The burnout profession? Why City law culture needs to change

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By Charlene Gisele on

Ex-corporate lawyer Charlene Gisele reflects on her own mental health struggles while offering her top tips to prevent work-related exhaustion before it starts

Charlene Gisele is a former litigation lawyer turned corporate wellness and burnout advisor for law firms. In this article, she explains why what she describes as “stick it out or burnout” culture within law firms must change.

Law: The burnout profession?

The health issues that lawyers face are neither new nor unique to them, but what is unique is the frequency and susceptibility.

Work ‘hard’ culture — via any means necessary — is deeply embedded in the industry. Lawyers, from trainees to partners, see their peers pulling all-nighters and working around the clock, which allows this unhealthy working culture to breed. Looking after physical and mental health is put on the back burner, until something really bad happens — most of my clients only come to me after what I call a ‘significant event’ or ‘health scare’ catalyst — be it their own or their colleagues, for example, signing off for stress, burnout, a type two diabetes diagnosis.

Law is intrinsically competitive, and often, adversarial. In litigation and transaction proceedings, lawyers have to ‘fight’ each other, not only for their clients, but to safeguard their own professional prestige. There is always one winner, and every lawyer wants to be that one. As a result, this culture is reaffirmed.

Another reason lawyers can be particularly susceptible to burnout is vicarious trauma: this is an indirect experience of trauma and distress. I remember how emotionally invested I became in some of my clients’ cases. What affected them affected me. It’s impossible to be 100% detached from all cases, lawyers aren’t robots. Over time, this emotional investment can start to take its toll and really wear lawyers down.

The profession’s ‘fix-it’ attitude and obsession with self-sufficiency also means that unfortunately, most are less inclined to seek help, so many end up in disastrous consequences later on. There are also well-grounded fears of being considered ‘unfit for practice’ that prevents lawyers from seeking much-needed help. This needs to change urgently.

How I burned out

My burnout didn’t happen overnight. It was the cumulative effects of many years of sleep deprivation, high stress combined with an ambition that was admittedly excessive. Being a lawyer was what I wanted to do for as long as I can remember, so I was willing to work as hard as I had to.

Being part of a prestigious law firm was thrilling and there was a lot of reward that came with it. There was a strong sense of needing to race to the top of the ladder and I got a high from it, I just didn’t realise the cost it was having on my mental health and physical wellbeing i.e. I experienced insomnia, very anxious states, panic attacks, chronic lower back pain, and exhaustion, and it was having a huge impact on whatever was left of my social and personal life (not very much).

How you can avoid burning out

Setting and communicating boundaries with team leaders as a burnout prevention measure is daunting. On one hand, you have likely worked very hard to get your foot in the door and you want to keep progressing. However, the pursuit of excellence and the need to impress with a ‘yes’ at every turn, particularly among trainees and junior lawyers, can be a double-edge sword.

Taking on this extra responsibility in the short term can seem manageable, but working extra hours can become habitual due to cultural inertia; it becomes normal to skip lunch, function on minimal sleep and frequently cancel social plans due to work demands.

In the long run, this becomes a pattern of behaviour that can lead to burnout, because demands you put on yourself, and that are put on you by your work, start to outpace your ability to recover. This is a slippery slope that can begin to erode the joy out of your career.

So, set your boundaries — it is, after all, a vital part of business and negotiation, and it’s what makes a successful lawyer. Make a case for an outcome that is as close to your desired outcome (boundaries) as possible. It is amazing how many lawyers are exceptional at fighting for the cases of their clients, but poor at fighting for their own cases.

Learning how to set boundaries at work might take some practice but establishing them early in your career will really help you avoid burnout and more uncomfortable situations down the road. Below are some of the techniques I help to implement among lawyers that should serve you well too.

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1. Food and exercise can have a significant impact on thriving or burning out. Do take advantage of the lunch break you are entitled to and go on a walk. Recruit a fellow colleague if you can instead of sitting at the cafeteria or desk. If you prefer, make it a silent walk (no podcasts or music) as a way to “get out of your head’ and release any accumulated tension and stress that has been building up.

2. Set boundaries at home too. Your home is your sanctuary, and while it can be difficult to leave work at work, given we now work a lot from home, it’s essential to build habits that separate work and life. This can be done by simply tidying up your desk and stowing all work-related items out of sight and making sure all alerts are silenced — this will mentally allow you to shut away work and effectively decompress so you can enjoy your evening.

3. During stressful times, it’s so important to reach out for help. If asking for assistance feels difficult, consider developing a self-care check-in with close friends and family members so that you can take care of each other during trying times. If family members and friends show signs of concern — do listen and take notice of the red flags they see, as it’s easier to see when looking from the outside than when being in it.

4. Plan and rehearse boundary setting. You must first define what your boundaries are, the line you won’t cross or allow others to infringe. Write them own and review periodically. It’s a powerful method to help you internalise them, so when faced with a trying situation, you know what to say or how to respond.

5. Making cultural changes is not impossible, and just because the industry places a lot of pressure on you, and expects you to perform, is not an excuse for burnout culture. There are many high pressure, high performing industries that are starting to implement “work smarter not harder” cultures. Ray Dalio is one man who has been pioneering this with his principles of radical truth and transparency. It helped him to create a respectful culture that allows the best ideas to win, and win they did with these principles in place. Ray Dalio grew his company to be the largest hedge fund in the world.

Charlene Gisele is a former corporate lawyer at Jones Day and White & Case. She is a corporate wellness and burnout prevention consultant.

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