|Oregon State Bar Bulletin OCTOBER 2008|
Linda Rudnick has just returned from meeting with a potential client.
She’s wearing a long, billowy and gauzy lime-green skirt and sandals. Her bare arms are tanned and her long, graying hair is pulled back into a casual knot.
She’s sitting in an Adirondack chair in her deep backyard, where a small deck and grass merge into a dirt-floored grove of fir and spruce trees and the neighborhood’s communal white rabbit — yes, a real white rabbit — is hopping through the fence.
She’s 57 years old, and it’s impossible to believe that just three years ago, this woman abruptly shut down a highly successful plaintiffs’ personal injury practice because she was too stressed out to continue.
But she did.
“I totally identified with what I did,” says Rudnick. “That was who I was. I worked myself way too hard. As I started to burn out, I became less productive. That made me feel like I had to work harder, so I soldiered on until there was no choice: it was my career or my health.”
Megafirm lawyer William “Bill” McAllister can relate: After 30-plus years of representing clients going through bankruptcy, he found himself telling himself, on a daily basis, “I can’t do this.”
And so can criminal defense lawyer “Susan Johnson:”1 One day someone said something that she says she took “entirely too personally” and she found herself calling the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP) and asking for help.
All three lawyers were suffering from “burnout,” what Salem psychiatrist Ron Hofeldt describes as “an ambiguous ‘garbage’ term” for “the journey from health to ill health.”
Unfortunately, Hofeldt and other experts on burnout say, lawyers are more vulnerable to burnout than ever due to increasing economic demands and accelerating technologies.
The good news is that experts now have a better understanding of what contributes to burnout and how to prevent and treat it. As a result, lawyers who find themselves in trouble can make changes that will allow them to continue practicing if they choose to do so.
“If I talk to a lawyer before he’s burned out, he’ll just roll his eyes,” says Hofeldt, who specialized in treating lawyers and physicians before retiring from his practice earlier this year. “Lawyers are just brilliant people, experts at what their clients’ needs are. But they often don’t have a very good understanding of what their needs are. It’s not selfish to take time for yourself. I talk to them about the difference between self interest and selfishness and try to help them recognize that needs aren’t just tangible needs — big house, big car — that mean you can’t afford to take any time off.”
“Being burned out comes with a certain amount of pain,” concedes Hofeldt, who still does litigation consultation. “Its victims hate it because it’s taken them to their knees. The good news is that it’s a wonderful motivator.”
Burned Out? Who, Me?
Apparently no one has attempted to study how many Oregon lawyers suffer from burnout.
But Mike Long, an attorney counselor with the OAAP, says that a “significant” number of lawyers contact the OAAP every year over issues of job or career dissatisfaction.
Long says the OAAP also gets calls from lawyers and other sources about “lawyers not returning calls, dropping the ball.”
“Typically, there is an element of burnout in those cases,” he says. “A very common behavioral manifestation (of burnout) is to just shut down, like a motor that’s been on overdrive and just seizes up.”
A “satisfaction survey” of active Oregon State Bar members conducted by the OAAP in February 2007 revealed some of the reasons why lawyers might get to this point:
If, as these numbers suggest, significant numbers of lawyers are stressed out by what they do professionally, you would think they’d all be talking about it.
You would be wrong.
As Jennifer Senior said in a New York Magazine article on the subject, “Work…is a form of religion in a secular world. Burning out in it amounts to a crisis of faith.”
And who wants to admit they’ve lost the faith?
McAllister, who practiced with megafirm Stoel Rives for 30 years before he honored what he calls a deal with his psyche to leave, says he didn’t discuss his distress with his numerous colleagues.
“Who knows what was going on (with them)?” he says. “Everyone seemed to stand it (the stress). I stood it. (But) I was the first to quit.”
And Johnson says that the atmosphere at her firm, which specialized in criminal defense, actually discouraged the recognition of burnout.
“(Criminal defense) is a really great environment in some ways,” she says. “It’s very collegial; you can turn to almost everyone for help. But it’s (also) such an intense trial dog, male-dominated mentality. To admit weakness is frowned upon. I certainly knew that in my office, even though the official policy was ‘take time off,’ there was a reason why most lawyers didn’t.”
Reasons for Burnout
What causes lawyers to burn out to the point where they no longer want to — or can — practice law?
Experts stress that it is not a personal failing: in fact, as Ulrich Kraft noted in a Scientific American Mind article, “It tends to hit the best employees, those with enthusiasm who accept responsibility readily and whose job is an important part of their identity.”
McAllister says that for him, ready acceptance of responsibility was the major factor in his burnout.
McAllister says he was burdened by what he calls “this incredible sense of personal responsibility for the outcome of people who couldn’t help themselves.”
“I always thought my colleagues were, to some extent, less intense,” says McAllister, who had a commercial litigation, debtor-creditor and bankruptcy practice at Stoel Rives. “When we talked about the stress of litigation, some respected trial lawyers reminded me that ‘a) It’s only money and it’s not yours, and b) you don’t make the facts.’ But I always took it personally. You have people come to you and they’re helpless. I was the only person, in my view — I may have been mistaken — who could solve their problem.”
Rudnick says that for her, it was the importance of her job to her self-image — “I was so tied into the identity of ‘Linda the lawyer,’” she says — which in turn was the result of earlier life experiences.
“When I was 11, my family was hit at high speed by a drunk driver,” she explains. “We all lived, but I got 80 stitches in my face and went from having perfect vision to being permanently legally blind and having chronic neck and back problems. My mom had 13 broken ribs.”
In addition, Rudnick and her husband lost a baby in 1988. “That helped me understand so much better — representing people who’d lost a child — what that really meant,” says Rudnick, who has been married 26 years and now has a 19-year-old son. “Those are the worst losses; it doesn’t matter how old the child is.”
“I know I came to being a catastrophic injury lawyer from the experience of having been hit by a drunk driver and the desire to help people heal,” Rudnick says. “I had the most-appreciative clients. You’ve shared a part of their lives, and it’s a pretty-intimate part. I felt like I was doing alchemy, taking trauma and pain and turning it into healing and wholeness. I can’t help but believe I was in that car, at 11, for a reason.”
Less deeply personal reasons, like what kind of law you practice, in what setting and for how long, also can contribute to burnout.
For example, psychiatrist Hofeldt, whose daughter is a litigator in Los Angeles notes that litigators burn out at a high rate.
Rudnick says part of it is the adversarial nature of the work.
“When you do litigation — criminal or civil — it’s battle,” she says. “The path of the warrior is very different.”
But Hofeldt says that’s not the only problem.
“As a litigator, your schedule is upside down,” he explains. “Most of the time you have cases scheduled, so you can’t make any plans. Then they’re re-scheduled. It happens over and over.”
Another at-risk group is made up of sole practitioners.
“They lose the camaraderie and synergy” that lawyers in group practice have, observes Rudnick, who was a sole practitioner for 28 years, although she occasionally hired an associate and at one time had five full-time employees.
At the OAAP Long says he sees his share of sole practitioners who are “doing all their own billing and word processing.”
“Younger lawyers who decide to hang out their own shingles, don’t know how to practice and don’t have clients (also) can present as burnout,” he says.
But, says Long, the “real burnout” he sees is among more-experienced lawyers like Rudnick and McAllister.
“They have clients, and clients have expectations and demands,” he says.
Hofeldt notes that being a lawyer — regardless of practice area, personality or work environment — “is much more difficult than it was 10-15 years ago.”
advance — fax, e-mail, voice mail — has ratcheted up the expectations for
lawyers that they be available and responsive,” he explains. “First it was
express mail, then
fax: ‘I just faxed you this 80-page pleading’ now is an 80-page e-mail attachment. Some lawyers attempt to satisfy that level
“Second, the economic demands on lawyers are greater now. The only thing they have to sell is time: They work longer, harder to maintain their lifestyles.”
Rudnick says she’s seen other personal injury lawyers get into serious trouble because of the incredible fluctuations in their incomes and outgoes.
“For the last decade of my practice, my annual overhead hovered around $300,000: one-third labor, one-third advanced costs, one-third everything else,” she says. “It worked for me because I always put away the money for taxes, overhead and the war chest so I could take on the next big case. But you have to be extremely disciplined.”
And Hofeldt says that sometimes there’s just a final straw that breaks the camel’s back.
“We have work demands,” says Hofeldt. “Then there is a child with challenges or an aging parent. All of us have a point where we’re vulnerable to cracking.”
Phases of Burnout
“No one becomes utterly depleted overnight,” Kraft observed in his Scientific American Mind article. “On the contrary, their batteries run down so gradually that many of them never notice the subtle changes until things are dire.”
The unfortunate result, he said bluntly, is that “the victims are often the last to realize the seriousness of their situation.”
In between, the victim may pass through stages of: taking on more work while neglecting his own needs; developing physical health problems; becoming more socially isolated and emotionally blunted as his job becomes his only standard of self-worth; becoming intolerant or cynical towards his colleagues and apathetic about his work; and, in some cases, abusing drugs or alcohol.
Rudnick, Johnson and McAllister all say they experienced at least some of these stages.
“You get so caught up in being a lawyer and juggling so many balls in the air, you’re not really aware of how you’re ignoring your self-care needs,” says Rudnick. “My situation was the accumulation of years of not taking care of myself. Years when I wouldn’t eat breakfast, rarely lunch. No drugs — I feel compassion for people who do that — or alcohol: so many of our bar brethren drink. But lots of lattes: coffee was my drug of choice. Exercise? I didn’t even take time to eat three meals a day.”
“We really don’t value our health as we should, because if we did, we’d never run the engine the way we do,” she says with hindsight. “But you can only run the engine so long before it seizes up.”
Rudnick says her
husband “realized things weren’t right”
“I think it was very hard on him to see me melt down,” she sees. “But he was really supportive throughout. He had trust that this needed to happen.”
Criminal defender Johnson describes a similar intervention.
“After two or three years, I definitely was having symptoms of burnout but didn’t realize it,” she says. “I had a caseload of between 80 and 120 clients. I know my clients never suffered as a result of my burnout. I was so focused on them and their needs, I let myself suffer instead.”
“Because the nature of the job is adversarial, people can become snappy,” she continues. “Something small would become much larger because I would internalize it. One day someone made a comment and I took it entirely too personally. That day, I called the OAAP. Someone there (also) had done criminal defense. That made a big difference. She made me see I was in a burnout situation.”
McAllister, who graduated from law school in 1962, says that the person who recognized his burnout was him — a person he largely chose to ignore.
“One day in May 1983, I realized I could not work anymore that day,” he says. “I wasn’t sick; I just could not stay at the office. From that day until my retirement on Dec. 31, 1993, I would say, two or more times a week, ‘This is the day I quit for good.’ But I didn’t quit. Instead, I would make a list, do the first thing on the list and keep going from there.”
“My inner state was one of anger and exhaustion, which I called the burning head,” says McAllister. “Every time I sat quietly and reflected on my physical being, I could feel my head burning. My image was of a car running without a generator, the batteries always on discharge. Oddly enough, as I felt worse and worse, I became better and better at what I did. I don’t know how many times I would sit thinking, ‘I cannot do this anymore,’ and then the phone would ring and we would need to create and execute the plan, and I would be up and running. If you’d asked my clients, they probably would have said I was totally patient. But internally, I was feeling more and more used up.”
McAllister tried various strategies to deal with his internal distress: Jungian analysis, yoga, Buddhist retreats. Then, in 1993, he honored what he calls “a deal I made with my psyche” three years before.
“At the height of recognition and earning power, with a normal career of five full high-paying years ahead of me, I quit,” he says. “At age 60, I was a certified charred hulk. My body would not go on regardless of what my mind told it to do. The energy for my life’s work was gone.”
Ron Hofeldt’s job was to keep professionals, like Bill McAllister, from turning into “certified charred hulks,” or – if it was too late for that – to help them recover.
Hofeldt says his
clients typically were “disgruntled with themselves and their lives, wanting to
leave their jobs. They were very, very successful lawyers who didn’t know if
they wanted to do this anymore; didn’t know if they could do it any more. The
Hofeldt says his first task was to help them understand how they got there.
“To get through law school, they had to have this head-down, postponement mentality,” he says. “Then, once they go out, firms require hardworking associates. So they’re self-selected for Type A, well rewarded for being Type A. They’re really good at one thing, and that is working hard, but where is the diversification? What they’re doing is living life so they can enjoy it on vacation or when the kids grow up or when the 401(k) is funded. They’re not taking care of their emotional needs today. Burnout is kind of the body’s way of saying, ‘Let’s re-examine or re-clarify what’s really important.’”
Hofeldt says the challenge for his clients was “how to do the job and keep the excitement, passion, enjoyment.”
“I asked them, ‘When you really enjoyed life, what were you doing?’ I helped people recognize that something was going to have to change. The answer often was not working harder or smarter. It was re-evaluating what’s important, helping them rebuild, reshape their lives.”
That rebuilding or reshaping may center around three strategies: letting go of certain personality traits (rethinking yourself); modifying your present job, and/or finding a job that is a better fit (re-choosing the path).
Rethinking yourself: Part of the answer, says Hofeldt, is perspective, what people think is urgent. “Urgent things versus important things,” he says, quoting Stephen R.Covey, author of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. “Many times things that are important but not urgent are the things least developed, i.e., exercise, taking time to be with family. Urgent trumps important if we let it. Our culture drives this.”
Rudnick says that as she recovered, what was important to her became more clear.
“It was really scary to think of the engine running down, especially with me as the primary breadwinner,” she says. “I didn’t have disability insurance. But I’d always been very disciplined and responsible with money. I love this modest home, and I don’t want to live in a big mansion or fancy house. For me, the motivation to become an attorney was not financial. You really don’t need to be wealthy with material things. You need to be wealthy in spirit, and the planet is abundant in that. I’m also incredibly blessed by the people I’ve found in my life.”
Rudnick, who has been easing back into the practice of law since January, says that one thing that helped her was her spiritual practice that she describes as being aligned to Native American traditions.
“When I met my husband in the ’70s, he was very oriented towards Eastern philosophy,” she says. “Over the years, he and I have really helped each other grow spiritually in many directions. I think a spiritual life is very important. In the final analysis, all there is is you and your relationship with spirit.”
Reworking a present job: Hofeldt says he asked his clients, “‘What can be done today to help you feel like you have some control?’ They may choose to have a different schedule, or to let someone else deal with a certain client. One thing lawyers waking up from being burned out see is that the culture inspires this burnout. They recognize that what they are asking for is not unreasonable. Go and ask for changes at work. More rigid firms say no, (but) more dynamic firms say yes. Both in law and medicine, there are now more women, and women want different things than men do, often healthier things. They don’t want to pick just one thing (in their lives): law.”
Rechoosing the path: “Bankruptcy is an emergency atmosphere. Litigation is an adversarial atmosphere. So if you have the kind of personality where you’re conscious of being under a lot of stress, you ought to be in a part of law that’s less stressful. I mean, it’s all stressful, but you need to know your limits. If ‘It’s only money and it’s not yours’ works, fine. But if conflict does make you sick, if you’re identifying with your client, if you have a salvation urge, you’ve got to stay away from it or you’ll wear yourself out. In the early years, ID what your limitations are. I tell people, ‘Maybe some other job is right for you.’ Don’t ever tell someone to bite the bullet. There are some people who just love litigation: ‘Wow, bring it on,’ because they don’t identify with their clients.”
Bill McAllister has taken his own advice. After staying “quit” for only one year, 1994, he then spent three more years back at his old firm, gradually reducing his time. “Since 1998,” he says, “I have had this little job doing coaching and mentoring, mediation and arbitration. The direct economic benefits are much less (than full-time practice), but I am fortunate to be doing something which plays to my strength, which I can develop over time, and which gives me time to pursue other interests.”
Rudnick says that
since she’s been working as a lawyer again, she’s “reinvented myself to do the
parts I like the best,” including using her “knack for understanding the impact
of a particular injury on a client’s life and being able to communicate that to
“I’m being very selective about cases; I’ve referred out all of them so far,” she says. “When I find the right catastrophic case, I will work in collaboration with other attorneys, as I have done in the past.”
Rudnick says she now thinks of her break from law as “my sabbatical, which I hadn’t planned on taking.”
And Susan Johnson, who eventually concluded that “There’s only so much you can do to change your work environment,” ended up taking time off, then opening her own office, which she says she never imagined herself doing.
“Looking around, I saw so many people doing the same thing,” she reflects.
“I really saw it (leaving her former job) as quitting, and quitting is not acceptable,” says Johnson, who says she found it hard to admit to herself that she was in a “burnout situation,” even after she contacted the OAAP. “But quitting is not what it is. It’s changing your path. I’m a much-happier person since I left, much more balanced. I’ve never looked back; if anything, I wish I’d done it sooner. It’s important for all of us to recognize the symptoms before we burn out completely.”
A lawyer’s involvement with the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program and/or the Professional Liability Fund is confidential.
1. Johnson’s name has been changed at her request.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janine Robben is a frequent contributor to the Bulletin. A member of the Oregon State Bar since 1980, she took a five-year “sabbatical” to work as a reporter and writer when she burned out on law in 2000. She is now happily back at the practice of law.
© 2008 Janine Robben