What Burned-Out Lawyers Need To Know: Signs Of Lawyer Burnout with Ilona Salmons [TFLP 123]

On the latest episode of the Former Lawyer podcast, I have Ilona Salmons back to continue our conversation about burned-out lawyers. 

We wanted to have this conversation because we know that burnout in lawyers is extremely prevalent and can be detrimental to your mental health if it’s not dealt with. 

In this article, we’ll cover signs of lawyer burnout, as well as the contributing factors that lead to burnout in lawyers, so you know what to look for and then a little information about how you can prevent it or at least make yourself less susceptible. Keep reading to learn more about burnout in lawyers. 

Burnout In Lawyers—What Is It?

The term burnout is used so commonly these days. It’s just one of those terms that made it into our daily language. Further, two burned-out lawyers could be having a completely different experience than the other.

Based on the research, burnout in lawyers is defined with three interrelated dimensions. It exists at the intersection of all three of these dimensions. The three dimensions are exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.

Exhaustion

Exhaustion is one of the ones that Ilona says burned-out lawyers report most often. It’s a feeling of being exhausted and depleted, both physically and emotionally.

You can be getting enough sleep, but you’re still tired all the time and can’t seem to get energized. 

Cynicism

Cynicism is the interpersonal dimension of lawyer burnout. This is a shift in the attitude toward the other people in your professional life, like coworkers or clients.

This is where burnout can get tricky. If you get to a point where you don’t care about your client at all, it could potentially have serious long-term or lifelong consequences for them.

Inefficacy

The third dimension of burnout in lawyers is inefficacy. That’s specific to the work product that you produce. It’s one you can actually measure it and potentially even get feedback from the people around you. 

It’s really in the inefficiency area, where if it becomes so problematic that it’s affecting your work, that’s the thing that often will get people’s attention.

Signs Of Burned-Out Lawyers 

The best way to think about the signs of lawyer burnout is to think of it in three specific categories. Ilona said that what is interesting is that all of her clients that are experiencing burnout report different things.

Her advice is to go to a medical professional if you’re having some of these things come up.

The human body is very fascinating. You can have a vitamin deficiency that might be causing some of these things or you could be burned out and it could be causing them.]

Psychological/Emotional Symptoms:

Emotional symptoms may look like losing all motivation or excitement in your work. Some other psychological symptoms of burnout in lawyers are things like worry or panic attacks. There are also just, feelings of sadness, feelings of depression, irritability, or having mood swings. 

These things, even crying, be normalized. But, these are not psychologically healthy or normal things. If you’re crying about work all of the time, that’s definitely a red flag. Read my article Your Job Shouldn’t Make You Cry to learn more about that. 

Physical Symptoms:

One of the biggest physical signs of lawyer burnout is sudden weight loss or weight gain. Also, developing any gastrointestinal issues like an ulcer, acid reflux, or other digestion issues. 

Reduced immunity is another big sign of burnout in lawyers. When your body is physically stressed out, all the core functions like immunity are suppressed, so your body can concentrate on survival. Also, any new or worsening health issues, including muscle tension or headaches. 

Behavioral Symptoms:

Behavioral symptoms are things we can observe where some of our behaviors and lives have changed. For instance, an increase in appetite, change in sleep patterns, developing insomnia. Then, there’s isolation from friends or family, even if you have spare time.

Some other things to look for are changes in cognitive functions. If you find yourself being more forgetful, having a difficult time concentrating, these are things to consider closely. 

Risk Factors For Lawyer Burnout

In a previous article, I discussed an article that Ilona had written about the signs of a toxic workplace that can lead to burnout in lawyers. To learn more about that, you can read the article or see Ilona’s original article. 

Research has found that when it comes to burnout in lawyers, environmental factors are the most influential. The highest environmental risk factors are the high work demand and lack of choice in their work.

Ilona said that the other risk factors for burnout in lawyers are:

  • Linking your identity to your job 
  • Toxic workplace culture
  • Lack of support
  • Poor boundaries

Sick Of Being A Burned-Out Lawyer? Seek Help!

If you’re going through burnout, it’s encouraged for you to seek help from a medical professional or a therapist like Ilona to address the situation,

A therapist can help you tease apart what your particular issues are, and help you find some targeted strategies. 

The strategy for burned-out lawyers is to come up with something, like a work-life balance that would be more sustainable in the long term rather than putting pressure on yourself to catch up to the person that you were before. 

Want Out Of Being A Lawyer? Join Us!

If you’re sick of experiencing lawyer burnout, and you just want out, I highly recommend watching my free masterclass, The Simple 5-Step Framework To Identify An Alternative Career (That You Actually Like!)? 

In this master class, you’ll learn the proven framework that I use with all of my clients to help them identify an alternative career. And, if you’re serious about starting a brand-new life, enrollment is officially open for the guided track through The Former Lawyer Framework. 

We have 20 spots available in each cohort, 8:00 PM or noon, starting on Tuesday, February 15th. If you’ve considered enrolling in the Collaborative but thought you would like a little bit more support and accountability, this is the perfect time.

Mentioned In This Article:

Ilona’s Article: 8 Signs of A Toxic Workplace 

Free Master Class: The Simple 5-Step Framework To Identify An Alternative Career (That You Actually Like!)? 

Former Lawyer Guided Track

Connect With Ilona:

Website

Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.

This week, we're going to be talking about signs of burnout and also factors that can lead to burnout, and factors that can make you more or less susceptible to burnout. Ilona Salmons is back on the podcast with me again. We wanted to have this conversation because we know that burnout is really something that a lot of people, a lot of lawyers are dealing with. We wanted to provide a little bit more information about what you should be looking for, how to think about what you're experiencing, and also what to do if you suspect you have burnout. Here is my conversation with Ilona, all about the signs of burnout and the factors that may lead to it.

Hi, Ilona. Welcome back to The Former Lawyer Podcast.

Ilona Salmons: Hi, Sarah. Thank you so much for having me again.

Sarah Cottrell: I am really excited to have this conversation because we are going to be talking about more specifics around burnout, and in particular, talking in a little bit more detail about some of the things that we talked about in our previous conversation but giving people a little bit more of an understanding of how does burnout show up, what are the hallmarks of it, what red flags might suggest to you like, “Hey, I maybe need to be assessed for this,” etc., because I think the term burnout is used so commonly these days. I don't know what your experience has been but my experience has been when someone says they're burned out, it can mean anything from, “I'm just feeling a little bit tired today,” and don't really want to do X or Y specific tasks, then it can go all the way to people are using burnout but what they really mean, but aren't wanting to articulate is like, “I'm clinically depressed,” or something along those lines. They may not even have an awareness. I think sometimes, the word burnout, two people can have very different ideas of what someone is expressing when they say, “I'm burned out.” Has that been your experience in terms of what you've observed in the general population?

Ilona Salmons: Absolutely. You summarize it well that it is one of those terms that's just made it into our day-to-day language. When one person says they're burned out, it can mean any number of things and could be a completely different experience from another person. But even in the case of burnout, if we were to compare let's say two people who are technically burned out based on the definition, which we'll discuss in a moment, even those two people could be having a completely different experience. This is what makes burnout really tricky to catch and treat is that it is just very diverse in terms of how people experience it or how they get burned out in the first place. That it really is something that needs to be closely assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Sarah Cottrell: Let's talk a little bit more about those specifics, then I think it would be helpful to talk a little bit about why there can be like, “Oh, you're burned out, you should just go on vacation,” and why this very squishy definition around what burnout is can result in people saying things like that, that are not necessarily helpful or actually geared towards what the person is really experiencing. I know you've done lots of work around this but talk to me about what defines burnout and just the basic building blocks of what we understand that word to mean.

Ilona Salmons: Sure. Burnout has been around in the research since about the mid 70s, so it's something that has been studied quite extensively for decades now. It is something that we do know a lot about. Based on the research, the way that it's defined is it has these three interrelated dimensions. If you can picture for me a Venn diagram with three circles, burnout is what exists at the intersection of all three of these dimensions. The three dimensions are exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. I'll break those down in a moment. Exhaustion is one of the ones that my clients report most often. It's a feeling of just being exhausted and depleted, both physically and emotionally. Something my clients might say to me is, “Weeks and weeks in a row, I've been getting enough sleep. I'm still tired all the time. I'm not sure what's going on.” They feel physically and emotionally quite depleted and can't seem to refill their cup basically. They can't seem to get their energy back, even if they're doing all the right things.

Cynicism is the interpersonal dimension. It's the one that's facing the other people in our lives, including colleagues that we may work with, as well as clients that we may serve in the work that we're doing. The cynical dimension is specifically a shift in the attitude toward the other people in our professional arena. We may just have a negative attitude toward the people that we work with, toward our colleagues. We may also have a very negative attitude toward our clients, which is of course, especially concerning in the legal field. It's concerning in any field where your actions as a provider of some type of a surface might have a very negative consequence for somebody else if you drop the ball. This is a big issue in the legal field because if you get to a point where you don't care about your client at all and in addition to the next symptom of burnout—which we'll talk about in a moment—you're missing deadlines, you're dropping the ball on things, it can have very serious long-term or potentially lifelong consequences for your clients. That one is particularly alarming for attorneys, also a concern for medical professionals that I work with, therapists that I work with, and so on.

Then the third dimension is inefficacy. That's the dimension that's specific to the work product that we produce. This one is the most objective in terms of being able to measure it and potentially even get feedback from the people around us. With the inefficacy dimension, what a person might notice is that they're missing deadlines. Their work product quality has diminished. Maybe they're getting feedback about their work. Their performance is going down. These are more objective assessments of their actual work product. Again, this is typically the one where a lot of my clients get feedback from external people whereas the first two are a little bit easier to hide.

Sarah Cottrell: Can we talk a little bit more about each of the areas you talked about? Specifically, what I was thinking when you were talking about the first one, exhaustion, is that you were describing that one of the ways people can know that's happening for them in terms of exhaustion at a level that indicates burnout is that they're getting enough sleep and they're still exhausted. I imagine there are a decent number of lawyers who are listening who are like, “Okay, well, what if I'm in a situation where I'm chronically not getting enough sleep?” because that's just the nature of the particular beast when it comes to especially certain types of Biglaw firms. I imagine people in that position might be thinking, “Well, how can I ever know whether it's just “this job” versus “I'm burned out?” Does that make sense?

Ilona Salmons: Yeah. Those two things are very difficult to tease apart because often, it is the job that contributes to the burnout. What we know based on the research is the environmental factors. The factors of the organization play the largest causal role in creating burnout. A lot of articles that I've read, just a lot of information out there in the world today, in the media today about burnout are very individual focused, like things that you can do as a person to not get burned out but again, that's not exactly what the research is finding. The research is finding that while those environmental factors are important and they could potentially push somebody into burnout—and we'll talk about those individual factors as well in a moment—it really is environmental factors that make a difference.

To the people who are listening and are thinking, “Well, this is just the nature of my work. We never get enough sleep. It's always like this,” there's no nice way to say this, it's not a sustainable career. Human beings' needs are quite simple. We have very basic simple needs to survive and to thrive. Sleep is one of those things. It's one of those foundational needs. You can maybe catch up on sleep at some point but if it's more of a norm rather than an exception that you're not getting asleep, then it's probably not physically and psychologically a healthy place to work. That's just a fact.

Sarah Cottrell: I really appreciate you saying that because from a lay perspective, I agree completely but I feel like there is this tendency to want to say like, “Oh, but if you manage your time,” like you said, focusing very much on the individual when the reality is that you can't function without sleep. I think if you're in a position where you're like, “I'm not even able to assess whether this exhaustion is ‘burnout’ versus just basically the logical consequences of the actions that are being requested of me,” even that I think, like you said, lends itself to maybe you should consider whether that is really a sustainable place for you to be because you are actually a human being who does need things like sleep.

Ilona Salmons: Yeah. That's the challenge in the legal profession is that the expectation is that you are able to tolerate these levels of abuses for an extended period of time. If you're not, then it's a “you” issue. I've had a lot of clients who come to me and one of the first few things they talk about is how they're wondering if something is wrong with them, why are they struggling while everybody else around them seems to be doing well. They seem to be thriving. But the fact is that we know our experience 24/7 because we're with ourselves all the time. We don't know the experience of other people. Lawyers are really good at putting up a friend and looking like they have everything together. Maybe some of them do, maybe some of them figured out how to have a balance in that particular career but it is something that requires, I believe, a more organizational shift.

When there's this expectation that everybody else can put up with it, “Why can't I put up with it? It must be a me issue,” what happens is this term in our field that's called emotional dissonance. It essentially means that if I'm having emotional experience A then I look around and everybody else is seemingly having a different emotional experience, let's say emotional experience B, I internalize it and I think that there's something that's wrong with me. When in reality, the way that a lot of these firms are structured are not healthy ways.

I heard you speak on one of your other episodes where you said that it's not a bug in the system. It's how it's actually intentionally structured. This is something I learned the hard way pretty early on in my research. I'm not a former lawyer, so I haven't had first-hand experience but I have a lot of people around me, friends, family, and so on who are attorneys, who have had some extensive careers in Biglaw. When I initially presented my research to them and I was hoping to be able to change the organizational structure, and to change how some of these firms treat their lawyers, what one attorney told me is they're not going to change it because they don't need to change it. It's purposely and intentionally organized. It is this revolving door. That's part of the system. There's really no motivation to change it because it's very profitable.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes, all of those things, 100%. Let's talk a little bit more. The first one is exhaustion, then the second one, remind me what the second one was.

Ilona Salmons: Cynicism.

Sarah Cottrell: Oh, cynicism, yes, which I'm sure there are many lawyers listening who are like, “Isn't that just the personality of a lawyer?” Because especially if you're in certain environments, that's very much, I would say, the norm. It's almost like you can be enculturated into having a certain view that is quite cynical. I don't have any specific questions about that per se but is there anything else that you think people should know, specifically about this piece of being cynical, especially if they have this idea that like, “Oh well, everyone is cynical about all of the things in their job”?

Ilona Salmons: With most things, it's important to just be honest to what extent it's taking a toll on you as an individual. I think if you're laughing with your colleagues and saying, “Oh, can you believe this client? Haha,” I think there can be some camaraderie in that. That can be a way to connect with your colleagues and to have those little conversations by the water cooler as they say that can lighten the mood, especially if it's a client that's just incredibly demanding and has very unreasonable expectations. But if you find that you just have a general negative attitude toward all the people that you're working for, it's not good for you psychologically either. I imagine it makes your job that much harder if your role is to support these people and do the best that you can for them because that's the lawyer-client relationship but deep inside, you don't have any positive regard for them at all. It's going to make your job that much more difficult.

It really is important to be honest with yourself to what extent is it just part of the work culture and it's a little bit fun, and to what extent is it taking a toll on you. But again, this is the dimension when people do get to a point where they care not at all about their clients, that's where other things start to slip as well, like missing deadlines or potentially not even providing the best work that they can for their client, which legally, lawyers are supposed to be doing. It's part of the standard of care.

Sarah Cottrell: I think it's interesting because, like you said, so often, lawyers who are experiencing burnout, if it's more for them in the first two areas, they're exhausted and they just feel incredibly cynical, that almost doesn't raise a red flag for lawyers because many people expect themselves like, “I'm just supposed to be working hard. This is just how it is.” It's really in that third area where if it becomes so problematic that it's affecting your work, how you function at work, that's the thing that often will get people's attention. Because lawyers tend to be often so externally focused and most lawyers tend to be such high achievers that if they're in a position where they are finding that their work is suffering, then that's the thing that makes them go, “Oh, there must be something going on here.”

I don't know what you see, Ilona, but even then, I find that many people don't think, “Hey, maybe this is happening because this is not a good environment,” etc. It's more likely that they'll go to what you talked about before, “Oh, this is happening because I'm a bad person.” They'll moralize it and basically make this determination that they're a bad person and they're not doing enough, that's why this is happening when in many cases, I think it's actually the opposite. It's that they're doing too much.

Ilona Salmons: Absolutely, they're doing too much but also their identity is very closely linked to their job as a lawyer, so succeeding means a lot more than just, “I did a good job.” It has a lot to do with their own worthiness. This is when not succeeding at work can take an additional toll. You also bring up a very important point that while it is more of the norm, and I think in certain sectors of law more than others, it's also not universal. This is really a message that I try to share with a lot of my clients and anytime I get the opportunity to speak is that while it may be the norm in many top firms, it's not true across the board. For my research, I know I think we talked about it in the last episode but I specifically studied the best practices for managing burnout in attorneys.

I interviewed attorneys at some of the best law firms in Biglaw in Los Angeles County, as well as Orange County, just places that were drivable, so I could see them in person. I found that there were a lot of firms that did genuinely care about their people, that were genuinely focused on trying to create more of a balance for their team members, for their lawyers, including their junior attorneys. Sometimes, they try to implement practices that were not successful but it wasn't that their heart wasn't in it. It was just that they weren't able to come up with practices that were going to be supportive to actual lawyers. There was one senior partner at a law firm, he said they started to implement yoga in the office but the problem is that attorneys are working until 8:00 PM or 9:00 PM or 10:00 PM. They can't take an hour break to go do yoga. The intention is often there. It's just that sometimes, it's just difficult to integrate into the day-to-day lives of lawyers.

I say all of that to say that if you are at one of these firms that is often very prestigious but is also very well known for how toxic the culture is and the messaging is that you just have to tolerate it, I think it really is important to look at the whole experience globally, so not just the name of the firm and the doors that it might open later but also potentially, the long-term consequences it could have if you do burn out pretty severely, and to consider simple things like, “What is my salary? How many hours am I working?” and see what your hourly rate is. If you went to a different firm, maybe less prestigious or maybe equally prestigious but doesn't have that same type of culture, maybe you could be working less hours, making a little bit less money but you would also potentially be making more per hour based on the hours that you're working.

Starting to look at all these different components and look at the whole role globally, not just the procedures associated with that particular title. But I also do understand that that prestige is important. It's not just in the legal field. I have a lot of clients who work in tech, for instance. Once you have one of those big names on your resume, it really opens up a lot of doors. If that's the case, if you're making a commitment to be with a particular company, at least, in the short term to get it on your resume and to help build your future in that way, then it really is important to prioritize and focus on self-care outside of work so that you are, at least, doing some of the things that can be protective factors against the stress and the toxicity that you may be dealing with day to day.

Sarah Cottrell: When you mentioned the yoga thing, it made me laugh because first of all, like I have said in the podcast before, I am a huge fan of yoga. I'm a huge fan of meditation. I do yoga multiple times a week. I try to meditate almost every day. It's super helpful, especially if you're someone like me who has been diagnosed with clinical anxiety, but I think one of the things that we see so often, especially when these institutions that are known for their toxic environments try to ameliorate it a bit, it seems like the go-to thing is like, “Okay, well, we need to add something. What can we add to people's plates that will be supportive?” I think the problem we often have in those environments is it's like you cannot add something until you've taken some things away. You can have people do all of the yoga and all of the things. If they're still having to bill and be on call in these extremely stressful hyped-up situations, adding something else is counterproductive.

Ilona Salmons: Absolutely. It just adds more stress because now, it's one more thing that they're not able to accomplish.

Sarah Cottrell: A couple weeks before this episode releases, I recorded an episode where I talked about an article that you'd written on your website about the eight signs of a toxic work environment that can lead to burnout, which by the way, that article is super great, so it will definitely be linked in the show notes for this episode.

Ilona Salmons: Thank you for checking that out.

Sarah Cottrell: The thing that I observed in that particular episode was basically, this is just describing what a lot of, especially, large law firms, are like these eight factors. I would love to know from you, like you mentioned for example, that there are various factors that go into the potential creation of burnout. Are those the factors that you had in mind or are there other factors that people, in addition to that, should also be aware of?

Ilona Salmons: Those are the key factors but they can come in any combination. When I mentioned earlier in this episode that burnout isn't an exact science, because you can have one of these factors and get burned out or you can have all of these factors and not get burned out. There's just a lot of moving parts and it's really difficult to pinpoint. Often, burnout is easier to detect once you already have it unfortunately, but by knowing what the environmental risk factors are, we can just be more aware of which ones are present in our particular environment. This is true for those of us who are just in the entry-level field or junior attorneys or not in leadership roles and also especially true for people who are the decision makers, who are in leadership roles, who could take some action to change some of these risk factors.

Two of the risk factors, and are especially high risk if they're paired together, is true for, I would say, all entry-level attorneys, which is having a highly demanding work environment but also one where there is low decision latitude. This is every lawyer that I've ever worked with that's just entered the field or has even been in their career in the first five years or so. On occasion, they do get lucky and maybe they get a partner that's very hands-off, and lets them really take the lead on the type of clients they want to work with or the cases they want to work with. But more often, they're really just dictated, “This is what you're doing. This is a partner that you're working with. These are the cases that you're working on.” They don't have a lot of decisions in terms of the type of work they do, when they do it, how they do it, and so on.

Even often, the partner that you're working with is going to be very particular about how they want their work done, then you could work with another partner, then they want it done in a completely different way. There's really no decision latitude for those levels of attorneys. Of course, the work is also highly demanding. What we know by the research is when those two things are coupled together really is the perfect storm. It really creates this environment that puts people at high risk of developing burnout.

Sarah Cottrell: When you were describing that, I was just thinking there are so many lawyers who I've talked to who have had some type of experience like this. You do work for one lawyer who's senior to you and they say, “This is how we do X. This is the organization's way of doing X. That's how you need to do it,” then you go work for another person who's senior to you and they're like, “This is how you do X. This is the only way to do it. This is our way of doing it,” and it's completely different from the first person. It's a situation where, like you said, especially the junior lawyer, you have very low decision latitude and also you have this often, it's not exactly gaslighting but it's very confusing to have different people, all of whom are like your boss but also not totally your boss because they're not fully responsible for your workload and your development, telling you completely contrary things and both claiming to be telling you the way to do things. That's just really mentally and emotionally exhausting.

Ilona Salmons: Especially for the types of personalities that typically make it into Biglaw straight out of law school, they usually are high achievers academically, they're usually at some of the top law schools, and they've usually been doing pretty well, even in law school throughout law school and often, it's their very first experience of getting something back where somebody essentially is like, “This is trash,” and do it all over again. As we know, law school doesn't really prepare people for being lawyers or for doing actual legal work. It's the internships, the summer internships that do that if you happen to intern at the place where you get a job offer later. But a lot of entry-level lawyers are just really not prepared for the work, so they're having, emotionally, a very difficult time with not knowing what they're doing, with not being good at what they're doing, and with allowing that to just be okay versus taking it very personally and internalizing it. Again, there's something that's wrong with them, where it is not something that's wrong with them. It's just the norm of how the law school system and the funnel into Biglaw is how the system works essentially.

Sarah Cottrell: Can we just talk briefly a little bit more about low decision latitude? Because I'm sure there are some lawyers who are listening and thinking like, “Okay, yeah, that totally describes my job,” but also what is it about that is such a problematic factor and that can result in these problems if that makes sense? Because I think there might be some people listening, thinking like, “Well, I'm junior, so I should be fine with the fact that I don't have much, if any, personal efficacy in decision making in my career.”

Ilona Salmons: I think accepting that it's the norm going in can help some but ultimately, it just comes down to human psychology. If you are working a very demanding workload and you have no say in what you do or how you do it or even the types of clients or the types of cases that you work on, you may also not like what it is that you're working on. That could potentially cause some disconnect there. Especially if there's a disconnect or a mismatch of values, like you're working on some case or supporting some client and you really believe that this is not a good person or something that they did was terrible, and so on. That mismatch of values can really be difficult but there's really no room in Biglaw to say, “This isn't aligned with my values. It's really taking a toll on me to work on this.” Can you imagine going into a partner's office and saying something like that?

Again, it's not universal. I think some partners would be able to hear that and would be able to adjust but more often than not, that is the case. I think also, quite often, junior attorneys are afraid of having those conversations because of the cultural norms in these firms. But essentially, just human nature, you want to have decisions with things. You want to have some sense of control. You want to feel empowered. It's very disempowering to be in these types of positions. It's something that even from a very young age, little kids want to have control of their lives. They want to make choices. You might give them some choices like, “Do you want broccoli or do you want carrots?” But them having the choice, they're going to be less likely to resist one of those things because they feel like they were empowered. That they had control over what is happening to them. That control factor is really important.

Sarah Cottrell: I love that multiple times now, your response to, “Here's how I think some lawyers would receive this,” or that thing that we're talking about is essentially like, “Well, but you're a human being. You can't really escape or get away from your humanity. You're a human being and that is good.” That means that it comes with certain realities. I think a lot of lawyers definitely feel this pressure. I've talked about this in the podcast multiple times to just completely transcend their human limits. Especially when we're talking about Biglaw firms, there's almost a sense of like, “Well, if we pay you enough, then you should be able to not be human.” It doesn't matter how much you pay someone. They're still going to be human beings. I think that's just really important for people to hear because I find that there are many lawyers in some of these situations who genuinely feel like they're failing because they are unable to transcend their own humanity.

Ilona Salmons: Yeah. Nothing is wrong with them. They're just humans.

Sarah Cottrell: Enrollment is officially open for the spring Guided Track through The Former Lawyer Framework inside of The Former Lawyer Collaborative. If you are interested in not only getting the support that you would get in the Collaborative, which is 12 months of access to our monthly calls to The Former Lawyer Framework, which is my framework for helping you walk through the process of figuring out what it is that you want to do, private community on Circle with other lawyers who are like-minded and are working on the same sorts of things, all of that plus with the Guided Track, you get a 90-day action plan with weekly items so that you know what to be doing each week, weekly calls with a small cohort, so we're going to have two cohorts. One is going to be an evening cohort and one is going to be a daytime cohort. We will have 20 spots available in each, 8:00 PM on Tuesdays, starting February 15th, and noon on Tuesday, starting February 15th. Both of those times are Eastern Time.

If you've considered enrolling in the Collaborative but thought you would like a little bit more support and accountability, this is the perfect time. Go to formerlawyer.com/guidedtrack to see all the information about enrolling, what that looks like, what you get when you join the Guided Track. Just remember that we will be closing enrollment for both cohorts on Friday, February 11th, to give everyone time to come in, get settled, and get ready before the orientation calls on Tuesday, February 15th. One more time, that's formerlawyer.com/guidedtrack. Go there, get all the information that you need. Enroll if it seems like something that will be helpful for you. If you have any questions, as always, [email protected] Now, back to the episode.

Sarah Cottrell: Let's talk a little bit more, are there other factors that you think people should be aware of or thinking about when they are trying to think through, could burnout be at play here?

Ilona Salmons: In terms of environmental factors or things that they may be experiencing as individuals?

Sarah Cottrell: I guess a little bit of both but in particular, things that they might be experiencing as individuals.

Ilona Salmons: Sure. The best way to think about this is to think of it in three specific categories, like categories of symptoms or experiences that might come up for them. The first being psychological or emotional symptoms, the second being physical symptoms, then the third being behavioral symptoms. I do want to preface this by saying always, always, always, always, go to a medical professional, just to get a checkup if you're having some of these things come up. Our human body is very fascinating. You can have a vitamin deficiency that might be causing some of these things or you could be burned out and it could be causing some of these things. Because the medical side is much easier to rule out typically, you get a physical, you do some blood work, and so on, it really is a good idea to make sure that you're keeping up to date with your medical checkups and so on to make sure that some of these symptoms are not as a result of vitamin D deficiency or you're dehydrated, and so on. I do want to really emphasize that.

But we can talk about all of the three categories of symptoms. What's interesting is that depending on each client and how they experience their symptomatology, they will report different things. Some of my clients will more often report behavioral symptoms, then we'll have to dig deep to get some of the, let's say, emotional ones, maybe they're not as connected to their emotions. Then other clients might report more somatic symptoms, so things that are going on in their body. It really is important to understand all three categories. I also do want to note that a lot of these symptoms sound like they could be something else. Burnout is very tricky. A lot of the symptoms are very closely aligned with depression, with anxiety, and specifically with major depressive disorder, clinical depression, as well as generalized anxiety disorder.

I did a presentation, maybe about a month ago at this point, to a network of therapists and we talked about differential diagnoses so that therapists can also understand and be able to better diagnose, “Is my client depressed or are they burned out?” or “Are these two things co-existing?” What makes it even more tricky is that a person who's depressed could become burned out or a person who's burned out could become depressed, or it could be one or the other. As I discuss some of these symptoms, I think people who are familiar with depression and anxiety, for instance, a lot of these things are going to sound familiar. Some of the psychological symptoms include things like a lack of motivation. Often, my clients will say, “I used to be on top of my game. I used to get everything done. I used to be a superstar. Now, I just barely can get out of bed in the morning. I'm just not motivated at all. Every day feels like a Monday. I just dread going to work that particular day or doing my work for that particular day.” They lost their motivation. They've lost excitement for their work.

What's interesting is that with burnout specifically, these symptoms are more pronounced during the week and less so on the weekends. That's one of the key indicators that it's more likely a burnout than something like major depressive disorder, because with major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety, those things do not take time off on the weekend. That's something to look at more closely if your mood is severely impacted by the work week versus the weekend. Though I do also realize that for a lot of my attorney clients, there is no weekend, it's just work all of the time for their entire career. Some additional psychological symptoms are things like worry or panic attacks. I've had clients tell me that they wake up in the middle of the night, just gasping for air in a panic, wondering if they sent that email to that partner or if there was a typo. Sometimes, they cry at their desks. This was when they were physically in the office but now, there's probably a lot more crying happening at home that people don't have to put up a particular front in front of their colleagues.

There was one attorney that I spoke to and he told me that in his firm, it was a normal thing that people would close the door and you would know that they're crying, so you don't go in there and you don't disrupt them. Again, these are things that are normalized but these are not psychologically healthy or normal things. If you're crying about work all of the time, that's probably something to look for. It's not psychologically healthy behavior. While it may be normalized in your particular firm or even in your particular industry, it's not universally or globally a normal thing. That's definitely a red flag to look for.

Sarah Cottrell: That is super helpful because, like you said, it's very common.

Ilona Salmons: Yes, it's very common. Definitely, my goal is not to make people give themselves a hard time. If you are experiencing this, what I don't want you to do is to judge yourself for it and to say, “I can't believe I've put myself through this,” and so on and so forth. You don't have to judge yourself or punish yourself because of the choices that you've made in the past but definitely start noticing that some of these things are probably taking a bigger toll on you than you thought. Again, often, it's because it's normalized in the field. In addition to some of the things we just talked about, there's also just overwhelm, feelings of sadness, feelings of depression, irritability or feeling on edge or having mood swings. Again, this is often normalized in the legal field.

There was one attorney I interviewed and what he recounted to me is, he said, “If you're a rainmaker in the law firm, they're going to let you get away with everything,” so you can be the person who's flipping desks and throwing law books across the room or whatever it is, but if you're profitable for the firm, you might get a talking to or something like that but they rarely let those type of people go. Because again, it's normalized in the field and you see these types of big, and often volatile or unhealthy emotions in the workspace, a lot of people normalize that to themselves. They think it's okay to feel that way. While it is okay to feel that way on occasion, again, if it's more of a norm rather than an exception, it's something to look at more closely if you have these mood swings throughout the week and you're not quite sure what to attribute them to. Then overall, just feeling of helplessness or hopelessness, this is the disempowered feeling that we talked about a little bit ago.

A lot of physical symptoms. Look again also how depression might look or how anxiety might look. We discussed feeling tired most of the time and not being able to really pinpoint why you're feeling tired. Having sudden weight loss or weight gain is another physical factor to look for. That one's a more objective one that's easier to measure. Typically, that is an indicator of chronic stress because different people's bodies respond to stress differently. For some people, they put on weight and for other people, they lose weight but having weight loss that's unexplained is something important to look for. If you're doing something different, let's say you're eating less or you're eating more or you started exercising or you stopped exercising, that's definitely something to consider as well. But if your lifestyle is more or less the same and you're noticing these physical changes, it is important to again, talk to a doctor but also consider if you're experiencing chronic stress and you may be getting yourself burned out.

Reduced immunity is another one, though as it recently has been more difficult to notice because a lot of us are isolated, so just by nature of that, we're not catching as many colds, which is nice, but reduced immunity is a big sign of having chronic stress because when our bodies are physically stressed out, we're in that fight-or-flight mode. Our bodies allocate the most important resources to the functions that are necessary at that moment. Making our muscles big and strong, and focusing on our concentration, all the core functions, like the rest and digest functions, including our immunity, are suppressed. This is why people who are stressed out all the time are also catching colds all the time because their body is allocating resources to what it deems to be important, which are those things that will help us survive because the body doesn't know, “Is there a bear chasing me?” or “Is a partner angry at me for the body and I'll feel pain?” It's allocating the resources to those things that the system helps us survive and unfortunately taking away much needed resources to things like digestion, and immunity.

That's another symptom. Our GI issues. Over time, it can develop into things like ulcers but a lot of my clients will experience acid reflux or other digestive issues. Often, when they go to specialists, specialists look for digestive related issues but very few specialists will ask about things like stress. It's something that we have to keep in mind as informed consumers. Then any new or worsening health issues, including things like muscle tension or headaches, those types of tension issues are typically an indicator of chronic stress. Then the third category of behavioral symptoms are things where we can observe some of our behaviors and our lives have changed.

For instance, if we have a decrease or an increase in appetite, if our sleep patterns have changed, if we are sleeping too much and are still not feeling rested, or if our sleep is disrupted in some way. Insomnia can mean that you have a difficult time falling asleep but insomnia also means that you have a difficult time staying asleep, so maybe you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow because you were just exhausted and sleep deprived but typically, you might wake up at some point in the middle of the night, maybe have a difficult time falling back to sleep. Sometimes, my clients will just wake up at 4:00 AM, then they are just up and they cannot get back to sleep, even if they went to bed at midnight or 1:00 AM. Those are also signs of insomnia.

Isolating from friends or family and sometimes, that's just, like you said, the nature of the beast where you don't have time for all these things that seem like luxuries, so all those things fall apart. But sometimes, even if you do have the time to connect with people, you just have this feeling of just wanting to isolate and not wanting to be around other people. That's something to look at more closely. Something that's been a big issue during the pandemic, and there have been a lot of articles about people increasing their substance use during the pandemic but that's a big behavioral issue to look for. What I encourage my clients to do is if you are somebody who enjoys a glass of wine or if you are somebody who enjoys a Scotch, allow yourself to enjoy that. I'm not saying to deprive yourself from the things that you enjoy, but I encourage my clients to make sure that there is some period of time—and that's different from person to person—with some period of time between when you're done working and you have your first glass of whatever it is so that you're not teaching yourself to rely on this particular substance to help yourself wind down, and relax but so you take the time to actually wind down and relax, then you can enjoy the wine or the Scotch.

This is especially important now during the pandemic where a lot of people are still working from home because before, there used to be, at least, a separation from work and home. Maybe on the drive home, especially if you live in Los Angeles, you get stuck in a lot of traffic. By the time you get home, it's been 30 minutes, maybe an hour, depending on where you live, so you've had that physical separation from work and from your home, and now you can just roll into the next room and grab a glass of wine. It really is important to make sure that you are consciously creating a separation between those two things. Being honest with yourself, if you find that you are going toward that substance to help yourself relax and it's probably a better idea to not do that, and to see if you can come up with some other strategy.

I've definitely had some clients that have come to a place where they've been able to know the difference between, “I'm just enjoying a glass of whatever it is with my wife or with my friends,” versus “I'm turning to the substance to try to help me relax because I've had a terrible day.” Being really mindful of that because it can be a slippery slope. Then some other behavioral things to look for are more like cognitive functions. If you find yourself being more forgetful, if you have a difficult time concentrating, you're noticing that your mind is wandering to a lot of different places, these are the three categories of things to really consider. You don't have to have symptoms in all three categories. Again, with burnout specifically, you might be experiencing just one symptom very pronounced. That may still be an indicator that you are experiencing burnout, even if you're not checking off all these other boxes.

Sarah Cottrell: That is all super helpful. I think there are a lot of people who may have been listening and heard you describe some of these things, and thought, “I feel like this might be describing my experience.” I know you and I, one of the things that I'm sure we want people to hear is, like you said, these kinds of symptoms can overlap with all sorts of different things. If you think this might be going on for you, see a doctor and see a therapist. I'm always telling people to go to therapy, so that's nothing new, but in particular, like you said, teasing apart what is what in these situations, it's not something that you should feel you need to or can self-diagnose. I think that having a professional who's able to provide expert assessment is really important as well.

Ilona Salmons: Absolutely. They can also help you come up with some targeted strategies, including those that can address the symptoms that you're feeling because, for instance, if you have a decrease in appetite, so you're not eating enough, what you're doing is that you're also physically putting your body in a stress state because your body needs some amount of calories throughout the day, just energy to be able to function, including your brain and your brain expends a lot of energy, so some of those symptoms that you might be experiencing, for instance, memory loss or distractibility could be as a result of you not eating enough or could be a result of you not sleeping enough or drinking enough water and so on. It is important to really get a diverse group of professionals involved, and again, getting a physical, getting the blood work done, make sure you're not deficient in anything that's important but coming up with strategies that don't only address the symptom level but also address what's underlying.

I know we haven't spoken yet about individual risk factors. Those are important to talk about also even though, again, I really want to emphasize that the environment plays the largest causal role. But what's interesting is that the qualities that are often valued in attorneys are also the same qualities that lead to burnout. A culture where workaholism is celebrated and those types of qualities are rewarded is, again, one of those work cultures that puts people at higher risk. Individual risk factors, things like being a perfectionist, for instance, that's something that makes you a good student, it makes you a good law student, it makes you a good lawyer but it also puts you at higher risk of burnout because you have this very unreasonable standard set for yourself.

You're probably spending a lot more time doing each particular task than you need to be doing. You're probably more stressed out about it. You probably take feedback more harshly if somebody says, “This isn't good,” or you get something back with a lot of red lines, you probably take it more personally because you're somebody who's a perfectionist. Someone like a therapist can help you address more of the perfectionism, which is the underlying issue or, at least, one of the contributing factors so that you don't get to a point where you feel better, then it happens all over again because you're still a perfectionist for instance.

We also talked about over-identifying with work. If you're somebody whose identity is closely linked with being a lawyer and often closely linked with being a lawyer at a law firm XYZ—because that's part of the prestige is, “Where do you work? Oh, I work here. Where do you work?” You have your identity closely linked to that—that is a big risk factor for individuals because again, how you feel about yourself as a person has to do with the name on the building. If you potentially lose your job—and I've definitely had some lawyers who have burned out, and who have been fired from their firms, you know what happens—then there is a whole emotional spiral that happens after that because their entire identity was, “I went to so-and-so law school and worked at so-and-so law firm.”

Another individual risk factor is having a lack of support. This means in the workplace, as well as outside of the workplace. What we know based on research is having an environment that is socially supportive is a protective factor and stress, but this is also true for our personal lives. If you work in a stressful place, then you come home to a stressful relationship, for instance, or a stressful roommate situation, that's further going to exacerbate the negative effects of the chronic stress and the burnout. These are important things to look at as individuals. If you have a stressful relationship at home or a stressful roommate situation at home, then something that a therapist can help you work with for instance is improving your communication skills. Lawyers are great communicators in one way but that's only when they're trying to prove people wrong. Sometimes, it's not the most conducive to having a healthy relationship with a partner, having a healthy roommate situation.

Most of the time, lawyers are right. I'm not saying that they're wrong. They are very intelligent people and they do look at things in a specific way, but again, it's typically not the most effective way of communicating with another person. If part of the stress is that you're butting heads a lot with people at work, then you're having the stressful situations outside of work and these very stressful relationships, friendships, family relationships and so on, again, a therapist can help you address that individual risk factor, help you improve your communication skills so that you resolve those additional stressors, so when you come home, you, at least, have some type of a reprieve from the stress at work.

Perhaps another individual risk factor that's worth mentioning is poor boundaries, which is very much a norm in the legal field but it's also one of those gray areas where it's like the chicken or the egg scenario. I'm not sure if entry-level attorneys have poor boundaries because the expectation is put on them that they can't say no to things or because they're afraid to say no to things, so other people around them don't know that they don't want to do these things or that they're struggling in some way. I suspect that it really is a combination of both of those factors. I've definitely interviewed some senior attorneys and when I asked him the question of, “What do you wish to tell junior attorneys or what do you wish you knew when you were a junior attorney?” That was one of the things that came up quite often was that don't be afraid to talk to your partners. Don't be afraid to vocalize some of these things.

The poor boundaries is another big risk factor because typically, again, especially for junior attorneys, they feel the pressure to say yes to everything. If you work in a Biglaw firm with a bunch of partners and none of those partners are talking to each other, and they're all asking you to do a particular thing and they don't know that this other partner asks you to do something, if you're not the one who's advocating for yourself, setting the boundaries, and communicating how much time you have or that so-and-so has already asked you to jump on something or even asking something as simple as, “Okay, well, partner A asked me to do this thing, please help me understand priorities, which one should I focus on more or if there's one that I can delegate to somebody else,” having those communication skills and being able to set those boundaries are things that can protect us against some of those negative effects of stress.

Sarah Cottrell: That's super helpful. I think that question of boundaries is so important for people to hear that it is a combination. Because I agree with you, it is a combination. Often, I hear, like you said, advice given to the young lawyers will be like, “Oh well, you just need to set boundaries. If you're having certain types of problems, it's your fault because you're not setting boundaries in the way that you should.” But on the flip side, there's often a lack of people in more senior roles, taking responsibility for the fact that they are essentially communicating, like expectations that basically involve having very poor boundaries.

On top of that, often, many junior lawyers have that experience of seeing people, who have had better boundaries, not really have success in the law firm environment, either getting pushed out or deciding to leave because it's just so incompatible. Again, to your point, I think having a therapist who can help you work through, “What is mine to do in this situation and what is beyond me, and is more systemic?” is really helpful. Are there other things that you think that lawyers should know about burnout?

Ilona Salmons: Oh, that's a tough question. There's so much to know about burnout, but I guess on this point of what is mine to do, it's important to keep in mind that a lot of attorneys are high achievers. Not only do they take pride in being high achievers. They're also objectively, typically more smarter than average, more capable than average, so they do have these high expectations for them. Probably much of the time, they are able to achieve these expectations. But also sometimes, they are not sustainable for a number of reasons that we've already discussed. It really is important for attorneys to not give themselves a hard time about it. That if you get burned out and you're working your way back to recovery, it's important to keep in mind that whatever you were doing before, it was not sustainable, which is what got you into this place in the first place.

The strategy is to come up with something, like a work-life balance that would be more sustainable in the long term rather than putting pressure on yourself to catch up to the person that you were before. This is a struggle often for a lot of my clients. They say, “Well, I used to be able to do this before, I used to be able to manage all of these things befor, and now I’m struggling with even the smallest thing.” It really is important to have compassion and patience with ourselves when we are recovering, and to again, adjust the expectations.

Sarah Cottrell: I think that is super helpful, and again, something that I think lawyers should definitely lean on therapists for because finding a therapist who can help you, specifically with self-compassion is so important for lawyers. Because so many lawyers—and speaking from experience here—really struggle with the whole idea of self-compassion. Often, lawyers feel like not being compassionate with themselves is what has brought them whatever their perceived success is. We've just scratched the surface obviously, because there's so much more to learn and know about burnout but I really appreciate you joining me today, Ilona, and talking through this for people who will be listening to get a better sense of of what burnout is, whether they might have some of the risk factors, whether their environment may have some of the risk factors, and first steps if they are in a position where they think, “Maybe I need to have this assessed.” Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time. Is there any last thing that you would like to say before we sign off?

Ilona Salmons: I think, like you said, we scratched the surface, so we did get a chance to cover a lot of topics. I appreciate you having me on here again and also want to express my gratitude to you for being an advocate for mental health in the legal field. I know it's something that's not discussed very often though I do think that we're getting there more as a profession, but I do want to really say thank you for doing that, for constantly talking about the importance of mental health, for not settling in a toxic work environment, and for advocating for your needs.

Sarah Cottrell: Thank you. It is so important. I will just keep talking about it. Thank you so much for your time. I will talk to you later.

Ilona Salmons: Thank you, Sarah. Take care.

Sarah Cottrell: Have you watched my free masterclass, The Simple 5-Step Framework To Identify An Alternative Career (That You Actually Like!)? In this master class, you'll learn the proven framework that I use with all of my clients to help them identify an alternative career. You can watch the masterclass right now, just go to formerlawyer.com/masterclass, sign up, and get the link to watch. Once you've watched, message me or email me and let me know what your biggest takeaway was from the class. I would love to know.