5 tips to prevent legal burnout on your in-house team

Kara Wen | August 11, 2022 | Articles

There’s no sugarcoating it: corporate legal professionals are struggling. An October 2021 survey from Gartner found that 54% of in-house counsel reported feeling some degree of burnout. Of those experiencing the highest levels of chronic stress and exhaustion, 61% admitted to “frequently delaying or killing projects,” and 68% were planning to quit their jobs.

This level of legal burnout isn’t an individual employee problem. It’s a business problem — one that legal leaders have a responsibility to address. When left unchecked, burnout causes decreased productivity, low morale and engagement, and heightened turnover — all of which wreak havoc on the bottom line. In fact, the Stanford Social Innovation Review notes that burnout costs businesses between $120 to $190 billion annually.

If the idea of tackling burnout feels overwhelming, you’re not alone. Burnout is a complex, nuanced problem — one that’s pervasive in many industries outside of legal. Fortunately, there are key actions you can take to make the issue more manageable.

To support the company’s wellbeing, you need to prioritize your team’s wellbeing. Show your employees you care about them as people, not just professionals, with these five tips to stop legal burnout before it starts.

1. Review individual workloads and remedy overallocation

As Gartner’s survey notes, the most “intuitive” way to address lawyer burnout is to rebalance workloads, starting with employees who are the most noticeably overworked. While periodically reviewing capacity and shifting projects around isn’t necessarily a permanent burnout fix, it’s still helpful — Gartner found that workload reallocation reduced in-house burnout by 16%.

From a project management perspective, employees should only have enough billable work to fill 70% to 80% of their day. This may sound counterintuitive (or even impossible) for in-house counsel who, as Bloomberg found, work an average of 51 hours a week. But as Gartner analyst Susan Moore explains, assigning workloads over that 80% threshold actually hurts work quality, “reducing performance and increasing mistakes.” More hours don’t equal better work.

The 70-80% workload range relieves pressure on team members, gives them time to catch up on admin tasks, and gives them a buffer period if a certain matter or project takes longer than expected. This window also accounts for taking breaks, which have been scientifically proven to improve productivity.

The sooner you start to approach workloads with this framework in mind, the better you’ll get about identifying instances of overwork and warning signs of burnout. If your team has a project manager, work with them to review and rebalance workloads to reduce overtime and hit the 70-80% “sweet spot” as much as possible.

If you don’t have a project manager, turn to legal software to get a feel for who’s working on what. You can easily filter different projects by categories like matter lead and practice area to determine where workload reallocations make the most strategic sense.

2. Drive engagement by creating meaningful work opportunities

Besides reviewing the amount of work on your team’s plate, you also need to look at the type of work they’re doing. The more you can align your team member’s interests and professional goals with their assignments, the more value you’ll get from their time and talent while reducing the likelihood of attorney burnout.

Gartner’s corporate legal survey found that “personally fulfilling work” had the greatest impact on employee engagement, a factor linked to burnout. As noted by 360Learning’s Frederique Campbell, when employees don’t see career growth potential or purpose in their work, they’re more likely to mentally disengage or quit. On the flip side, Gartner found that, compared to those who were “moderately engaged” in their work, highly engaged attorneys were:

  • 70% more likely to explore novel ways to help business partners meet objectives
  • 30% more likely to explore ways to improve department processes
  • 143% more likely to show discretionary effort
  • 17% less likely to be actively looking for another job

To boost employee engagement and reap the business benefits, help team members upskill by giving them opportunities to tackle more complex work or solo assignments. Encourage mentoring across practice areas, and make it easy for attorneys to get approval for professional development activities other than their required CLEs.

Another way to drive engagement is to consider outsourcing low-level, high-volume work to an alternative legal service provider (ALSP). Giving repetitive tasks like document review or e-discovery to an ALSP can save your company money while saving your team time — especially if they don’t have access to comprehensive legal software. Everyone wins!

3. Connect with your team members regularly

Burnout is compounded when employees feel isolated or without support. Taking the time to connect with your team members on a human level helps them feel heard, valued, and happier in the workplace.

Use these three actions to strengthen relationships and show your team that you’re there for them:

Check in weekly

If you don’t know what challenges your employees are facing, it’s hard to take proactive action to address them. We recommend using at least one of the following regular check-in methods to spark open conversations and collaborative solutions between you and your team members:

Individual meetings. While they can eat up a lot of your time, 1:1 meetings build bridges and show employees that they aren’t alone—which is especially valuable when working remotely. As HR tech company Reflektive notes, employees who have regular, productive 1:1 conversations are “7 times more likely to feel their voice is valued, 3 times more likely to stay at your company over the next 2 years, and twice more engaged” than those who don’t have those meetings.

To get the most out of these discussions, Forbes Councils member and Liquid Chief Experience Officer Yolanda Lau recommends coming prepared with questions to “understand purpose/relatedness, to grow mastery/competence, and to support autonomy.” These will help you gauge your employee’s current work triumphs and struggles as well as their long-term goals, giving you a better understanding of how you can support them.

Surveys. Setting 1:1 meetings with all your team members might not be realistic with your schedule, so an engagement survey is an efficient alternative to understand how your employees are doing. Kate Sherburn, Head of Legal at sustainable toilet paper company Who Gives a Crap, says the organization has employees fill out anonymous weekly forms to “gauge the challenges, capacity, and general state of their people.” It’s up to you if you want it to be anonymous. You might garner more candid answers that way, but it’s harder to identify opportunities to connect deeper with those who are really struggling.

Similar to a 1:1 check-in, be sure to include questions about their professional triumphs and challenges, as well as how they’re feeling in general. This will give you a clear picture of recurring issues, and you can then share plans with your team for how you’re going to address them. For instance, if 90% of people say meetings are killing their productivity, see where you can cut back and encourage your team to take advantage of asynchronous collaboration.

Express gratitude for the work your team does

A simple, sincere “thank you” goes a long way in the workplace. According to the Reward and Employee Benefits Association, the likelihood of burnout increases by 29% when you don’t consistently recognize employees. Additionally, a 10-year study by O.C. Tanner found that 79% of people who quit their jobs said it was because of a lack of appreciation.

Take five minutes to email your employees about how much you value their contributions on both individual and team fronts. Send an encouraging Slack message to someone working on a complex project. Celebrate your team’s accomplishments in person or virtually each quarter by getting together for an informal workday lunch. These low-lift actions will give you a high return when it comes to combating legal burnout.

Create opportunities to bond outside the workday

Whether it’s a virtual happy hour or going to a baseball game, after-hours team events help people get to know each other as unique individuals. This camaraderie creates a stronger, happier team, as social bonds play an important role in job satisfaction. And personal interactions are arguably even more important in new remote environments, which can increase feelings of loneliness and a sense of disconnection from peers.

4. Share mental health resources

Don’t feel as if you need to tackle the problem of legal burnout entirely on your own. There are plenty of helpful tools out there — including ones designed specifically for legal professionals. As the New York State Bar Association Task Force on Attorney Well-Being noted in their October 2021 report, “We face the same challenges, we understand each other in a way that others, even family members, often cannot. When we embrace our community and declare our responsibility for each other, we can move from striving alone to thriving together.”

Sharing mental health resources with your team shows you care about their wellbeing and gives them access to outside assistance they may feel more comfortable using. These three are at the top of our list:

  • The American Bar Association Directory of Lawyer Assistance Programs: A comprehensive list of LAPs across the country, which are confidential programs designed to help attorneys struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse.
  • The Legal Burnout Solution: Created by practicing attorneys Becky Howlett and Cynthia Sharp, this organization’s mission is to “build an inclusive, mindful community dedicated to lawyer wellness.” The company offers mindfulness-based CLEs, articles, training, individual coaching, and meditation classes designed specifically for lawyers.
  • COLAP Cafe: This blog from the ABA Commission on LAPs covers everything from wellbeing in law school to sharing published journal studies from attorneys on the topic of mental health.

Additionally, reach out to other departments to see how they’re addressing burnout on their teams and if there are any general resources they recommend sharing, like an employee assistance program (EAP). If you find that everyone is struggling to manage employee burnout, it’s time for team leaders to surface the issue with the C-suite. Together, you can take the initiative to create a work environment that better supports employee wellbeing across departments.

“The pandemic—as awful as it’s been—one of the silver linings of it is that we’ve all become more empathetic. Especially within the legal industry, we’ve become more empathetic with our employees, we’ve become more empathetic with our colleagues, our team members, even our leadership.” – Shana Simmons, Everlaw general counsel

5. Lead by example and prioritize your own work-life balance

If you’re sending employees emails at all hours of the day, you’re sending the message that they need to follow suit. Setting your own work-life boundaries will make your in-house team feel more comfortable setting their own — and they’ll help mitigate burnout on your end. As Kate Sherburn notes, there’s “a correlation between leadership that prioritizes their wellbeing and a thriving business that avoids burning itself to the ground.”

Taking care of yourself at work looks different for everyone, and here are some examples to spark better self-care:

Automated legal tech helps reduce legal burnout

Dennis Garcia, Microsoft’s assistant general counsel, notes another key component legal leaders should consider in order to alleviate burnout on their teams: legal technology. Garcia explains that investing in these automated solutions reduces the amount of “routine, mundane tasks” employees have to perform. This gives them back valuable time and energy to focus on more strategic and fulfilling work — which is critical in driving employee engagement.

The American Trucking and Transportation Company’s in-house legal team can attest to the transformational power of legal tech. Just by using our legal spend management software to automatically enforce their billing guidelines, the department saved 55 hours a month! Check out their story and learn more about how SimpleLegal can save your legal team time, money, and stress.

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