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Burnout in the profession

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Hey all,

 

So I've been suffering from some pretty severe burnout. And that's just really not healthy, considering I'm still in school, and by the words of lawyers on here and elsewhere, practice seems to be worse. Mind you, I'm fairly involved, so "law school" takes up about half my time, and the rest other involvements. Still, I'm worried about what's to come. 

After first year, I realized the strategy of devoting myself to law school (and ECs) and putting hobbies on the side wasn't sustainable, so I brought back my hobbies. I kept up with my music, my sports, general fitness, spending at least some weekends completely off (as in, a 2 day weekend off every few weeks or so). 

In third year now, on a 3.5 or four year track (which I'm realizing is just too long, and I'm somewhat regretting McGill at this point, but I won't get into that), and I'm frankly worried. Even though I brought back my hobbies (and really, I'm happy I did) it really feels I'm not putting in enough into them, because I just don't have the time. I don't want to burn out of the profession, because I really do like it, from the academics, and the practical work experience I've gotten during my summers this far. But I need to find a way to make it sustainable.

How did you guys deal with burnout in school? In practice? Words of advice? Should I just forget it and go hide from my debt in the Cayman islands? 

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I have nothing to add other than, as a third year, I often feel the exact same way. The thought of articling terrifies me and as it approaches I get more and more worried about burnout and losing my love for the law.  

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I'm sorry you're experiencing this, but know that you are by no means alone.

Physical activity is crucial. During law school, I made sure that I went to the gym 3-5 times a week, regardless of how busy things got. Sure, I find this hard to keep up during articling, but I still try to (and often do) get to the gym 3 times a week, at a minimum, even if only for a quick 30 minute workout.

Talking to other students/colleagues helps, too, even if it's just to vent; if you're going through this, chances are that someone you know has, is, or will go through something similar. On the other hand, sometimes it is more helpful to talk to people who aren't in law school. Talk to your parents and non-law friends and make a point of socializing outside of law school. Doing so will, I think, give you some perspective and make you realize that your concerns/problems aren't nearly as significant/dire as you think they are.

I may be reading into what you've written, but it sounds to me like you are putting too much pressure on yourself. It's just law school. Sometimes I found it helpful to take a step back and forget about my crushing student debt/grades/finding a job, at least for a little while. I know that this is easier said than done, but try to focus on what you enjoy about the study of law rather than the stressors in your life.

This one may or may not apply to you, but try cutting back on your caffeine and alcohol intake. I routinely took -- and still take -- breaks (usually about a month or so in duration) from caffeine and alcohol. You might be surprised at how much more relaxed/focused you become.

Finally, consider talking to a professional therapist. Your university should have some sort of crisis/counselling support clinic, but you can also talk to your family doctor. Don't be afraid to make use of mental health resources.

Edited by Rearden
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Hey, it is a marathon.

Six months feels like a pivotal everything right now because the Life Changing Decisions have been coming at you fast and furious. No wonder you feel fatigued. Totally normal response to consistent high stress atmosphere. 

I am betting the fatigue is from uncertainty. If you had a ten year map of your life ahead of you right this moment with fixed A to B to C planning, you would feel a million times better. Calmer. Settled. Focused.

But you don’t have that map so you don’t know so you can’t relax. Totally normal and reasonable reaction. 

The one thing the profession does do reasonably well, once you are hired somewhere, is give you more consistency  and long term planning goals than law school. So once you start work - once it is the *work* that is the source of your stress - you might find it much easier to manage. I certainly did. 

Hang in there.

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Burnout is very real and it’s great that you’re thinking about it before it happens. 

For me, a week away somewhere hot does the trick every time. Even if I bring a laptop and stay connected, just being away does wonders. 

Perspective is important. I once thought I was burning out and went to a burn out conference. For a short period of time I was procrastinating with work, using alcohol or substances almost daily after work, and wanting to quit law. After hearing stories of what a real burnout is I realized I was a 5/10 on the burnout scale. Burnout can be very serious if ignored. People can cry in their offices at the start and end of each day, get suicidal, hate their clients, lose their friends, drink during work hours etc. Just try to stay ahead of it.

Edited by TrialPrep
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Thank you everyone. That's all helpful advice, and I'll try to implement more of that. Caffeine is both my savior and monster, so I will cut down on it. I've been good with my excercise compared to first year, but I'll be more dilligent and get more time in. I feel like I need to give myself an "off" hour, in which case school can't creep in anymore, save for emergencies. Obviously with school this is more possible than practice (though students tend to make the smallest issues into Armageddon), so how do you all handle the needing to separate yourself from work?

Mind you, in my summers of work, I found it much easier to actually find separation between work life and personal life. Maybe it's the existence of an office, I don't know. 

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Since as you know I left FT practice I may not be the best advisor...but that said, one specific thing, I found organized competitive individual sports, not just fitness, to be a lot of fun and great stress relief while articling and practicing (and earlier, in law school). Especially since the sport I pursued involved hitting people (and being hit!), helped work out a lot of frustrations that way. And some weekends I would go to a tournament, that with travel only took one day out of the weekend (even if came back Sunday morning still had most of the day), but still felt like a real fun weekend despite being only one day, because I went somewhere and did something.

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I have yet to experience burnout - but from my colleagues and friends I know that it can happen very quickly (and sometimes seemingly come out of no where). 

For myself I think three things I have helped to keep my head above water. 

1. Make non-law friends and interact with them often. I happened to marry one of these people and honestly she's saved me many a time by offering perspective and putting my head in the right place. 

2. I watch TV - general rule is 1 hour a night. It just helps me to turn my brain off and escape. 

3. I read, at least 20 minutes before bed, non-law and non-science literature - usually fluff fiction. It helps me to unwind before bed.  

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I'm right there with you man, @Hegdis hit the nail on the head. Nothing is certain right now, everything is flip flopping and changing and there aren't any guarantees. In basically 3 months I could find myself in Ottawa, or in the GTA living and working, or moved back home with my parents and commuting, or without articles at all. That stress is tough to deal with because there's no planning your way out of it.

I find that getting out into nature is pretty essential for me and gives me some perspective. A walk or run through some trails or in a park or down by some water or whatever. I ski, so I try to get out and away for a day on the side of a hill when I can. 

Also, and this is something that I don't do enough, is having a community you go to where talking about law and law school is off the table. Hit that rock climbing or bouldering gym you've been interested in, or join a run club, or a DND group or something like that. Anywhere that you are pzabby the person rather than pzabby the law student. The place you go and bullshit about sports or people's kids and families or that new TV shows. 

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Thanks all :)

the uncertainty is a huge part of it. I could find myself in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, or Paris for who knows how long, with or without a job, and that's really getting to me. It doesn't help that I've written what seem like a hundred cover letters and interviewed what seems like 50 times and come up short still - especially because it takes so much of my time. 

But the non law suggestions are critical. I already have a gym but that's a solo routine. I think I'll join a boxing gym to let out some stress and get my heart rate properly up there more often.

I must say I'm really thankful for this community, and I'm glad I stayed around.

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I think you’ve had a lot going on between having a lot of extra-curricular, a lot of disappointments lately with moots, applications etc and a lot of options - maybe too many! Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Paris are all so different and it must be confusing trying to figure it out. In 1L, having a ton of options is exciting, but now it’s time to narrow things down I think, and focus/target your applications, which may feel more manageable and less stressful for you. 

In terms of not burning out in general, I agree that exercise, good nutrition, having fun with or venting to friends and family either nor in law or not in your practice area, non-law social/group activities, TV, reading, music etc are all great ways to manage stress. In terms of how to separate work from the rest of life, I struggle with that and am not sure how possible it is.  I found that easier to do in law school than in practice. When I have really needed to shut it down and go to sleep, a hot bath with some soothing oil, a massage from my guy, some relaxing music and some melatonin sometimes work. There are also medications that help with anxiety so you can calm down. 

 

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When I felt broken during law school one of the lifestyle changes that really helped me was to stop reading this forum

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8 hours ago, FFFamily said:

When I felt broken during law school one of the lifestyle changes that really helped me was to stop reading this forum

Are you feeling better now?

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1 hour ago, Luckycharm said:

Are you feeling better now?

Yeah, but I will probably leave again soon (esp since nobody will answer the question I came back to ask :().

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I finished McGill Law in 3 years instead of the 3.5 mostly for personal reasons, but I also because I felt I needed to be done with school. However, that was planned from the beginning and I took extra credits early. I was exhausted by the end of it. All of that to say that the 3.5 years (or 4) might look brutal now, but it is easier on yourself to do it this way, especially if you are feeling like you are on the edge of a burnout.

I have not personally suffered a burnout, but am feeling pretty much like you are. The best ways I have found to cope and get a semblance of life back is to set strict limits on myself. I have dialed back everything that I can and make sure I focus on doing things I enjoy (non-law related) during weekends. Does it mean my overall work productivity is declining right now? Yes, but it's better than to continue working full steam ahead to a burnout. I also make sure I keep a good life hygiene: regular physical activity, regular sleep schedule, healthy food, enforcement of personal time, no screen time before bed, etc. At the end of the day, only one person will look out for you and that's you. You need to put yourself first and find ways to improve your quality of life while also focusing on what your priorities are (probably finishing law school for you at this point).

I would suggest looking at all your commitments and see if you can drop some without too much of an impact. Also, you are at McGill, getting a B+, A- or A requires an awful lot of work for the extra points on your GPA as the bell curve is crazy. Sometimes it's ok to realize that you'll get B for a class and just put a bit less effort in trying to snatch that B+, A- or A.

Edited by marie
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Something that helped me was to compartmentalize different stressors and address them at specific times so that I wasnt stressing out about everything all at once.

For instance, that might mean focusing on law school from 8-5 (including reading and class time), worry about job searches from 5-6, exercise from 7-8 a few times per week, socialize only on the weekends (if you’re an introvert like me and social obligations burn you out). 

The point is to allow yourself to focus on one thing at a time and tackle one hurdle at a time so that you don’t feel quite so overwhelmed by all your commitments. And don’t feel guilty for engaging with things outside of law 

 I do thing Hedgis is right. A lot of your stress might be due to the uncertainty of this stage in your life. Which is okay. Recognize that that’s all this is. Just one, temporary stage that will pass 

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29 minutes ago, healthlaw said:

Something that helped me was to compartmentalize different stressors and address them at specific times so that I wasnt stressing out about everything all at once.

For instance, that might mean focusing on law school from 8-5 (including reading and class time), worry about job searches from 5-6, exercise from 7-8 a few times per week, socialize only on the weekends (if you’re an introvert like me and social obligations burn you out). 

The point is to allow yourself to focus on one thing at a time and tackle one hurdle at a time so that you don’t feel quite so overwhelmed by all your commitments. And don’t feel guilty for engaging with things outside of law 

 I do thing Hedgis is right. A lot of your stress might be due to the uncertainty of this stage in your life. Which is okay. Recognize that that’s all this is. Just one, temporary stage that will pass 

Compartmentalizing works for me too.

When I'm doing something, I give all of my attention to it and don't think about anything else. When I'm having dinner, I'm not thinking about work. If I'm at work, I'm not thinking about other stuff in my life. When I'm commuting to work, which is about 20 minutes, it's just me and my music. If my phone buzzes with an email or text, I'll let it wait (I won't even look at my phone).

Learning to shut off your brain in this way takes time and practice. You have to learn to let things go and trust that you can deal with them at the appropriate time.

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Burn out is real.

I don't have any tips for you OP. I am in my second year of call and am feeling it.  

For me it isn't the sheer number of hours that hurts. It's the stress. I could work 60+ hour weeks relatively easily if it was stress free (or at least had much less stress than I currently have). But in law you are always worrying that you did something wrong on a file. How it might prejudice the client. How it might lead to rage from a partner. For me, personally, it isn't sustainable and isn't worth the financial pay outs that even partnership could bring. And since you are on call 24/7, how can you even enjoy your time off that people are suggesting as a cure? You'll just be stressing in the back of your mind the entire time that urgent emails could fly in at any second to torpedo the "vacation" you finally splurged on with your partner as a reward for how hard you've been working. If I were out of town when my firm needed something urgently, that wouldn't go over well. 

I can't see myself lasting, but that of course can change on a dime - be it with a new firm, new practice area, simply getting better at managing it all with more experience (and being higher on the totem pole!), moving into a law adjacent gig, etc. Welcome to the uncertain and stress filled adventure that is life, OP. Embrace it. Do your best and forget the rest. That is perhaps my only advice and what keeps me sane. Things have a way of working out. We could be homeless with our stressors being where we are going to find shelter. Or in poor health worrying if we will ever be able to work again. Etc.

Edited by happydude
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48 minutes ago, happydude said:

Burn out is real.

I don't have any tips for you OP. I am in my second year of call and am feeling it.  

For me it isn't the sheer number of hours that hurts. It's the stress. I could work 60+ hour weeks relatively easily if it was stress free (or at least had much less stress than I currently have). But in law you are always worrying that you did something wrong on a file. How it might prejudice the client. How it might lead to rage from a partner. For me, personally, it isn't sustainable and isn't worth the financial pay outs that even partnership could bring. And since you are on call 24/7, how can you even enjoy your time off that people are suggesting as a cure? You'll just be stressing in the back of your mind the entire time that urgent emails could fly in at any second to torpedo the "vacation" you finally splurged on with your partner as a reward for how hard you've been working. If I were out of town when my firm needed something urgently, that wouldn't go over well. 

I can't see myself lasting, but that of course can change on a dime - be it with a new firm, new practice area, simply getting better at managing it all with more experience (and being higher on the totem pole!), moving into a law adjacent gig, etc. Welcome to the uncertain and stress filled adventure that is life, OP. Embrace it. Do your best and forget the rest. That is perhaps my only advice and what keeps me sane. Things have a way of working out. We could be homeless with our stressors being where we are going to find shelter. Or in poor health worrying if we will ever be able to work again. Etc.

Mindful meditation has actually helped me a lot with this. It doesn't work for everyone, it took quite a bit of practice, and it wouldn't alleviate the actual pressures on an associate. But after using one of those meditation apps for over a year, I'm way better at being in the moment than I used to be. It's not 100% of the time, but compared to how I once was, I'm now much better at being focused on work when I'm working, and being present when I'm not working. It has reduced my underlying level of anxiety substantially (and I used to have a pretty high level of anxiety -- as in diagnosed and medicated anxiety). 

Edited by realpseudonym
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