Why the legal world’s “stick it out, burn out, or die out” culture must change
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Work stress
Charlene Gisele
Charlene Gisele was a former litigation lawyer, now corporate wellness and burnout advisor to law firms

“Stick it out, burn out, or die out” culture is still incredibly pervasive across the legal world – it has come to be accepted as part and parcel of the job. I pulled all-nighters and endless weekends working as a construction litigation lawyer and it wasn’t unusual, since all my peers were in the same boat. There were many late-night dinner orders we made as a team, and as we ate, we shared an addictive “adrenaline” high and the sense of achievement that came with working to and past midnight.

It seemed normal. There was even a sense of competition and pride in seeing who could stay the latest or clock the most amount of billable hours each month. I remember specifically getting a monthly hour record that widely exceeded targets and feeling extremely proud about it. Notwithstanding the lack of sleep and exhaustion, it seemed to be worth it to be part of this club that I had always admired and wanted to belong to.

The only time I realised this way of working was not in fact normal, nor healthy, was when I was speaking to my non-lawyers friends (and these conversations were rare as I barely had time for these types of catch-ups). Everyone in the industry worked hard, and partners often worked harder – they clearly sacrificed their personal lives and health. The sad thing is how desensitised the industry is to it.

It is crucial for law firms and lawyers to have access to industry-specific wellness support. Lawyers work intensely with their intellectual mind and often their bodies are neglected due to extended seated hours at the desk. This lack of movement coupled with sleepless nights and chronic stress can quickly become a vicious cycle. I have seen it in myself, former colleagues, and many lawyers I have since advised.

Some of the most common symptoms I see in lawyers who live by this culture are:

  • poor posture and sedentary behaviour, chronic back and neck/shoulder pain;
  • poor nutritional choices and lack of a proper break or proper food;
  • chronic stress and anxiety; and
  • metabolic diseases (diabetes, excess weight, high blood pressure).

Another major pain point I see is the lack of movement and excessive sedentary lifestyle. Movement is incredibly important to both physical and mental health and is one of the most powerful tools we have to counter the effects of chronic stress. Sadly our modern lifestyles and work environments tend to reinforce a sedentary lifestyle; both in the short and long run, this can be very dangerous as it sets off a cascade of negative physiological effects.

To combat these effects, I work on integrating mindfulness tools into the everyday lives of lawyers by teaching very practical tools and techniques, such as one-minute conscious belly breathing or one-minute deep breaths to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to stimulate relaxation. Building in quality recovery time is also important as it helps people to build back stronger from stress and inflammation, so they can perform better over time. Just as an athlete can overtrain, so too can a person overwork at their job. Intermittent stress is effective at building resilience but chronic stress, absence of adequate recovery, promotes inflammation that can accelerate aging-related conditions.

Ideally, the next generation of lawyers ought to be informed about these working cultures as early on in their careers as possible (i.e. law school or university), so they can start implementing habits that will serve them in their future careers. We already see too many trainees and juniors on the brink of burnout and it’s sad to see this happen. A culture change is needed.

To pivot from an individual to an industry level, the most important necessary shift is to see industry leaders acting as role models, and driving change from the top. Having partners and senior in-house lawyers present and actively participating in culture and wellness workshops, seminars, and wellbeing initiatives will contribute to building a true wellness culture within the industry.

Too much emphasis has been placed on gym memberships or lunchtime yoga sessions and these initiatives, although commendable, are not enough to implement long-lasting and effective optimisation. Lawyers need to be educated and informed on stress management, burnout prevention, nutrition, movement, and sleep – it is even more important in an age of digital and social isolation when more lawyers are working from home.

Ultimately, we need more sustainable ways to improve our health and wellbeing at work, which is why tailored wellness has become increasingly popular within law firms. Corporates have started and should continue to see it as an investment in their team’s health, wellbeing, and productivity, both inside and out of work. But alongside robust corporate wellness programmes that are underpinned by data and insights, firms should also be encouraging holistic and free practices such as breathwork and movement. The days of working harder without factoring in health need to end. It’s time our industry worked smarter, which will benefit both law firms and their workers.