Advice for Burned-Out Lawyers

Incremental and major suggestions for the unhappy attorney.

Posted Feb 17, 2017

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Many lawyers burn out. The competition, ethical challenges, and heavy workload take a toll. And while most people attend law school hoping to “make a difference,” many end up doing work they don’t feel great about.

Here are some options.

Incremental options

Get more skilled. Sometimes, your career malaise comes from being incompetent. And ironically, the more prestigious the law school, the more likely your training was longer on theory than practice. So young lawyers often are incompetent. They suffer, appropriately, from the imposter syndrome. Often, an antidote is You U: not being afraid to ask questions of other lawyers, attending boot camps and shorter trainings, in person and online, and perhaps simplest of all, Googling what you’re insecure about. That free, instant, just-in-time advice can be inordinately helpful.

Bad boss or work. Is it time to speak up? To offer to trade tasks or see if you could report to a boss you'd likely be happier with?  Or are you being too entitled and would be wise to change your attitude?

Change workplaces.  Perhaps you’d be happier in a workplace that’s less fast-paced, more human---or one that’s the reverse---high-powered, high-pressure but with big rewards. Some lawyers are happier working in-house at a corporation, non-profit, or, as my daughter is, as a lawyer for the government.

To help ensure you’re happier in a new firm, during the interviews, ask questions like, “Is there a workplace culture that pervades your entire workplace or are there subcultures? If the latter, how would you describe the one I’d be working in?” Then, when offered the job, don’t accept it by phone or email. Ask to come in to your new workplace to negotiate terms. That not only signals that you won’t necessarily accept the first offer, it allows you to assess your workplace's vibe--Do people seem busy but content? You might also hang out a bit in the break room and ask employees, “I’ve been offered a job here. I’m wondering if you might tell me a bit about the office culture.” They may not be forthcoming about negatives but tone says a lot. A muttered, “It’s good” is very different from an enthusiastic, “It’s good. A lot is expected of us but we get the support we need. And we do excellent work.”

Moderate changes

Change specialties. Some lawyers are happier in a less-contentious or less paper-intensive niche. I’ve had a number of clients find satisfaction in such specialties as estate law, adoption law, lemon law, and bankruptcy law. For example, many clients of a bankruptcy attorney views their lawyer as a veritable Santa Claus.

Change job title. Some attorneys have transitioned into positions as hearing officers, administrative law judges, small claims and even higher-level judges.

Do a law-related job. Some lawyers who don’t want to practice, pursue a law-related career, for example, selling software to law firms, doing investigative work on behalf of a law firm, or working in a law firm’s marketing department, in which you might write the firm’s newsletter, create content for its website, and put on seminars for potential clients of the firm’s specialties.

Major pivots

Some lawyers want completely out of the law. Fortunately, the kind of mind and work ethic required of attorneys is transferable to many other fields.

Lawyers have moved into a wide range of careers: from fundraiser to café owner to newscaster. But some common landing places for former attorneys include lobbying, non- and for-profit management, elected official, political campaign management, legal reporter, and mediator.

College teaching positions, including at community colleges, may be available, but most are part-time, temp gigs. Many people find them psychologically but not financially rewarding.

The takeaway

Of course, it's dispiriting to have put so much effort and money into becoming a lawyer only to find yourself unhappy. Alas, you have plenty of company. Fortunately, there are many options that may lead to greater satisfaction.

The above advice is generic. For help in developing and executing a customized plan, you can email Marty at