Have you ever felt ineffective and burnt out? It can be difficult for anyone, and lawyers especially, to wrap our minds around the difference between burnout and stress. And it can be incredibly tricky to find a solution to either when we receive so much praise for how much stress and work we can take on. It is our job to take on part of the clients’ burden.
Let’s discuss how to frame the job of being a lawyer in a positive manner so that you can stay effective.
In this episode we discussed:
- The differences between burnout versus stress.
- Some of the ways to deal with and avoid burnout.
- How to deal with those feelings of being ineffective.
- Seeking structure around your work allowing you to reclaim a sense of control.
- How setting a schedule can help to avoid burnout.
Allison Williams: [00:00:05] Hi, everybody, it’s Allison Williams here, your host of The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast, Law Firm Mentor is a business coaching service for solo and small law firm attorneys. We help you to grow your revenues, crush chaos in business and make more money.
Allison Williams: [00:00:30] Welcome to another episode of The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast, where this week we’re going to be talking about burnout. Now, I know a lot of you have heard mental health professionals talk about the importance of avoiding burnout, but I think for lawyers in particular, it’s a real challenge for us to wrap our mind around the idea of burnout versus stress and some of the ways to actually deal with burnout because there is so much praise that I think we receive as lawyers for being able to handle inordinate amounts of stress. In fact, what are we taught to say to a potential new client or a new client that started to work with us, their problems are now ours, right? We’re taking on their load. We are helping them with the ability to unearth themselves of whatever stress they were dealing with, and now that becomes ours. But of course, the challenge is that even if we are helping other people to deal with their life circumstances, if we don’t have a positive frame around how we personally deal with the stress of the circumstances of the matter, right, of being a lawyer, of managing the volume, of looking at the sorts of things that our, our work challenges present for us, we oftentimes can become far less effective. Right?
Allison Williams: [00:02:06] We, we are not our best selves when we are simply taking in and stuffing down the stress of other people’s life circumstances and the stress of having to balance all of those problems while being within a law firm environment and in particular one that we own and one that has our livelihood, our reputation and our ability to sustain a practice, our license wrapped up in it.
Allison Williams: [00:02:34] So the first thing I want to talk about today is the differentiation between stress and burnout. And then we’re going to talk about some very concrete ways that you can address burnout so that you can avoid it as well as deal with it once it is here. Ok. So the first thing I think is important for us to do is to differentiate what is stress versus what is burnout, Ok? Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain retention that results from adverse or very demanding circumstances. Ok, now I think we all can conceptualize what is stress. But the one thing that I don’t think we think about often is the fact that stress tends to be short-lived, episodic, and event-based. So something happens, there is a tense moment with a client, there is a pressure that arises from a deadline, there is an interaction or difficult conversation you have to have with a member on your team, right? These events, these moments cause stress, but stress can be alleviated, right? Stress is something that it comes with a circumstance and whether that circumstance evolves and or dissipates or our ability to handle the circumstance becomes stronger as the events unfold. We ultimately move past that moment, and stress is something that goes away, or at least stress associated with that particular circumstance goes away. Right. We know as lawyers stress can come and go, and come and go, and come and go by virtue of how we run our practices and how our cases impact us. But once we understand that stress can be and is short-lived, episodic, and event-based, the next thing we have to do is think about burnout.
Allison Williams: [00:04:28] Now, burnout is something more and something characteristically different than stress. Burnout is the dread that comes about work. It’s the frequent anger, cynicism, irritability feeling like you can’t be effective, right? It’s prolonged stress. It oftentimes comes with compassion fatigue, right? Where you just don’t care anymore about others. You don’t care about their life circumstances, you don’t have the same passion for your clients, you’re numb to the suffering of others, and there could be even feelings of hopelessness. And a lot of people will say that burnout is a symptom of depression, but I think a, a more fine-tuned, nuanced understanding of that is that they oftentimes go hand in hand. Typically, when you are in a state of burnout on your life circumstances, you can then experience depression because you are having perceptive thoughts about the circumstances that led you to burnout. Right? So the feeling of lacking the passion for your work and not feeling compassion for others, those independent characteristics of burnout can be also independent characteristics of depression, but they don’t always have to go hand in hand. Right. So you can have the experience of being of having burnout, but not be in a state of depression and similarly, you can have depression without being in a state of burnout.
Allison Williams: [00:06:00] I think it’s important that we understand that burnout is this prolonged experience, but it doesn’t have to be prolonged stress. So in other words, you can have dread about work, even though there is no stressor. It’s almost like the idea that stress is endemic to and characterological in your law practice becomes something that you independently have negative thoughts about. You dread going to work because you expect there will be a stressful event there. Whether or not a stressful event is actually there or not, right? You have compassion fatigue. You don’t feel a sense of caring, compassion, empathy, concern for your clients. You are indifferent to their suffering and that rises up as a result of you having this feeling of burnout. However, you can have that at the same time as there’s no immediate stressor from a client, right? So a client, I’ll give you a perfect example.
Allison Williams: [00:07:04] I knew that I was experiencing burnout in my law practice many years ago when a client called me and we had a scheduled call, but she called me and we ended up talking about pick up and drop off. I’m a family law attorney, pick up and drop off of her child and where the location was going to be. And I handled the matter and spoke with the client, but I remember getting off the phone and thinking, who gives a shit? And that was a very unfeeling, unkind thought that I had. But it was very challenging for me in that moment to actually put myself into the energy of, of recognizing that this was for this client, one of the most stressful things in the world for her, right? She was for the first time handing her child over to someone she didn’t trust, someone she didn’t feel was going to take good care of her child, someone that she felt was going to potentially harm her child out of retaliation at her for leaving the relationship and it was court-ordered so she didn’t have a choice in that it was something that she opposed and lost. So for this person, this was a very challenging moment, and that would normally trigger in me the instinct to feel empathy for her. But at the point in time where I had reached burnout in my career, my thoughts were, I don’t care, right? I have to deal with this, it’s frustrating that I have to deal with it. It’s taking up my time and energy. It was completely all about me in that moment and not about her. And that’s when I realized among a variety of other things that were going on at the time that there was that compassion fatigue that is a sign of burnout.
Allison Williams: [00:08:46] Now, one of the things that we’re going to talk about when we come back from our commercial break is how to deal with burnout, but it’s really important that we start with a frame of reference to understand burnout is not stress, and burnout is not something that goes away without intentional strategic activity. In other words, stress can be something that goes away, right? You can end a case that causes you stress. Even though the best way to handle stress as the same best way to handle burnout is managing your mind, managing your thoughts, right? When you do that work, and the things that you previously had a negative experience of no longer cause you to have those negative thoughts, no longer cause you negative feelings, and no longer impact the way that you choose to deal with things. You actually are freed from stress, and when you are freed from stress, it is far less likely that you are going to experience burnout. However, understanding conceptually that stressors can go away and burnout is a prolonged experience is something that you need to understand so that you can ultimately employ the right strategies to address it.
Allison Williams: [00:09:55] All right. When we come back, we’re going to be talking about exactly how to do just that.
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Michele Rayner-Goolsby: [00:10:22] Hi, my name is Michele Rayner-Goolsby and my firm is Civil Liberty Law. I think a lot of times that we’re so insular and where you think, Well, I’m just the only one that’s messing up. I’m the only one that doesn’t get it. But being able to sit with people who are equally as successful and they’re able to talk through some of the same issues and then having Allison, who has walked through much of the same issues that we’re dealing with, is also really helpful.
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Allison Williams: [00:11:24] All right, welcome back. And now we’re going to dive into how to address burnout. So there’s some very specific things I want you to do in terms of how to deal with that feeling of dread, that, that anger, that cynicism, that irritability, those feelings that you can’t be effective, that hopelessness that sets in when you have had a negative experience for separated and not addressed in your law firm. So the first thing I want you to do is to seek structure around your work. Structure around work gives us a level of freedom of time to devote ourselves to important thought work. Ok, structure around work means that it allows us to reclaim a sense of control around our work. One of the things that leads to a feeling of burnout, that feeling that we can’t be effective, that feeling that we’re, we’re cynical and we’re irritable is feeling like we’re in a constant state of being yanked by 5000 different hands. Right. Clients want us, judges want us, adversaries want us, bills want us, employees want us. We feel like we are the never-ending, the never-ending piece on the other end of a difficult conversation, right. There’s it’s challenge after challenge, after challenge, we’re just kind of pummeled.
Allison Williams: [00:12:52] I think about it like when I went to Barbados, this was a few years back and I was vacationing there and I went into the water with my glasses on, very, very stupid choice. But hey, that moment, moment in time has happened, I’ve learned from it. But I remember being knocked down by the waves, the water was very rough and I was standing on the shore and just kind of, you know, stepped into the water and all of a sudden it got really deep and the waves just kept knocking me over, and I remember I probably stood up and was knocked down six or seven times before I got my bearings and was able to kind of steady myself enough to stay standing. But by the time that happened, my glasses had been knocked into the ocean and I’ve been knocked down so many times that I don’t remember when exactly they were knocked off my face, but they obviously had been washed away by the time I realized it, right? That feeling of being completely out of control. There was a helplessness that really made it challenging for me. Now, luckily, I’m an expert swimmer and I wasn’t so much concerned about I’m going to drown. But the fact that I wanted to stand up and I couldn’t in that moment was really frustrating.
Allison Williams: [00:14:05] I want you to think about that as the experience a lot of you will have with burnout, right? It’s kind of like, I have no choice but to answer this client, I have no choice but to pay this bill, I have no choice but to answer my secretary, I have no choice but to deal with this adversary, and it feels like a never-ending cycle of relentless obligations. The way that you can give yourself ease from that experience is to put structure around your work with everyone, OK? You own your business, you own your destiny. You can say when you’re going to start work and when you’re going to stop work, you can reorder your activities so that you are more efficient during your work hours. You can say when you will take calls from clients, and when you will take calls from adversaries, and when you will be available to courts.
Allison Williams: [00:14:05] Now, I know in some jurisdictions you have a lot less control over when you will be available to a court. But some people, some lawyers, don’t even try telling a judge they’re not going to be available. They just accept that they are the proverbial bitch and they can be directed and commanded anywhere at any time for any reason. But I want you to really think about whether or not that’s true. And ask yourself, how can you reclaim some of the power over your schedule? Because when you put structure around your work, the feeling of control that comes with that, oftentimes is the antidote to that dread of feeling like you never have any say in your day-to-day experience. That is one of the things that starts to empower you to feel more in control of work, which tends to help with feelings of burnout.
Allison Williams: [00:15:40] All right. Number two. To address burnout, I want you to set a schedule, OK, instead of the limitless work. That you are experiencing I want you to limit the amount that you are going to take and when you have more than you can take, it is time for you to hire help. Now, for a lot of you, there’s resistance around that thought because you say, Hey, I don’t have an endless pool of money here, and if I stop working like a slave, I won’t have an endless pool of money. Well, that thought inherently is problematic, because if you orchestrate your hire the correct way, every time you hire someone, you should make more money, every time. Whether that person frees you up to do work that is billable at a higher rate or that processes your legal work at a higher efficiency rate, or that allows you to turn cases your contingency cases faster, or the person themselves will be doing that legal work.
Allison Williams: [00:16:44] Every time you hire somebody, they should be producing in your business to afford not only what you pay them, but a margin of profit on top of it. So you have to think about the idea that a lot of lawyers will just work harder, and harder, and harder, and saying, Oh my God, I have all this work. And so they work harder to get the work done. But that actually is less effective because you’re burning yourself out. And if somebody else was hired to do the work that person could be juicing, could be producing revenue while you are doing something else.
Allison Williams: [00:17:17] All right, strategy number three to address burnout. Deal with people, not work. Ok, now this is a critically important one. What I mean when I say deal with people and not work is that you have to recognize that for a lot of people, I’d say the vast majority of people, when they are experiencing issues of burnout, it is almost always associated with a person, right? They feel frustrated by the clients that they’re working with. They feel frustrated by the experience that they’re having with adverse attorneys. They feel frustrated by the fact that they are not able to get ahead financially in their business, right? All of those are people problems, right.
[00:18:01] In the first instance, you don’t like the clients you’re dealing with. Go get different clients, right? You’re the one who puts out the message that attracts the clients that come to you. What are you putting out? What is the message that you’re communicating? How are you communicating it to draw in the people that you are drawing in? When in the second instance, you don’t like the adverse attorneys you’re dealing with. Well, perhaps you have less control over who they are, but you always have control over how you respond to them, how you engage with them. There are some people that at one point in time, in my practice, I refuse to get on the phone with and I don’t care that they would call the office and throw a tantrum and say she’s not getting on the phone with me. I literally would write a letter and I would say, based on how you behaved in the past, I don’t intend to get on the phone with you. If you would like to communicate with me, please feel free to send me correspondence. All right. I need to keep a record because I can’t trust what you’ve said in the past. Whatever the reason is, nothing compels you to get on a telephone call. Right? And when you recognize that it is the person and their behavior that’s causing you a certain feeling, you also have the ability to think about what they are saying and doing and ask yourself why it bothers you. Why does it bother you that this 60-year-old man is talking down to you or condescending to you as a thirty-five year old woman? Are you perceiving some great injustice by this person’s behavior? Why is that? Why do you care that this person is, in your view sexist, or that this person is ageist, or that this person is regionalist, i.e. that you are from a different part of the country originally that maybe you have an accent that they feel is less than. Find why does this person looking down on you bother you? Why are you letting their belief system invade your time, invade your space and invade your peace? Think about that.
Allison Williams: [00:19:58] And the last instance when we’re talking about. When we’re talking about the type of work that’s coming in, right, we talked about the, the people problem of the marketing, we talked about the people problem of the adverse attorney, the last one. You know, the people problem is you. If you are at a place in your business where you’re not structuring your time appropriately, when you’re not managing your emotions, when you don’t feel that you can ultimately effectuate change in the business and you feel somewhat victimized, you have the ability to change your thoughts, your actions and the way that you conduct yourself in your business. I know that that sounds like a blaming, but I want you to hear it as empowering. What we’re ultimately saying to you is that you have the ability to make different choices for how you engage with people.
Allison Williams: [00:20:56] And if something doesn’t ultimately serve you, you can choose to not have that in your life anymore. But so often we look at the work of I’ve got to do X, Y, and Z as having some level of control over us because we’re not willing to accept that we chose those clients, chose those cases, chose that type of case, chose that type of law, chose that type of activity, chose to engage with the attorney on the other side the way we did, chose to have the employees that we chose. When you recognize that all of your problems in business really derive from you at the epicenter, you recognize that you have a lot more power to get to happy than you realize you do, right? And some of that irritability that comes with feeling victimized is something that you can choose to release when you ultimately recognize how much power you actually do have that you’re just not tapping into yet.
Allison Williams: [00:21:54] All right, the fourth and final way that you can address burnout. Really, this is the end, but it’s also the beginning. It’s about work, right? If you manage your emotions, when you recognize that the thoughts that you are choosing to think are causing the feelings that you feel are inevitable. If you were to make a different choice of thought, you would have a different feeling. Burnout is a feeling, right? It leads to a separatist thought, so it’s kind of like a thought loop, right? We have negative feelings about things like our work, the people in our work, the clients that we’re working with, the pressures of the deadlines we have that dread that comes.
Allison Williams: [00:22:37] And then, as a result, the feelings that stem from that include anger and cynicism and being ineffective, feeling hopeless, right? Those feelings come from how we are thinking about our work. If you were to choose instead of saying, Oh my God, I have so many things to do, I’m never going to get through this to-do list a feeling that leads to hopelessness or a thought that leads to a feeling of hopelessness. If instead, you were to say, Oh my God, I have so much work to do, it’s time for me to hire somebody. And now I can instantaneously get my work back and make more profits. I can grow, I can create jobs, I can create opportunities, I can create space, I can give myself the freedom of being able to actually own a business and not a job because I can take time away from my business to actually enjoy my life and still be able to support myself and my family. When you give yourself that thought, the feelings that come from that are a sense of empowerment, a sense of freedom, a sense of joy, a sense of excitement, right? You don’t have to be stuck with the emotions that are negative, that flow from the thoughts. If you don’t like the way that you feel, change your thoughts. You can have a much better feeling.
Allison Williams: [00:23:56] All right, everyone. This is Allison Williams, your Law Firm Mentor. And we have been talking about burnout in your law firm. Now, if you are experiencing burnout in your law firm, I want you to know that you’re not alone. Most small law firm attorneys are going to at some point in time, express and share the sentiment that they have felt and are feeling burnout. It is not uncommon at all, but you have to recognize, however, is that there are some very key strategies on how to reframe the way that you are looking at your business, and when you do that, you can have a much better experience of owning a business as you are on your growth journey to growing a law firm that can run without you.
Allison Williams: [00:24:35] All right, everyone. I’m Allison Williams your Law Firm Mentor, you’re listening to The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast. I’ll see you on the next episode.
Allison Williams: [00:24:51] Thank you for tuning in to The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast to learn more about today’s show and take advantage of the resources mentioned. Check out our show notes. And if you enjoy today’s episode, take a moment to follow the podcast wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating and review. This helps us to reach even more law firm owners from around the country who want to crush chaos in business and make more money. I’m Allison Williams your Law Firm Mentor, everyone. Have a great day!
Allison C. Williams, Esq., is the Founder and Owner of the Williams Law Group, LLC, with offices in Short Hills and Freehold, New Jersey. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, is Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Law Attorney, and is the first attorney in New Jersey to become Board-Certified by the National Board of Trial Advocacy in the field of Family Law.
Ms. Williams is an accomplished businesswoman. In 2017, the Williams Law Group won the LawFirm500 award, ranking 14th of the fastest-growing law firms in the nation, as Ms. Williams grew the firm 581% in three years. Ms. Williams won the Silver Stevie Award for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in 2017. In 2018, Ms. Williams was voted as NJBIZ’s Top 50 Women in Business and was designated one of the Top 25 Leading Women Entrepreneurs and Business Owners. In 2019, Ms. Williams won the Seminole 100 Award for founding one of the fastest-growing companies among graduates of Florida State University.
In 2018, Ms. Williams created Law Firm Mentor, a business coaching service for lawyers. She helps solo and small law firm attorneys grow their business revenues, crush chaos in business and make more money. Through multi-day intensive business retreats, group and one-to-one coaching, and strategic planning sessions, Ms. Williams advises lawyers on all aspects of creating, sustaining, and scaling a law firm business – and specifically, she teaches them the core foundational principles of marketing, sales, personnel management, communications, and money management in law firms.
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My Favorite Excerpt From The Episode:
TIME: 00:07:04 (32 Seconds)
I knew that I was experiencing burnout in my law practice many years ago when a client called me and we had a scheduled call, but she called me and we ended up talking about pick up and drop off. I’m a family law attorney, pick up and drop off of her child and where the location was going to be. And I handled the matter and spoke with the client, but I remember getting off the phone and thinking, who gives a shit? And that was a very unfeeling, unkind thought that I had.