May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so it’s a good time to shine a light on a pervasive issue within the legal industry – burnout in legal teams. With long hours and high stakes, in-house legal professionals are no strangers to stress. When this stress becomes constant, it can lead to burnout, a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion.
But what exactly is burnout? It’s not just everyday exhaustion. It’s a state of chronic physical and emotional fatigue, often accompanied by feelings of cynicism, detachment, and a sense of ineffectiveness in your role. It goes beyond the ordinary stress of a challenging week or a tough negotiation, and it’s not something that a weekend rest can necessarily fix.
Burnout has serious implications, not just for the mental and physical health of individuals, but also for the efficiency and effectiveness of the teams they are part of. In legal professions, where the stakes are high and the pressure can be intense, it’s particularly important to recognize the signs of burnout and take steps to address it.
In this article, we’ll delve into the reasons why in-house legal teams are especially susceptible to burnout, and provide some strategies for combating it. Plus, we’ll highlight some resources and thought leaders who are championing healthier ways of working in the legal industry. Let’s begin.
Burnout by the Numbers: In-house Legal Teams at a Glance
Burnout isn’t a phenomenon confined to private law firms. A 2022 report by Axiom reveals startling figures about the state of mental health in corporate legal departments.
According to the report, 58% of in-house legal professionals are considering leaving their jobs due to burnout and stress. This resonates with findings from an International Bar Association report that highlighted the lack of sufficient wellbeing measures for legal professionals in organizations.
The study also shows that 70% of the in-house lawyers feel their company doesn’t do enough to support their mental well-being. This lack of support coupled with high-stress levels is leading to what’s being termed as the ‘Great Resignation’ within the legal sector.
These figures underscore the severity of the burnout issue within in-house legal teams. What factors contribute to this level of stress and burnout? Let’s delve deeper.
Understanding the Burnout Triggers in In-house Legal Teams
The billable hours conundrum
Law firms work with a simple business model: clients are billed on hourly rates; naturally, the more work, the better the financial health of the firm. Unfortunately, the pressure to clock up billable hours often leads to inefficient working. This creates a culture that promotes overwork and burnout at the cost of human needs like sleep, time for family and friends, and other regenerative activities.
Moving to an in-house legal role doesn’t mean professionals suddenly stop working the way they always have, and moving in-house doesn’t mean the workload is lighter. If anything, with legal ops departments making their appearance in growing companies, you might even be the first in-house legal professional with a department to build from scratch.
The Juggling Act
For small in-house legal teams, the expectations are high and the responsibilities many. Trying to establish processes, it’s hard to get everyone to follow them. The constant demands on your attention and the expectation to know everything and be everywhere can quickly become overwhelming.
The in-house legal team also has little to no control over the workload, which is dependent on the needs of other teams like sales, always in a rush to get a contract reviewed or negotiated.
The Technology Gap
The legal industry has been slow to adopt technology, with only 18% of companies using contract management tools, according to a 2022 Thomson Reuters report, and yet 87% of corporate lawyers and 83% of law firm lawyers say it’s extremely or very important to work for an organization that fully leverages technology. Without tech, the reliance on manual processes increases, leading to higher stress levels and burnout.
Misunderstandings about the In-house Legal Role
Misconceptions about the role of in-house legal professionals can lead to unrealistic expectations and added pressure. In-house lawyers aren’t just legal advisors; they’re business enablers, risk managers, and strategic partners. But this multifaceted role is often misunderstood, adding to the stress.
Working with non-lawyers means your colleagues don’t understand what you do, how few resources you have to get the job done, and the toll it takes on your human batteries.
Empowering Legal Teams: Strategies to Combat Burnout
Combatting burnout requires more than just recognizing the problem. We need to take active steps to create a healthier, more balanced work environment. Here are a few strategies:
- Prioritize Mental Health: Encourage open discussions about mental health. Let your team know it’s okay to take mental health days and provide resources for support, like Employee Assistance Programs.
Try it out: Add an opportunity during 1:1 meetings within the legal team members to share how they’re doing – or ask your manager for it.
- Promote Work-Life Balance: Encourage your team to take breaks and disconnect after work hours. Respect personal time and discourage the culture of always being “on.”
Try it out: Schedule 15 minute mental health breaks twice a week for every team member to do something that supports their mental health, like a short walk or a quick nap.
- Invest in Technology: Streamline processes and reduce manual workload by implementing legal tech solutions. This can lead to less stress and lower chances of burnout. We may be biased on this one, but don’t take our word for it, let’s hear it from Dani Manfreda, Deputy Head Legal & Compliance at Adverity, where 52% of customer & partner contracts need no legal input.
Try it out: Track the time you’re spending on manual tasks, like messaging people to review contracts or downloading word documents and uploading them back to emails. These are elements of your job that could be automated with the right tools.
- Educate about Roles: Make sure everyone understands the role of the in-house legal team. This can help set realistic expectations and reduce pressure. Aim to become a transparent department, where people understand what they can come to you for, and when they don’t need legal to be involved. It’s a long-term game, but will have a positive impact on both your department and your mental health over time.
Try it out: When someone comes to you with a request, be honest about whether your input is needed.
Stay Curious: Resources and Influencers to Follow
Staying connected with industry developments and thought leaders can provide valuable insights for combatting burnout. Here are some of our favorite LinkedIn voices sharing insights into the legal function, and other leaders giving mental health its deserved spot next to AI and other current trends:
Sarah Irwin, Head of Legal at Tines and in-house counsel community builder at ITC (Irish Tech General Counsel), shares insights into the challenges of being an in-house counsel at a tech scale up. Check out her 4-part series on burn out: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.
Sara Ajmi, Legal ops & in-house legal team expert, shares practical tips and insights into the ins and outs of building the legal ops function, like these 10 signs that legal ops is still under construction.
Jeena Cho, lawyer and mindfulness expert, who even wrote a book, The Anxious Lawyer. Check out her work.
Dr. Larry Richard, founder of LawyerBrain, where psychology meets law. Listen to this interview on how in-house lawyers can build resilience.
Burnout is a complex issue that needs a collective effort to address. Going beyond Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s commit to fostering resilience and promoting mental wellbeing within in-house legal teams. It’s not just about enhancing productivity and efficiency; but about ensuring the health and happiness of people.