently I have been focusing more on my bond with sole practitioners and it has worked out for me in so many ways. Sometimes you fall sick and you need someone to cover for you at a hearing. Who better to understand this than another sole practitioner. We trade favours in this way. Sometimes someone wants to get away for a long weekend so I do a hearing for them or take instructions for them from one of their clients. Or when the workload gets too much, I would invariably pass off files to another sole practitioner and I get the same in return. I believe there is great value in sticking together. Also, I have a pretty expensive library for a sole practitioner firm. However, sometimes I may not have a text and would need to access another sole practitioner’s database. It’s all very useful I find.

    3)Mini-vacations – You are really right about this. I try to take several mini vacations. Even if it just the weekend. If I have a long weekend coming up, unless I have filing deadlines, I usually fly out. It helps! It’s hard to stay unconnected from work when you travel but at least you are in a different setting when you do have to connect. Sometimes, I simply work two days at home. I find that this helps a lot because the phone is not ringing and no other distractions. It’s not really a mini-vacation but I am always amazed at the work I get done when I work from home.

    4) timetabling and planning. Since October, I started earmarking fridays for office stuff: billings, working on company website (hoping to launch soon), inventory, etc. Because sometimes as solo practitioners we tend to forget that there is a business side to law other than just the legal work. I have ignored the business side (promotion etc) for a very long time. Earmarking fridays for this has seen dramatic improvement on completion of business goals.

    5) If you can’t handle more work, don’t take it. Simple. Also, every client thinks their work is always urgent and they will likely come to you at the very last minute with a problem they knew about for weeks. If they are not willing to pay for what they say is urgent, don’t take it. I find that taking on last minute work at rates that do not adequately compensate for the rise in stress levels is not worth it. If I am to take last minute work when I have a seriously full plate I have to be convinced that there is a financial worth to be had and better, a long time client to be gained.

    • Great tips, Kerith! Especially creating bonds with other solos. In addition to the points you mentioned, it’s also great to have people who understand what you are going through to talk to. sometimes it helps to learn that you’re not the only one dealing with a certain issue.

      Delegation is what I struggle with the most. It’s difficult for me to let go of control and trust others to help me. It seems like you have that under control.

      • Kerith Kentish
        on said:

        Thanks, Joleena!

        Delegation is always a struggle because we have our own ways of doing things especially when it comes to something like drafting of submissions. It was also very difficult for me to do in the past buy when I started observing other solo practitioners in court and I read judgments that they were involved in you get a sense of their work ethic and their ability to competently complete the task. There is always the feeling of needing to hold on. You learn to manage it some. But it doesn’t go away. I like this forum! Hooray!

  4. Pingback: The Ultimate Guide to Legal Outsourcing for Solos - Casetext Insights

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